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Phasma Ex Machina
[] Buy posters from this movie
by Jay Seaver

"Ghosts and generators"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: A realistic ghost story is, if you ask a skeptic like me, ultimately a contradiction in terms, but that doesn't mean that storytellers shouldn't make the effort to get as close to one as possible. The moments in those stories that audiences find affecting, after all, are the ones where we at the very least believe in what the characters are doing. "Phasma Ex Machina' goes above and beyond by attempting to approach its paranormal elements scientifically.

That's the only way Cody (Sasha Andreev) can really think to do it. Though he dropped out of college to look after his younger brother James (Max Hauser) when their parents died in an automobile accident, he's been spending most of his time in his garage workshop and much of the insurance payout on electrical components. His theory is straightforward: Most modern ghost sightings correlate with powerful electrical activity, so by building a sort of modified Van der Graaf generator, he should be able to cause his parents to manifest. He doesn't seem to get much more than fried components and spooky noises, though - although not far away, Tom (Matthew Feeney), an engineer who sold him some custom pieces, is being visited by his late wife.

There's a bit of small-world syndrome going on here, in that Tom seems to be a rather convenient character: He not only makes the piece of equipment that Cody needs to complete the machine, but we get very little indication that anyone other than him is affected. Not zero, although we're left to infer that from the policeman who investigates intruders in the house being called away to another apparent break-in. So it may just be selection bias; perhaps Tom seems to fit the plot too well because, even if many people are suddenly seeing ghosts, he's the one with the knowledge and personality to track what's going on back to the source.

Plot mechanics like that are somewhat secondary, though, as the actual meat of the story is the guilt, obsession, and grief that drives Cody and Tom. Writer/director Matt Osterman doesn't play up the wailing and gnashing of teeth; that's not who these guys are. Instead, we see how people in mourning come to shut others out and lose touch with everything else, even when it can eventually lead to them losing what they have in the present. It's a straightforward but interesting parallel, seeing whether Cody will reconnect with the world outside his garage and whether Tom will have all the progress he has made in reconnecting with it rolled back.

Andreev is particularly good at portraying this particular form of survivor's guilt. There's something a little deadened in his Cody, though not to the point of exaggeration. He presents us a guy who is smart, although not really obnoxious about it, and comes through just about perfectly when it's time for the logical, scientific wall to crack. He plays very well with Hauser, who makes James feel like a real kid, able to hit the lines of a wiseass teenager without contradicting the more serious moments. I like and more or less believe in Feeney as Tom; this sort of laid-back engineer is a character type we don't see that often in movies, although there are times when he seems a little too laid-back, such as when he's pleasantly strolling around the neighborhood with his new lady friend, searching for the source of his late wife's ghost.

Those scenes aren't quite stumbles, although they do show that Osterman may have a bit of room to grow. He still does very well, though, especially since this is an independent film nearly to the point of being do-it-yourself. There isn't much in the way of visual effects (the closest is a plate sliding across a table), which probably helps keep the movie firmly planted on earth. He does a nice job in making the engineering jargon seem authentic but not overpowering, and he actually sneaks a couple of good jokes in without destroying the mood. The ending feels a little forced on a couple of counts, although nothing in it is illogical.

"Phasma Ex Machina" is an quality ghost story even without having to judge it against its limited resources. Considering what it accomplishes on a low budget, it won't be surprising if Osterman has a bright future ahead of him.

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originally posted: 07/18/10 03:32:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/19/10 Ronald Holst Aw is was ok Just Ok if you are not into this stuff like myself 3 stars
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Directed by
  Matt Osterman

Written by
  Matt Osterman

  Sasha Andreev
  Max Hauser
  Matthew Feeney

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