Thursday 25 June 2015

Ouroboros (2014)

Director: Alexander Broderick
Stars: Amanda Melby, Nancy Mercurio and Steve Briscoe
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
Ouroboros (at least the one marked VI for 2014 at IMDb, because everyone and their dog are apparently making movies called Ouroboros) is a major release from the Digital Video Program at the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, so precisely nobody will be surprised to discover that it looks absolutely gorgeous from the swirling O that immediately appears in the middle of the screen to play its role in the opening credits and then the beginning of the film itself. There’s so much visual effects work, every bit of which looks slick and professional, and it’s so well integrated into everything around it that we actually wonder if Amanda Melby is real or yet another digital creation. She’s playing Dr Faye O’Neill, in a future America of 2035 where the military has partnered with her lab to build Star Trek-style transporters using quantum entanglement technology. Given that the US military has just partnered with companies in the UK and US to build Star Wars-style hoverbikes, I just wonder if 2035 is too safe an estimate. Who knows?

Well, 2035 looks pretty damn good, if this is anything to go by. It isn’t all digital, because the costumes of Nola Yergen are as amazing as ever, but most of it is computer generated. As an IT tech, I tend to despise Hollywood’s attempts to visualise user interfaces, not being knocked out by any cinematic interpretations until an indie short called Restitution in 2013. The students at UAT clearly spent a lot of time thinking out how they wanted to present current hot tech topics like the Internet of Things and instant synchronisation between portable and fixed devices. There’s a lot of handprint authentication here, minor AI and a host of TLAs to go along with the military designations: TBL, QTM, SEC and the like. Digital effects date and these will be no exception, but they look pretty damn fine right now. Unfortunately, while they might drive odd discussions amongst film fans who work in IT, they certainly don’t drive this story. They just sit there and look both awesome and busy while the story tries to steal some focus back and, eventually, fails.
I’ve reviewed a lot of UAT films over the last few years and, while visual effects are always a strong focus, inevitably given that they’re made by a Digital Video Program, there are usually stronger stories to sit in front of them. I’m thinking varied films like Red Sand, Screaming in Silence and Flight of the Melvin, with common ground in having strong stories as well as strong visuals. The story here is a mishmash of tropes that I’m not sure even makes sense in the end. It’s a time travel film, a parallel universe film, a futuristic technology film... and yet it has to wrap itself up in under sixteen minutes. That’s insanely ambitious and, frankly, this needed a lot more time to allow the various themes to evolve naturally. I could see this script being expanded out to feature length and finding substance in explorations of what appears here only as wild dialogue (like ‘It’s an Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Bridge!’), especially as even lines that outrageous are used appropriately rather than as random scientific gibberish, but it just doesn’t have that luxury.

If, in a parallel universe, this might have become a deep and scientifically accurate feature, it’s actually a surface scratching short that seems to be constructed entirely out of Hollywood stock moments, because Hollywood never wants to go deep and scientifically accurate. It just wants to reuse memorable moments like a scientist being confronted by a future version of themselves, or the revelation that one action made the universe split and now the entire timespace continuum is falling in on itself. We get a whole collection of these moments here, none of them explored beyond the usual because of the time constraints. Only a deus ex machina moment, quite literally for a change, goes beyond that and it gives Steve Briscoe some opportunity to act. If this could be viewed as a sixteen minute edit of an imaginary ninety minute feature, the work of Briscoe, Melby and Nancy Mercurio finds some power. Certainly, each of these actors finds a way to do more with their material than it deserves at this length.
Fortunately, there’s more than just visual magic and good acting to recommend Ouroboros, and I’m not just talking about the neat conceit of having the background doctors be called Tennant, Smith and Baker (Tom, I hope, not Colin). Many of the other technical jobs are performed as capably as the visual wizards, just less obviously, from the cinematography of Annie Winn to the sound editing of Gwyneth Christoffel and Nick Francia; Christoffel also edited with Reginald Riley. The casting is top notch too, especially with Nancy Mercurio tasked with playing an older version of Amanda Melby; I honestly wondered on my first viewing if the latter was playing both roles with different make up and I couldn’t quite get that out of my head even once I knew better. So this is the slick and professional sci-fi yarn we’ve come to expect from UAT, just one that’s as hampered by time as is its leading lady. Because of that, the weak point is clearly the script, but maybe it will provide the spur for UAT to stretch itself and produce that first feature!

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Focus (2014)

Director: Matt Chesin
Stars: Julia Severance, Christopher Bradley, Erus Harrington and Mike Rolfe
This film was an official selection at Filmstock 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of all 2014 films.
There’s a lot going on in a short amount of time in Focus, a fourteen minute short made at ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre early in 2014. It’s usually described as a drama, under which banner it’s won awards, but I’m screening it at LepreCon 41 in a science fiction set with a time travel theme and it could easily be categorised as fantasy. The drama is in the emotions that the story arouses in the viewers and characters alike, while it moves into genre territory to allow them to happen. It gets ruthlessly emotional by the finalĂ©, but I think it works because it’s never, erm, focused on a single subject. The story is framed around one girl, Sloan Beck, but she’s not the only recipient of that emotional buildup and it covers more than just one issue even for her. Maybe this is why I wasn’t as fond of this on my first viewing, but it built well each successive time through. The script is strong, written by Christopher Bradley and developed by Jeff Lynn, Brian Kiefling and director Matt Chesin; it just takes a couple of viewings to grasp it all properly.

Sloan is a precocious young lady, way ahead of the rest of her photography class but taking it seriously and finding a lot of fault in her work. She’s naturally horrified to find that her dad has pawned her laptop and her camera lenses, not only because it’ll affect her schoolwork but because all the pictures she had to remember her mother are now gone. Dad is a broken but barking Christopher Bradley, looking awful and sounding believably worse, but he’s only here briefly to set up that heartache and set Sloan on the road to a local photography store to find a new used lens. This is important because, when she connects it to her camera and experiments with it in the desert, it highlights more than was there at the time. How she reacts to this discovery and where it leads her, you’ll need to find out yourself because that way lie spoilers I’m not willing to expose. Suffice it to say that there’s a big picture here that hasn’t yet found its focus and I honestly wasn’t trying to throw out photography pun after pun but they just happened.
Julia Severance is decent as Sloan and she has some very good moments indeed in what I believe is her debut on film, but she does seem to be trying too hard for much of it. It wouldn’t have mattered in a less well cast piece, but there are points, especially when she’s interacting with others, where she could have been more natural. Christopher Bradley is resonant in his brief appearance and Mike Rolfe is excellent as a character who is almost the exact opposite: a father figure who is smooth where Mr Beck is abrasive and compassionate where he’s ruthless. Erus Harrington impressed me too as a young man believably out of time. He’s shot in colour for the most part, but I remember his role in black and white because he feels so close to the kids who mixed capability and innocence so well in movies from the thirties and into the forties. The opening scene could have begun an old Monogram mystery movie with child detectives solving the case that the adults couldn’t.

Technically, this excels but watching the credits afresh highlights a lot of good names that I’ve seen on a lot of good credit lists. Cinematographer Jason Ryan, who keeps the camera notably moving throughout, is especially racking up a heck of a portfolio, but he’s not alone in that. However, Kendall Humbert, who edited the film with aplomb, apparently hasn’t done anything before this, at least according to IMDb. I’m sure that will change soon. The only negative aspect on the technical side is that there’s too much wind in the outdoor desert scenes, a curse that’s particularly prominent in Arizona filmmaking but one that’s not horrendous here. We can still hear everything we want to hear, but that wind could still have been a little less prominent in the mix. At the end of the day, this comes back to the script, which is deceptively full of clever little details. A cynic might find fault with the emotional manipulation but, even though I’ve seen it all, it caught at my throat too and I’m certainly not complaining at how well it did so.