Monday, March 21, 2005

SF/30 - Don't try this at home (10 movies)

So, anyway, the plan was to put all the movies I saw and reviewed at the thirtieth annual Boston Science Fiction Film Festival together into one post. Of course, this plan didn't take into account that my job had actually originally expected me to be doing some working-from-home that weekend, so I had almost no time to actually do any writing that week. Then I spent the next month actually seeing movies when I could have been writing about them. I think I've got something like a ten-movie backlog to review. My goal is to be caught up by the end of the month.

As you know, rather than full reviews, I'm just posting the first couple of paragraphs plus a link to where they are on HBS. I also just wrote a feature article about my thon experiences, a sort of diary. Here's the link. I actually did come up with most of this while in the theater. Whether that's bragging or confession is up to you, the reader. Otherwise, I would have put in some remarks about how it got tough in the middle, because I could only find my red pen, but the little light I was using to write by without disturbing my neighbors (much) was also red, so I couldn't see what I was writing. Thought I was going crazy for a minute there.

So, here's the reviews. Ten new ones, since I've previously written up four of them, and don't know what to say about The Adventures of Space Baby & Mental Man. I probably slept through a good chunk of it, and I'm not sure how to judge it - they spent several times what Primer, for instance, cost, so it's kind of professional, but it's also an enthusiast with no training directing his kids from a script he wrote with his eight-year-old son (who also stars). The conflict between "boy, that sucked" and "aw, isn't that cute" is nearly unresolvable. And, like I said, I don't know how much I actually saw.

My brother Matt, though, would probably kill to have the friend who funded this as a buddy of his.

The Creature of the Sunny Side Up Trailer Park (aka Bloodhead)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (SF/30) (Opening Night)

If there's one phrase I'd like to stomp out when when talking movies, it's "so bad it's good". It's right up there with "guilty pleasures" - you shouldn't feel guilty about liking any sort of movie, even if it's a cheaply-made monster movie. Also, the movies we describe as "so bad they're good" are good for reasons beyond the actual quality or lack thereof. Otherwise, logically, any idiot could ineptly make a movie and it would be a hoot.

There is a certain vibe to those movies we enjoy, but it's not easy to capture deliberately. If I had to guess, I'd say that you have to take your subject matter seriously, or at least convince the audience that you do, no matter how absurd it may be. That's why a jokey parody like, say, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavera falls flat on its face, while something like Christopher Coppola's Creature of the Sunny Side Up Trailer Park works rather well.

Read the rest at HBS.

Superman

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (SF/30) (Marathon)

"Superman" has received a lot of attention as a franchise over the past few years, with a popular TV show, a new movie finally being shot after spending about a decade in development hell, and a best-selling novelist writing one of the comic books (with superstar artist Jim Lee on another). With the star of this adaptation suffering and dying nobly, there has been a strong sentiment, both implied and outright stated, that this movie and its first sequel are not only the best adaptation of Superman ever made, but the best that ever can be made, and that all other versions are either pointless or must make some effort to pay homage to it.

Now, Superman is a fantastic movie. Only a few other comic book adaptations are in the same class as it. But to hear that Bryan Singer is considering the incorporation of unused footage from this movie in his forthcoming Super-movie, or tying the new film's continuity to Richard Donner's version is, I think, going overboard. The 1978 Superman is a classic, but it's not perfect. Singer, and anyone else considering adapting the character, should take note of everything this movie gets right - along with the few things it gets wrong.

Read the rest at HBS.

THX 1138 (2004 cut)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (SF/30) (Marathon)

Somewhere, in an alternate universe, THX 1138 had the same influence on science-fiction filmmaking that director George Lucas's later Star Wars did. I'm not sure what that universe looks like - perhaps the Matrix movies really were smart movies where the special effects existed to serve the story there, or perhaps Solaris (either version) was a smash hit - but I'm not sure that it's a better place. It's a very nice thing to have the occasional THX 1138, but I wouldn't want a multiplex full of them.

THX 1138 borrows heavily from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, positing a society where manufacturing and consumption isn't just the economic engine, but is the acknowledge central activity in people's lives. They take drugs to dull their senses and emotions, and watch their entertainment without appearing to get any real enjoyment out of it (is there an earlier depiction of a bored man absently channel surfing?). Everybody looks and dresses the same, down to their shaved heads. Life is a purely mechanical process, until someone breaks out of their ordained rut.

Read the rest at HBS.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (SF/30) (Marathon)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a good little film that, by being among the first to tap into a certain basic idea, became regarded as a classic. Some will say that it's an allegory for the fear of communism in the fifties, and maybe there's a little something to that. When watched in a crowded theater at midnight, however, it is still an inexpensive B-movie.

That basic idea, of course, is ones friends and neighbors being replaced by alien doppelgangers, alike in every way except for a lack of emotion. I find myself wondering what these duplicates would do if they succeeded in converting the entire world, as they apparently plan to. Are they programmed for a greater purpose? Would they cycle through endless identical days in an imitation of human life? Would they take their true forms, once they had the planet to themselves? We'll never know; the movie ends well before that can happen.

Read the rest at HBS.

Planet of the Apes (1968)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (SF/30) (Marathon)

Has a grimmer, more cynical story than Planet of the Apes ever become both a major pop culture touchstone and commercial franchise? Sure, there are horror series, but even they generally end with the bad guys vanquished, even if no-one really thinks it will stick. Planet of the Apes, though, offers us a hero who thinks the worst of people and isn't often far wrong.

That "hero" is George Taylor (Charlton Heston), an astronaut on a deep-space mission of exploration. Even in a state of suspended animation, the trip will take subjective years, and that's before relativistic effects multiply the objective time a hundredfold. This makes it in all likelihood a one way trip - even if they do return, civilization on Earth would likely be unrecognizable - and that suits Taylor just fine. Things go spectacularly wrong, though, and when they arrive at their destination, the sole female member of their crew is dead, and the ship is forced to crash-land. (As an aside, given the long-term, likely one-way nature of the journey even before the crash, a crew compliment of three men and one woman seems less than optimal.) Fortunately, the planet is relatively hospitable - oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, carbon-based life, human-friendly climate - except for its inhabitants: Somehow, on this world, humans are the only primates unable to speak or reason. A hunting party of intelligent apes captures Taylor and another survivor, dealing him a nasty throat injury that initially prevents him from communicating with his captors.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Apple

* * (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (SF/30) (Marathon)

Context is so very important when reviewing a movie. There are classic films I don't properly appreciate because I've only seen them on DVD in the solitary privacy of my living room. Similarly, when I tell you that I greatly enjoyed The Apple, it's important to realize that I saw it as the eighth film of a twenty-four hour, thirteen-film marathon, starting at around quarter of two in the morning. An actual good movie would have knocked me out cold, whereas The Apple sent my optic and otic nerves into overdrive and delivered enough sheer nonsense that my brain had to jump back up to full power in a futile attempt to make some sense of it.

Actually, making sense of it isn't terribly difficult. You just have to accept that American Idol (er, Eurovision - this 1980 movie only predicts the far-off world of 1994) is not only corrupt and rigged, but is in fact run by Satan - who not only controls the record industry, but can give its desires the force of law. Go ahead, use your own jokes. I'll wait.

...

Read the rest at HBS.

Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation

* (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (SF/30) (Marathon)

Most of the time, I have a hard time coming up with a snarky one-liner to be used at the top of the review. It's just not in me. While watching Starship Troopers 2, though, I not only came up with the one above, but "How cheap is a movie that can't even afford to bring back Casper van Dien?" also popped into my head, and I wrote them down.

Granted, the "writing down" was for a later diary feature and because the act of writing helped keep me awake when this movie was running at 3:30 AM, but it serves to illustrate a point: Pretty much all of the actual entertainment value of this movie was self-generated. As dismal as Paul Verhoven's Starship Troopers was, it featured some eye candy and some satire. The sequel just recycles some of those elements and grafts them onto Stock Sci-Fi/Horror Plot #4.

Read the rest at HBS.

Charly

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (SF/30) (Marathon)

There was initially some griping about the inclusion of Charly on the SF/30 message board about the selections were announced. For October Sky and Field of Dreams, I can understand, but Charly is a pretty decent science fiction movie.

It is, however, the kind of science fiction that doesn't exactly advertise its genre. The original short story "Flowers for Algernon" (later expanded into a novel) appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, which as a magazine tends to focus more on the literary aspects of the genre, such as characterization and writing style, as opposed to the big ideas and larger-than-life adventure of, say, Analog. Because of this, some will say that movies like this aren't really science fiction, but dramas, as if a story can't be both. And despite a story is more directly about scientific research than many SF movies, it is undeniable that Charly is an actor's showcase, less concerned with the ramifications of a new discovery than how it affects Charly Gordon (Cliff Robertson).

Read the rest at HBS.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (SF/30) (Marathon)

Part of the reason many people come to Boston's sci-fi marathon is for bad movies. Talking back to the screen is tolerated, to a certain extent, so there's the desire to see who can mock the hardest. Many of the old-timers first got into sci-fi by seeing midnight movies that seemed awesome to kids who didn't know any better. So, every year, the schedule makers make sure to toss in one piece of stinky cheese; this year, it was Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

I admit, it is kind of reassuring to see that movies like this were made fifty years ago. Today, when a movie that doesn't make a lick of sense but has some spiffy visual effects comes out, and people are falling all over themselves to proclaim that CGI is destroying the movies, it's good to be able to point at crap like this and say, hey, it's just the tools that have changed. It doesn't make the newer movies any better, but deflating nostalgia is generally good in and of itself.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Time Machine (1960)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (SF/30) (Marathon)

All good things must come to an end, and this year the marathon ended with George Pal's spiffy adaptation of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. And to think, just a couple years ago, we narrowly escaped a preview of the new version because a print wasn't ready in time.

I try to be stingy with the four-star ratings, because it can be misconstrued as "perfect", everything a filmmaker can aspire to create. The Time Machine isn't perfect, but if you look at rating a movie as starting from having four or five clay stars in your hands and hacking a chip off (or chucking a star aside) every time the movie falls short, by the time this movie ends you should still have your original complement of stars. That last one may be a little scuffed up, and maybe a notch or two where you certainly considered cutting but held off after a couple seconds' thought about it being released in 1960, but it still rounds to a perfect score.

Read the rest at HBS.

OK... I'm going to go for fewer than ten reviews plus a feature next time. How about two from Japan - Dolls and Bright Future? Some good connections between those two.

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