Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Boston Underground Film Festival: Day 5

It's fitting that this entry took so long, because the day sort of dragged on for a while. It was one of those days where the films are staggered so that while I could have fit five in if I'd stayed at the Brattle, they weren't the five I really wanted to see. So while there was about half an hour between the silent shorts and Riot On!, I had an hour and a half after that before Camp Daze, then an hour and a half or so before the animated shorts. Good time for some poking around Harvard Square, and going home to get some supper, but not enough time to write things up or work through the backlog of stuff on the DVR.

It wound up being my favorite day at the BUFF, though. I like short films a lot, and these were the packages I was most interested in: Silent sci-fi and horror to start the day and animation to end it. There's not much money in short films - most are student films - so they tend to be done on the cheap. Using the silent aesthetic can let a director get away with a little, and the tools available to animators are getting more and more impressive, especially if they want to invest some time.

Will I see twelve feature and shorts programs at BUFF next year? I'm not sure. The same way that Fantasia hits everything I love, BUFF hits a lot of the things that leave me cold. I like the shorts, so I'll probably concentrate on that next year. Still, there were some fun features, and it comes just before Hollywood really starts gearing up.

Shorts Program Six: Silent Screams

Seen 26 March 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Underground Film Festival)

"The Last Woman on Earth" - * * * - Not a whole lot of story to this one, but it's presented like a lost silent movie looking at an even earlier type of moving picture. A man pulls out a mothballed box that, when properly prepped, shows a flip-book of a woman dancing. Pretty nifty, especially when we cut-away to see stop-motion animation of how the device works, with candles and mirrors and the like.

"Synthetic Bodies" - * * * - Oddly, festival Managing Director Anna Feder eschewed a Q&A after this program because she said only one short's director was around, but she wasn't including herself. Pity, because she makes a nifty silent pastiche here, with a scientist building himself a robot mate. The only frustrating thing is that her movie doesn't end so much as stop.

"The Fine Art of Poisoning" - * * ½ - An interesting-looking animated short by Bill Domonkos and Jill Tracy. Kind of pretty, but didn't make a great impression on me the first time. This second time through, I liked ths one a little more, but the story was still kind of muddled.

"The Muse" - * * ½ - This is one that I remember liking a great deal while watcihng it, but now that I try to write a review five days later, it's strangely vague. I remember it being charming and somewhat fanciful, and how, in the end, the film's subtitle about it being a girl's daydream held true. I'll have to watch it again.

"The Call of Cthulhu" - * * * ¾ - I can't say I'm a big fan of the Lovecraft mythos, and in some ways it's the sort of thing I've made some pains to avoid the past few years: A big, sprawling mythology that comprises multiple volumes and is so complicated as to spin off reference works. But there's obviously something there, for it to still have a following eighty years later, and one rabid enough to put together something like this.

Part of what's extraordinary is that this film is a labor of love, made by members of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society on digital video to resemble a three- or four-reel silent from 1926, the original novel's year of publication. Some modern digital effects and stop-motion is used, but the polish is deliberately held back a little, although in some cases shots of a bizarre, alien landscape which are obviously cheap CGI also look like abstract silent film sets. I don't know if you go this route with a book that isn't from and set in the silent era, but here the conceit works.

As was more common at the time, we get a sort of nested narrative - a man in some sort of hospital setting tells a story of how his inheritance from his great-uncle included a diary detailing his own investigations of the Cult of Cthulhu, and his own tale includes stories related by others. As fans know, Cthulhu and his brethren are Old Ones, alien beings of incredible power who came to Earth in the distant past who can drive men mad with a glance. Cthulhu has been hibernating and must not be wakened, but the very knowledge of his existence brings forth a powerful curiosity...

Lovecraft is known as much for how he wrote as what he wrote, and while screenwriter Sean Brannery and director Andrew Leman can only capture so much of the dense prose via intertitles and pointing the camera at words written in diaries, but they still do a good job in building a growing sense of wrongness, and when the good ship Alert reaches a deserted isle near New Zealand, it's grand pulp adventure. It's here that the film breaks out its special effects, and they look pretty good for a low-budget production. The monster is kept in the shadows, but, of course, that's for our protection - no good driving the audience mad.

The cast does all right mimicking the way silent movie actors performed without camping it up. To be honest, with a few exceptions, I sort of gave up on keeping track of them; there's a lot of characters in forty-five minutes of movie. The silent style can cover up much roughness from the budget cast, so it works out. The music is period-accurate and does a great job of setting the mood.

I'm sure fans of Lovecraft's original work can find things to nitpick with The Call of Cthulhu, and that's their prerogative - though I gather it gets more praise than derision. Fans of silent horror would find it to be a highly effective pastiche, maybe not good enough to be passed off as a film lost for eighty years, but good enough to be considered the real thing.

Riot On!

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2006 at the Harvard Film Archive (Boston Underground Film Festival)

Remember the dot-com boom? Ah, those were good times to be in computers. Swanky offices, the most recent version of every development tool you could possibly need available for the asking, high salaries, flexible working hours, investors just falling all over themselves wanting to give money to anyone with the ability to register a domain and describe a service that people might pay for. Good, good times. Where was I? Right, Riot On!. Anyway, as director Kim Finn is all too eager to tell you, some people didn't remember, and made the exact same mistakes when people promised the moon where mobile communication was concerned.

People like the founders of Riot-E. Like many of the first people to stake out a claim on the web, they were able to raise a great deal of money by tossing around ideas that were new and exciting, but were not only of little practical use, but often required technology that was years away (only one of the founders was any good with the technical stuff). Based on those ideas, they were able to secure major investment from the likes of Nokia and News Corporation and valuable licenses to Hollywood properties (such as Marvel comics and Lord of the Rings), which along with great marketing savvy kept them afloat for about two years, when they crashed and crashed hard.

Read the rest at HBS.

Camp Daze

* * (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2006 at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education (Boston Underground Film Festival)

Know what's tiresome? "Jokes" about a previous decade's pop culture and fashions. Horror movie characters who are conversant in horror movie clich├ęs. Stories that just don't make any sense when a couple seconds worth of thought. When a movie's got all that working against it, well, it had better have some quality sex and violence going for it. Camp Daze makes a valiant stab at making it work, but winds up being for gorehounds only.

After a teaser for what happened 24 years ago, we get horror movie set-up #3: Vade (Eric McIntire) is driving his sister Angela (Joanna Suhl) to an appointment in Boston, with friends Mario (Matt Dallas) and Jen (Anika C. McFall) in tow. They run out of gas in the Maine woods and get freaked out when a scene right out of a horror movie plays out in front of them. When they wake the next morning, though, nothing appears to have happened, and the teenagers from nearby Camp Hiawatha offer to help - looking like they've stepped straight out of a picture from 1981.

Read the rest at HBS.

Shorts Program Three: Highly Animated

Seen 26 March 2006 in Harvard Film Archive Room B04 (Boston Underground Film Festival)

"Calories" - * * ½ - A cute enough animation that informs kids that one calorie is the heat required to raise one kilogram of water one degree Celsius. It kind of falls between being a parody of "Schoolhouse Rock" type stuff and functioning as one.

"Bingo's Dream" - * * ¾ - A mother cat's dreams an ode to feeding her kitten. Very nicely drawn.

"Milton is a Shitbag" - * * * * - You seldom see cats portrayed as nice; they're either aloof or downright evil. Courtney's new pet Milton is evil. This is a heavily narration-based cartoon, but Courtney Davis's art style is charming without being overly cutesy, and the jokes are pleasantly absurd.

"The Revolution of the Crabs" - * * * * - A very french sort of cartoon; it starts positing a reasonable sounding premise that's revealed as absurd when pushed - crabs can only move side-to-side, so they're trapped walking along one path forever - has a crab spout some goofy philosophy and ends on mocking the idiots which are the majority. I like the subdued, black and white art, with the simple visuals a nifty contrast to the complicated mechanism the crabs use to move.

"Fish Head Fugue" - * * ¼ - "Hey, let's make weird-looking stuff move!"

"Depository Vacation" - * * * - A trip through the creative process. Funky looking, and the final joke about just where the inspiration is coming from is an amusing one.

"Little Dead Girl" - * * * ½ - I'm no fan of the whole gothy vibe, but this is a pretty spiffy CGI-animated music video of a recently decesaed teenager coming back to life to see a concert, and encountering the prejudice that the undead regularly face. The characters are expressive with slight gestures, and the gross-out humor is fun.

"The Guilt Trip, or The Vaticans Take a Holiday" - * * ¼ - The longest short in the collection, and it feels it. The illustrations on the walls of an abandoned church decide to come to life and hit the road, but a picture of Pope John Paul II doesn't like the idea much. Maybe it's funnier/edgier/more amusing if you're familiar with Catholic politics or feel strongly about Christianity in general.

"Bean with Bacon Soup" - * * * ½ - Nifty, well-animated "trash comes to life and walks around" CGI short. The flower that sprouts from the discarded can of the title is awful cute, with one root in a sneaker and the other stuck in the bean.

"Attack of the 50 Foot Fuckers" - * * * ¼ - Animated kaiju-type robot/monsters bust each other's balls while trashing London. The drawings are kind of crude, as is the humor, but it's fun to watch them bust on each other.

"She She She She's A Bombshell" - * * * ½ - This is the sort of thing Chuck Jones called "animated radio", featuring a guy in the backseat of a car going on and on and on about the girl he just met at the concert to the aggravation of the car's driver, who is desperately trying to drown him out but can't get the car's tape deck and her CD player to co-operate. It's animated radio, but good radio, as the animation style lets the driver's expression go over-the-top without it seeming like overacting.

And that's all for BUFF. Now to hopefully catch up before the IFFB (ha!), which I think will keep me behind the eight-ball until Fantasia...

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