Wednesday, February 25, 2004

SF/29: The 29th Boston Science Fiction Film Festival

All films seen 15-16 February 2004 at Dedham Community Theater

After a mere three or four marathons, I think I'm getting too old for this. Not just in terms of "I can't stay up two days straight like I could in college", but I wonder if - gasp - I might be outgrowing it. The "talking back to the screen" aspect is only fitfully amusing - only one in a dozen comments is really worth it. And I just can't do the "it's so bad it's good" thing any more.

On the other hand, there are fun aspects to "the marathon". Godzilla movies in a crowded, enthusiastic theater, for instance, and the occasional hidden gem. And it's one of the larger and more enthusiastic crowds you'll ever encounter.

After spending around a dozen years at the Coolidge Corner theater, this marked the event's first year at the Dedham Community Theater, which was a definite step down in terms of facilities. The DCT isn't a bad theater, really, but it required the group be split into two groups ("Wheat Chex" and "Rice Chex", one of many jokes which predates my participation), it took me two trains and a bus to get there, and the men's room, at least, is in dire need of renovation. The screens aren't as large as those at the Coolidge, and at least in auditorium #2 ("Rice Chex"), the projection booth is not aligned to the center of the screen, resulting in the right side of the picture being fuzzier than the left. In addition, it's an old theater with a center aisle where the good seats would be, a fairly sharp slope, and a high-mounted screen, meaning that those of us who like sitting toward the front so that the screen fills our field of vision have to crane our necks. In addition, the projectionists clearly weren't used to Academy-ratio films, resulting in the tops and/or bottoms of many being cut off. Indeed, there were framing problems for nearly every film - the edges of the scope films were cut off, and even some "standard" 1.85:1 aspect ratio films were badly misframed (28 Days Later being the most egregious).

Some on the marathon's web site characterize these complaints as "niggling", which, quite frankly, irritates me almost as much as a good chunk of 28 Days Later being cut off. In some ways, the Marathon distills much of what is wrong with seeing movies in the theater today - people not being able to shut up, style over substance, etc. - so why not add poor projection to the mix? But I think we must have some standards, and it's bad enough that we often get movies mis-framed on video - when you go to the theater, there should at least be proper display.

The good folks at the DCT shouldn't take this as too much of a slight - the Marathon is a tough gig, often involving old, damaged prints with no time to do a run-off, and to have the movie running on both screens more-or-less simultaneously, the two projectors had to be interlinked. And while the men's room had problems, the lobby was clean, spacious, and comfortable, the staff was great, and the variety of snacks available at the concession stand was among the best I've seen. As much as I'd hope for a return to the Coolidge or Somerville theaters (or someplace downtown, like the Wang Center) for next year's big 30th anniversery event, a good chunk of that is convenience.

Anyway, on to the movies...

The Matrix
* * * (out of four)

After the traditional start with "Duck Dodgers In The 24th-and-a-half Century", the thon's first feature was the movie that started last year's most overdone franchise.

I rated the movie higher when I first saw it, but four years of imitation and exploitation has taken its toll. I don't really count the mediocrity of The Matrix Reloaded, the unevenness of The Animatrix, or the idiocy of The Matrix Revolutions against the original, and the legions of slick black-and-white color schemes had started earlier. They do, however, serve to re-enforce the problems which existed in the first film, as well as how the series lost its way.

There never was any chemistry between Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss, for instance, and a number of characters, such as Morpheus and the Oracle, were obnoxiously cryptic from minute one. It's also very easy to see how this film gets tied to angry teenagers, and it's not just the color scheme. There's something chilling about how Morpheus talks out of both sides of his mouth, telling Neo how everyone in the Matrix must be considered a potential enemy, and how during Morpheus's rescue, Neo and Trinity casually slaughter dozens of people without any visible emotion of any kind, much less remorse. The vast majority of the people, it's saying, are inconsequential; only us outsiders are worth considering (in the sequels, the billions of human lives inside the Matrix are almost totally ignored, and indeed are consumed by Smith without any of the outsiders appearing to get too upset).

From an action standpoint, it's still a pretty damn good movie, and the Wachowskis were able to make it seem smarter than it actually is. But that this is the movie from 1999 that is lauded in terms of being a great story with special effects which support it rather than just show off while The Phantom Menace is the object of derision... That's just wrong, and it seems even more wrong when the movies are expanded on and revisited.

"The Adventures Of Captain Marvel" (Chapters 11 & 12)

A surprisingly enjoyable comic-book serial; each ten or twelve-minute segment is packed with enough story to be enjoyable, and the special effects are not bad for the time. Comic fans will probably pitch a fit if New Line's upcoming Captain Marvel/Shazam! feature takes as many liberties in its adaptation as this does, but as it's own thing, the Captain Marvel serial is an enjoyable adventure tale.

The Giant Claw
* (out of four)

I mentioned in the open that I think I may have outgrown the "so bad it's good" mindset. Sure, if you look through the blog, you'll see me giving decent reviews to a number of martial arts movies, or at least enjoying them from a campy point of view. But most of those movies often have something they do well, generally the fight choreography, and they do it well enough that I can forgive the sloppiness present elsewhere.

The Giant Claw doesn't do anything well. The script is terrible, the acting is worse, there's no chemistry between the lead actor and actress, and the special effects are laughable in ways that are hard to conceive of nowadays. All sorts of visible strings and bad, bad, bad models. The closest it comes to respectable is a Godzilla/King Kong-style rampage through New York. Even that doesn't look good, especially considering how the model-mayhem shots don't look anything like the reaction shots. Even though we were less than four hours into the marathon, I found myself occasionally dozing off. Being a bad movie doesn't make this fun; it just makes it a bad movie.

The Dish
* * * ½ (out of four)

There was a good deal of complaining on the message board about this one beforehand, complaining that it wasn't science fiction and thus shouldn't be potentially displacing even some piece of fifties schlock. Still, I think it earns its place; it certainly has more respect for science, exploration, and the like, than a good many movies which would claim the "sci-fi" title.

The Apollo moon landings were a momentous event for the entire world, but to the town of Parkes, Australia, it was a point of civic pride. Their radio telescope was the only one powerful enough to receive and relay television signals back to NASA from the southern hemisphere. With the moon landing scheduled for when it's their turn to be relaying, this small farming town suddenly gets a lot more attention than its used to receiving.

What makes the film a joy is that it captures a moment in time when science was something that excited the world at large. Would the pretty girl who delivers sandwiches to the dish be interested in shy Glenn Latham (Tom Long) otherwise? Maybe, maybe not. But that's typical of the movie - it's filled with mild-mannered, small town folks who are quirky and friendly, so unfamiliar with noteriety that they just continue acting odd, which is a fun contrast with the momentous events. Even the visitors from out of town - NASA technician Al Burnett (Patrick Warburton, cast against type as a smart, somewhat nerdy guy), US Ambassador Howard (John McMartin), and the Australian Prime Minister (Billie Brown) - are excited, in their own ways.

There are suspenseful moments to The Dish, but it's mostly notable for being good-hearted where many movies are snide or arch. It's a pleasure to watch, and reminds me of why I like science and science fiction more than many strict genre movies.

Have Rocket, Will Travel
* ½ (out of four)

I admit it. I've never liked The Three Stooges. Even as a kid, I found them to be mean-spirited idiots whose slapstick was oddly not funny. Later, I would figure out while watching Looney Tunes that it's not actually the anvil that's funny, but the set-up and reaction to the anvil, but the Stooges are, in general, all about the actual smacking around. This movie's no different, except that the Stooges are older and it's even less amusing to see them beat each other up.

It's not entirely worthless - there's a mildly clever line about how this alien landscape looks like Death Valley, Jerome Cowan is enjoyably snarly as the Stooges' mean boss, and there are a few decent bits of slapstick. Even for a short movie, though, that's not much.

28 Days Later
* * * (out of four)

I'd seen this last summer, though not with the alternate ending (which I sort of expected would be like the regular one, except with firebombing). It's a pretty strong post-apocalyptic movie, though from a science-fictional standpoint, it would seem that the "rage" virus should be easily contained. You're allowed one big lie per movie, though, and director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland make the rest of the movie believable enough that an audience can suspend disbelief - there's not something ridiculous happening every moment.

Most of this is because the ensemble is believable. All too often, post-apocalyptic movies rely on the idea that there was somebody who was somehow ready for the event, some sort of survivalist gun nut. None of the characters in 28 Days Later fit that description; they're practical people who caught a break and fell in together. They've had to make compromises that they never dreamed of before, trading in a bit of their soul for survival. Naomie Harris's Selena feels survival is all she can hope for until she meets Frank and his daughter Hannah; Christopher Eccleston's Major West instinctively understands the need for humanity to aspire to more, although his willingness to do harm to achieve it is chilling.

The central character, Jim, is portrayed by Cillian Murphy, and in a weird way, the movie is his coming-of-age story. Unlike the others, he doesn't see the world go to hell in a period of days; we first see him naked, on a hospital bed. In a literal sense, he's emerging for a coma, but in a way he's also being born, emerging into a confusing new world, all but helpless until he's taken in. As the movie goes on, he will lose his innocence (by killing one of the infected) and become a man by standing up for what's right.

I'm not a fan of the grainy digital video this movie was shot with. Could the movie have been made using film, with its lighting demands and longer set-up time? Likley not as affordably, which often means not at all. But it's often difficult to love a movie you can't see clearly, and between the grain, the dark lighting, and quick cutting, it's often difficult to grasp the details during the action sequences (although the storytelling is good enough that you can tell what is happening).

Also, this is probably the most screwed-up framing-wise at the marathon; a good chunk of the picture at the bottom was matted out, and you could tell where digital effects were used because those scenes were hard-matted to a more extreme extent. This also meant a bunch of heads got cut off, and a scrawled bit of grafitti that got a good laugh the first time I saw it ("The End Is Pretty F***ing Nigh") got little reaction from the crowd at the Marathon with the first half cut off.

Robot Stories
* * * ¼ (out of four)

Writer/director/co-star Greg Pak must like it up here in Boston - he came up in October to show Robot Stories at the Boston Fantastic Film Festival, again in January to present it at the Arisia convention, took the train up from Manhattan so that he could conduct an 11pm Q&A after the showing at SF/29, and will be returning this weekend (27-28 February 2004) for the movie's premiere at the Brattle Theater.

Happily, his enthusiasm is matched by most of those who see the movie. Robot Stories is four vignettes superficially about man's relationship with machines, but also with each other. The stories tackle bigger science-fictional ideas as they go on, but are always rooted in human relationships.

The first, "My Robot Baby", features Tamlyn Tomita as a young executive who, with her husband, is about to adopt a baby. First, though, they must care for a robot simulation, which rapidly becomes more than she was expecting. It's a simple enough story, recycled ad nauseum on sitcoms as teenagers must keep an egg from being hurt as part of a health class project, but the character's uncertainty about her readiness for parenthood makes it work, and the baby robot, though clearly done on a budget, manages to display a surprising amount of character by the end.

"The Robot Fixer" is also well-done, though its sci-fi content is non-existent. Wai Ching Ho plays Bernice, the mother of a man in a coma from which he will probably never awaken. She never really understood him, and still doesn't, but when her daughter finds his collection of toy robots while they clean his apartment, she decides to complete the collection, in hope that something he considered important will bring them closer together and, maybe, entice him to wake up. Bernice is an interesting character, and Wai Ching Ho plays her well (with a fine but easily overlooked supporting performance by Cindy Cheung as the daughter), but while this segment may be the strongest as a conventional drama, it feels somewhat weak in comparison to me. It just doesn't have the nifty idea that the others do.

Pak himself stars in "Machine Love", a lighter piece that examines an interesting situation - as we make machines more sophisticated, we will likely give them more ability to learn and interact, both to make them more useful machines and to show that we can create an artificial intelligence. That's not always wanted, though (remember "Microsoft Bob"?), and it's likely that even as machines become more human, we will continue to treat them like machines. Here, Pak plays an android programmed to be social whose operators look at him as nothing more than a tool; the irony being that only another machine will understand his all-too-human needs.

"Clay" takes it a step further, positing a future where human beings' minds are "scanned" and uploaded into servers as they near death. Sab Shimono plays John, a sculptor whose wife Helen has already passed on but who regularly visits him. He now finds that he's dying, but refuses to be scanned, fearing he'll lose the ability to create as a mind stored in a machine. The movie is fair enough to present John's obstinacy as perhaps a little old-fashioned and hurtful to his loved ones, but Eisa Davis's portrayal of Helen subtly asks whether John may have a point - she's warm, friendly, and not mechanical at all, but also rather distant. Her appearance is young even though John is an old man. As much as she still cares about her husband and son, she's become something different.

It's worth noting that Robot Stories is not just four short films pasted together; a couple characters from other segments appear in "Machine Love", there's a progression from birth to death in the stories, and the animation and music to the opening credits are nifty, as well. It's a solid collection, worth checking out (its web site has a list of playdates).

* * ¾ when I first saw it; skipped it at the Marathon

Don't get me wrong; Demonlover is a good movie in many ways. Looked at as a commentary on how entertainment (and life in general) is becoming cruder while the people who deliver it are almost entirely devoid of passion. The corporate manouverings are somewhat interesting, the contrast between the sex these people both sell and engage in and their solitude is curious, and the escalating depravities people are shown as willing to pay for as entertainment is shocking.


I saw this and enjoyed the discussion of it last October (I think) in the Brattle's Eye-Opener series, but knowing what was coming, I really had no interest in seeing it again. So, I used this two hours to use the bathroom, have a hot dog, and socialize with some of the folks who also had either seen it and saw no need to do so again, weren't interested, or had brought kids who were bound and determined to stay awake all the way through the 'thon. I would come to resent how wide awake I was at this period later, when I was dozing off during films that looked more enjoyable.

* * ½ (out of four)

Incubus is mostly a curiosity due to its being one of few features shot completely in the synthetic language Esperanto (if not the only one), the supposed curse attached to it, and its casting of a young, pre-Star Trek William Shatner as the hero. That's unfortunate, because this arty horror movie deserves to be remembered as something more.

Not much more - it's still basically a horror movie about demons who use sex to tempt and then kill their victims, but it's lushly photographed in black and white by future Oscar-winner Conrad Hall, and the director places the story oddly outside of time, giving it a spooky storybook/ghost story feeling. And while Shatner is distinctly Shatner, that's part of why it's easy to see how he became a star. He's bigger than this small film, watchable for more than his actual acting. Co-star Allyson Ames, as the succubus who decides she is tired of corrupt men as victims and sets out to seduce Shatner's good soldier (but eventually falls for him) is pretty, and doesn't quite choke on the ridiculous things she has to say (it probably helps that she was performing in a foreign language).

Still, all the great photography and high-minded use of a "universal" language never quite hides that this is a B-movie in the Hammer vein. It's deadly serious about its absurd situations, and while that respect for its material is engaging, it barely gets a chance to kick back and enjoy the fun aspects of being a horror movie. The scene toward the end when the Incubus (originally raised from the ground to torment Shatner's sister, but later sent after Kia) transforms into a goat and attacks Kia comes out of nowhere, almost like it belongs in some other black-and-white Esperanto horror film.

"Krazy's Race Of Time"
* * * ½ (out of four)

Ah, the joys of a ca. 1937 cartoon predicting what life would be like in the far-off year of 1999. The predictions are wonderfully absurd, from dogs with helicopter blades strapped to their backs to hugely complex highway systems where traffic never stops or even slows down. Animation has a fantastic ability to to capture surrealism in ways that live action struggles with, even with today's modern effects.

"Race Of Time" has the clean, rounded style that was popular in its time (compare it to Bosko, Betty Boop, or even Felix The Cat) but which has mostly disappeared from American animation today, though you still see echoes of it from Japan (Osamu Tezuka's Metropolis) and France (The Triplets of Belleville). It strings a few good gags together as part of a quick tour of its world of the future, though nothing too outrageous. It's an enjoyable few minutes, especially if you enjoy that style.

The Amazing Transparent Man
* ¾ (out of four)

It's here that I started to have serious trouble staying awake (hey, it was around 3:30am when this movie started). I wasn't alone; there was remarkably little comment when the film (frequently) stopped. I'm surprised it ran at all, as I believe the print came from a private collector and I overheard a few comments from the projectionists and 'thon organizers that it was in pretty bad shape, to the point where they were almost afraid to thread it. An old print like that, I'd be afraid of whether feeding it through two interlinked projectors would be enough to melt it.

The movie itself... well, it didn't keep my attention, as I mentioned. It's somewhat interesting to see how director Edgar G. Ulmer basically treats the movie as a sci-fi noir, from the opening chase scene to the grim finale. The main character is a hood; his love interest reminded me of Ava Gardner in High Sierra. The plot is some nonsense about how a rogue army officer needs this thief to steal materials so he can create an invisible army, and he'll accomplish that by turning the thief invisible! Um... Okay.

It's just not a good movie; overacted with bad special effects and a ridiculous story. Fortunately, it's short.

Mutiny In Outer Space
* * ½ (out of four)

Compared to a lot of the 50s/60s movies which play the marathon, this one actually had some charm to me. Sure, much of the movie is built of clich├ęs, from the commanding officer who goes "space crazy" to stopping the advance of the marauding life form by freezing it using fire extinguishers, but there's a professionalism to it that I liked. The military characters are human, neither strident nor infallible. They work closely with the civilian characters, and both groups include prominent, competent women (not yet in positions of authority, but still able, and good for something other than screaming and being rescued). When the fungus-infested space station is threatening to fall to Earth, there's some actual tension. Even the cheap-looking effects are well-used; the director seems to have looked at his limited resources and thought not about how he could hide his limitations, but how he could do the best with what was available. So even if things don't ever look real, they still look good.

Perhaps it's not the best compliment that one can pay to a movie like this, but if you dusted off the script, you could probably make a decent version of it today without changing too much. It holds up, for the most part.

Godzilla vs. Megaguirus
* * ¾ (out of four)

I'll have to pick up the DVD for this one. Overall, I found it enjoyable, when I was awake. There's an unfortunate long segment in the middle where Godzilla doesn't stomp any cities to rubble which causes the movie to drag somewhat, although when the movie gets down to business and gets with the giant monster smackdown, it's a bunch of fun. This movie knows what the joy of Godzilla movies are - throwing up a monster that's even more dangerous than he is, so that you can root for the big green guy even as he's trying to destroy half of Japan, which makes him a formidable foe for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to take down, even though they've got a weapon which creates and artificial black hole.

Again, what I saw, I enjoyed, though not quite as much as the next year's Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monster All-Out Attack! (where Godzilla was just badass, kicking monster butt while the filmmaker took sadistic glee in showing how the buildings being destroyed were inhabited). Requires further review.

Alien: The Director's Cut
* * * ½ (out of four)

Another one where I was getting too much sleep. But, hey, it's Alien, the original and still best of the series.

Space Patrol: Back To The Future
* * * (out of four), with reservations

As in, I think this was probably a three-star TV series. Filmed in black-and-white, it appeared on German television at about the same time Star Trek started on NBC. It only lasted about seven episodes, which were edited into this ninety-minute movie with some new sequences added in the form of newscasts which help glue the movie together.

In some ways, it was apparently ahead of Star Trek, with women in command positions and what looks like the type of strong continuity today's SF fans expect. In other ways, though, it's hilariously dated; the marathon audience got a huge kick out of the absolutely goofy dancing that went on in the show's "Space Casino" scenes. The shot of the spaceship landing is also obviously the shot of the spaceship taking off in reverse.

Unfortunately, the producers did a less-than-stellar job editing it into a feature. The story moves too fast, with some big events taking place offscreen and sort of presented to the audience as part of the newscasts, while precious screen time is spent on running jokes that probably aren't even funny if you speak German. It's too bad, because the source material does appear to have style; I'd like to see it released on a region 1 DVD sometime.

And that's my report on SF/29. Hopefully, SF/30 will be held somewhere in Boston proper (and I'll be able to rope my brother Matt into going, if only so that we can keep each other awake).

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