Monday, March 31, 2008

Boston Underground Film Festival 2008: Otis

BUFF's closing feature is arguably not underground at all; it's made by a Hollywood insider, stars a bunch of recognizable names, and was produced for a major studio, which is even giving it a Blu-ray release, which isn't necessarily a given for films that wind up showing on a few hundred theater screens.

It was nifty to have that insider there for a Q&A afterward, as a contrast to the other filmmakers who visited. Most of them had been making their first movie and kind of learning as they went, while Krantz had done a lot of work behind the scenes in film and television before stepping into the director's chair. He talked about approaching it as filming it like two episodes of television rather than on a feature schedule. There's always a question about improvisation at this fest, and Krantz was pretty emphatic about saying no, they basically shot the script, because improvisation means that all the lighting and sound guys have to play catch-up and that's time and money they don't have. It's a very practical answer, one which the really indie guys maybe haven't yet got the experience to consider.

Looking at the video cover, I do have to wonder about the marketing of this. Aside from the above-the-title names not appearing on the cover (Daniel Stern, Illeana Douglas, and Kevin Pollack are named, but it's Bostin Christopher and Ashley Johnson who you actually see), it's advertised as "Otis: Uncut". The question is, of course, whether there was ever actually a cut version. As far as I know, Otis will have played about two festivals before showing up on video without a regular theatrical engagement, and I doubt BUFF showed a cut version. Also, to the guy at Bloody-Disgusting who name-drops Juno to describe this... Huh?


* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 March 2008 at the Brattle Theater (BUFF X)

I didn't think much of Otis when looking at its poster/box cover, but the trailer offers up more black comedy with Illeana Douglas than novelty serial killer stuff. Of course, neat trailers can be a trap; not many movies can keep the pace that such a preview promises.

Otis Broth (Bostin Christopher) is a serial killer. The press is calling him the "Kim" killer, from the name he uses for the young girls he kidnaps and holds prisoner for a mockery of high school dating when he calls their parents. He's just grabbed Riley Lawson (Ashley Johnson), and the only thing driving father Will (Daniel Stern) and mother Kate (Illeana Douglas) more insane than his taunting is the apparent incompetence of FBI agent Hotchkiss (Jere Burns). Otis isn't counting on Riley being as smart as she is pretty, or Kate deciding that she's got nothing to gain by remaining timid.

Writers Erik Jendersen and Thomas Schanuz have come up with a pretty clever script. It starts out with what looks like a torture porn set-up - girls chained to a bed inside what looks like a massive toaster oven, watched by a creepy man who dispatches an escaping captive in the teaser - although the killer is a forty-year-old pizza deliveryman obsessed with taking his crush to the prom. The movie takes a couple of hard right turns, though, and the movie winds up being less about a lunatic killing girls than the Lawsons deciding to take the law into their own hands. It's to their credit that the story can change direction a couple of times without ever feeling disjointed.

The cast is pretty good, too - Illeana Douglas walks off with every scene she's in, whether she's called on to be impatient, frightened, or half-crazy with her thirst for revenge. You almost have to feel a little bad for Daniel Stern, whose Will is far more reasonable but often isn't nearly as much fun to watch as Douglas's Kate. The pair both work well with Jared Kusnitz, playing their trouble-making son Reed, especially when it comes down to Kusnitz and Douglas playing nuts and Stern trying unsuccessfully to be the voice of reason. Jere Burns does the sort of smarmy and not-so-bright character he's long since mastered, and always delivers the laugh asked of him. Bostin Christopher does a good job of making Otis a little more layered than this character otherwise might be, but Kevin Pollack is kind of under-used as his more openly abrasive brother.

Producer/director Tony Krantz does a pretty good job of tying everything together; the movie looks pretty good for a direct-to-video flick. The opening set piece, with Tarah Paige as the previous "Kim" trying to escape, is a really nice piece of work (it helps that half of Paige's credits are stunts, so he doesn't have to shoot around much). He does have a bit of trouble settling on just the right note for the black comedy at points in the middle, especially with one sequence that extends past the terrible mistake being funny (in a nasty way) without quite becoming horrifying.

That's part of the risk with a movie like Otis, though; switching directions like it does isn't always smooth. It makes up for much of its awkwardness by the end, and the dark comedy angle winds up being more entertaining than the serial killer movie this initially appears to be.

Also at HBS.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Boston Underground Film Festival 2008: Underbelly

I'd planned to start the EFC/HBS review for this one with something about how curious it is the the Middle East gave us both the burqa and the celebration of the female form that is belly dancing, but scrapped that soon after the movie stated that belly dancing antedates Islam by thousands of years. Still, considering how far away this art is from the way we perceive that part of the world now, it is kind of amazing how cultures change.

It was a fun screening, with the filmmaker in attendance and a belly dancing demonstration beforehand. One thing I hadn't realized before the director Steve Balderson started talking was that I had seen one of his previous films at Fantasia two and a half years ago, and it's interesting to look back at that review and see that, for example, his tendency to mix black and white and color had annoyed me a bit back then, too, or that the star of Underbelly had worked with him on Firecracker.

One thing he said in the Q&A that kind of amused me was a comment that for a documentary, he likes using grainier stock or video because that makes it look more "real", like someone's home movies. I don't deny the effect, but I wonder how long that aesthetic will last now that there are 1080p camcorders available for less than a thousand bucks on Amazon. The next generation's home movies are going to look pretty good, detail-wise, so in a few years filmmakers won't have that crutch to lean on.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 March 2008 at the Brattle Theater (BUFF X)

It's fitting that woman that Underbelly spends the most time following has the name "Pleasant". If this movie makes the audience feel bad about anything - even having misconceptions about its subject - it is likely entirely by accident. As an overview of belly dancing and and introduction to one of its better-known American practitioners, it is, well, pleasant.

Pleasant Gehman, that is. In the 1970s and 1980s, she was a fixture on the L.A. music scene as a party girl, fan, and writer, and then in the early 1990s she learned belly dancing and it took over her life. Now, she dances under the name "Princess Farhana", books other dancers for gigs in the Los Angeles area, and teaches dance to others. The film spends a year with her as she travels the world, dancing and teaching at various events and talking about the controversy she stirred up within that community when she merged burlesque with belly dancing.

We learn some basic facts about belly dancing over the course of the movie; that it's arguably the oldest continuously practiced art form in the world, originally spread by the Romany as they traveled around the Mediterranean from Morocco to Spain where it was a huge influence on flamenco. There are several styles, notably Egyptian and Tribal, with Tribal being more open to outside influences, leading to "Tribal Fusion" which incorporates a variety of western dance styles. Director Steve Balderson doesn't go into a lot of detail here; just enough to make sure the audience knows enough to understand what the interview subjects are talking about (and doesn't necessarily think of the dance primarily in terms of titillation).

Mostly, we're talking to Gehman and her friends, and you probably couldn't ask for a more enjoyable documentary subject. She's got a ton of funny stories at her disposal, and always seems well-aware that today's irritation is the price for having a new story to tell tomorrow. She laughs a lot and draws laughter from the people around her, but is also willing to confess her anxieties and describe the dissatisfaction she was feeling with her body when she discovered belly dancing. We also get to see and hear what makes her such a good teacher, from her positive attitude to her knack for breaking complex processes down to bits that can be mastered individually.

As delilghtful as Pleasant is, Balderson sometimes seems a little too enamored of her. At times we're not sure whether he's making a movie about belly dancing or about Gehman; the film will get into interesting topics about the art form that don't have much to do with her until, inevitably, it leads to people saying how great Pleasant is. The last twenty minutes or so are spent on burlesque, which feels like a detour away from what the audience came to see. The style is also distracting, with everything in black and white except for performance bits, which seem to be recorded on consumer equipment.

It's a nice little movie. If you're looking for a movie about belly dancing, this might come off as somewhat slight, but Pleasant Gehman is a nifty subject herself.

Also at HBS.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Boston Underground Film Festival 2008: Il Bosco Fuori

There was a guy next to me at this movie who just laughed constantly. Not really enough to be obnoxious, but it was just constant, from the time he and his friends sat down through the projection problems through the movie, no matter what was happening on-screen at the time. I wondered whether he was drunk or high or something. I guess that's defensible at this sort of festival, but, man, it's annoying.

Also annoying: The same guy was among the guys yelling when the guys behind the screen were having trouble getting the projection to work properly on the short scheduled to screen before the film. I occasionally wonder if the people who yell "focus!", "sound!", "well that was short and disappointing!" ever give it a moment of thought. The way I figure it, if there's someone in the booth, he already knows about the problem, is likely already at work, and your yelling is just irritating and distracting him. If not, it's doing no good and irritating me.

Il Bosco Fuori (Last House in the Woods)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 March 2008 at the Brattle Theater (BUFF X)

So, who here likes blood? And mayhem? Flesh-eating? Do you mind if that's pretty much a movie's got going for it? Because that's what you get from Il Bosco Fuori. That's Last House in the Woods in English, but doesn't "Il Bosco Fuori" sound much more exciting? The English title is ominous, sure, but "fuori" is just a violent-sounding word (even if it just means "outside"), and this film doesn't waste a lot of time in trading ominous for violent.

We start with the initial attack to establish that this is a bad stretch of road, where a young couple traveling with their son get a flat tire that turns out to be a trap. Later, we meet up with Rino (Daniele Grassetti) and Aurora (Daniela Virgilio), a couple on the outs that may be getting back together or not after falling back into bed together. They, too, fall into a trap, and are attacked by a trio of young men who knock Rino unconscious and try to rape Aurora. Fortunately, Anotonio (Gennaro Diana) and Clara (Santa De Santis) are driving by and bring the younger couple to the safety of their house. Naturally, "safety" is perhaps the wrong term to use.

To say filmmaker Gabriele Albanesi isn't re-inventing the wheel here is putting it mildly. A lot of the beats are standard issue - opening violence to show the filmmaker means business, cutesy scenes to establish that our potential victims are basically nice people, violence, lull, recognition that things are worse, terror at grotesquery, bad guys versus worse guys/the enemy of my enemy is my friend, blood, blood, blood. If you like horror, either in the American grindhouse or Italian giallo tradition, you know what you're in for - Albanesi isn't about to change the rules on you.

He will, however, serve it up with relish. He's serious about his violence early on, before the blood really starts to fly; the opening leaves a kid orphaned and in mortal danger, and the muggers' attack on Aurora is intensity without gimmicks. He doesn't lose that intensity entirely as things get messier, but his attempts to keep topping himself point out how thin the line between the grotesque and the ridiculous can be (and how skewed one's perception on what belongs on which side can be in the middle of a movie). A kid with shark-like teeth chowing down on someone's leg can be played as creepy, but once you've got a couple feral rednecks sitting down with him for family dinner, that's going to get laughter.

Still, props to Albanesi for be willing to go there, wherever there might be, to gross the audience out. He's probably working on a pretty tight budget, so some of the gore effects look a bit dodgy, but he does spring for the large barrel of fake blood, and does come up with some admirably nasty ways to kill and maim his characters - honestly, I'm not sure why more horror filmmakers have not recognized that, while it's hard to create a situation where there's the possibility of a character getting a lot of pus spewed at them, it is undeniably disgusting when it happens.

His resources (or lack thereof) betray him a little. The cast is good enough to get sawed and stabbed, although you certainly won't remember any performances after the movie: Just be glad that Santa De Santis's Clara does seem to be having some thoughts as she moves between Antonio and Aurora, and that Daniela Virgilio fills out her tight, blood-spattered clothes nicely. There's nothing especially forbidden or atmospheric about the locations; Anotonio's and Clara's house seems a bit homey and suburban to be as isolated as would seem to be necessary.

Albanesi's enthusiasm, at least, is admirable. A little more money, maybe a writing partner who can come up with a real story to give his apparent skill at mayhem a worthy outlet, and this could be a good sign of nasty times to come.

Also at HBS.

Boston Underground Film Festival 2008: Who Is KK Downey?

One of the characters in this movie is named "Theo Huxtable". Let me just point out, as I must, that someone having the same name as an 80s sitcom character is not funny.

Who Is KK Downey?

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 March 2008 at the Brattle Theater (BUFF X)

I wonder how many times a secret identity has ever worked in actual practice. Not living a double life, where you're just trying to keep two groups separate, but a bona fide secret identity where you're trying to someone you know from realizing that these two people they know in different contexts are actually the same person for an extended period of time.

Who Is KK Downey? is basically a secret identity movie. Young would-be author Theo Huxtable (Matt Silver) has written a book called Truck Stop Hustler that is about as far from his real suburban middle-class life as could be. His best friend Terry (Darren Curtis) is starting to realize that he's never going to be a rock star and can't stomach the thought of an ordinary life working in his father's helicopter factory. When a publisher rejects Theo's book, saying that in modern publishing, you're selling the author's persona as a package with the book and tubby whitebread Theo doesn't fit with his lurid narrative, they concoct a scheme - they would claim Truck Stop Hustler was a memoir, with Terry posing as its protagonist. With the package in place, the book is a smash hit, with only local critic Connor (Pat Kiely) hating the book - and to add insult to injury, "Downey" is soon stealing away Connor's girlfriend Sue (Kristin Adams)... who just happens to be Terry's ex.

The movie's big lie, of course, is that Connor, Sue, and everyone else that Theo and Terry know that isn't in on the gag don't immediately twig to the fact that KK looks and sounds a whole lot like Terry with a blond wig and a generic southern accent (and that Terry never seems to be around his old friends). We buy it, to a certain extent, because pretty much everybody in this movie's world is a cartoon character to a certain extent. Connor is the most ridiculous, the type of alternate weekly critic who doesn't actually like anything, and is so effete that one wonders why, in this sort of stereotype-derived world, he's dating a woman other than to make Terry miserable. Theo's ridiculous hair is always worth a giggle.

This isn't quite a one-joke movie, but its bread and butter is mocking the art world, especially the cottage industry that exists between the artist and the audience. Yes, there are jokes at the expense of artists (Sue's art is adding eyes to everyday objects, Theo initially acts as though adding more and stranger sexual escapades to K.K.'s history adds to the work's sophistication) and fans (people do seem to eat that book up), but mostly it's the idea of art as a business, and in particular its gatekeepers, that come in for mockery. Aside from Conner's snobbery, there's the publisher willing to engage in fraud and the very idea that an artist should be marketed, rather than his work; Theo becomes a monster once his book becomes a business. It's fertile ground, and the filmmakers never let up on it, tough they're not harping. It's also not their only trick; the characters are generally funny and ridiculous people.

These goofy characters are the work of a comedy troupe - Curtis, Kiley, and Silver write as well as starring; Curtis and Kiley direct. With that kind of collaboration, there's a lot of potential for disaster; the cast could easily go improv-crazy with no-one to rein them in. The acting is pretty over-the-top - Terry, Theo, and Connor are all broad caricatures - but its seldom out-of-character nuttiness or so far out as to not be funny. Kristin Adams is nice enough as Sue, but she's The Girl, and in this sort of movie The Girl has to be the mature one who explains why the relationship didn't work and just isn't quite as wacky as the boys. Dan Haber shows up toward the end to add a little extra craziness but packs a lot of funny into a relatively short appearance.

Crazy is what is called for; this is one of those premises which the audience might reject if they were ever given time to stop and think about it, even though the story is inspired by an actual incident. This isn't an indie comedy that's going to be praised for its subtelty or realism, but it is pretty darn funny.

Also at HBS.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Boston Underground Film Festival 2008: Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story

I have to admit, I'm not a big fan of Castle's movies - I came upon him too late, if this movie's point of view that his audience was kids is correct. Still, you've got to respect a guy who was this willing to show his audience a good time like he did.

I've talked about the difference between good camp and bad camp a few times - good camp is the result of someone making the best movie possible based on limited resources and talent; bad camp is making a crap movie when you're able to do better. I think Castle tends to fit in between, to a certain extent: He did do the best he could with limited resources, making fairly entertaining movies on minuscule budgets... But he did limit those budgets himself, sometimes out of realism, sometimes out of fear. He's an earlier Roger Corman, a guy who has a fair amount of talent, but was too worried about losing money to ever fully unleash it.

Spine Tingler!: The William Castle Story

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 March 2008 at the Brattle Theater (BUFF X)

There hasn't been anyone in the film business like William Castle since his last films in the mid-1970s. Theater owners owners probably wish that there was; his gimmicks put butts in seats and created a generation of loyal fans. Indeed, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone in Spine Tingler! who doesn't love Castle.

Castle's story is an interesting one. Born William Schloss in 1914, he was orphaned at an early age and got into show business as a teenager, doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work on the New York stage as well as appearing in small parts. He met Orson Welles and was soon running his own theater, where he showed an early knack for establishing himself as a brand name and doing everything he can to promote his shows. Soon, he made his way to California, got a job with Columbia, moving up to directing B pictures before forming his own production company, where his famous gimmicks would come into play.

There's a lot of nifty stories told here. Filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz is able to bookend the film with stories of the ones that got away. Early in his career, he came to Columbia with an idea for a film that he wanted to make with Orson Welles; the studio eventually decided to have Welles direct; the result was The Lady from Shanghai. Much better known is how he would later purchase the rights to Rosemary's Baby with the hopes that this would be the film that changed how people remembered him as a director. Instead, Robert Evans cajoled him into selling Paramount the rights and working as a producer for Roman Polanski. Schwarz spends a fair amount of time on these stories, which have big names and big personalities, but also illustrate something about Castle's character that stayed constant throughout his life and career - that he did want to entertain moviegoers more than anything, and that despite his showmanship, he was one to put others before himself.

We're told as much by the people who knew him, primarily his daughter Terry Castle and niece Marcia Scully Little; he seemed to have a genuine fear of leaving his family to fend for themselves the way he had had to. As much as showmanship, that was the reasoning behind his use of gimmicks - he felt the need to ensure success, even when he had a good movie. Friends, family, and colleagues all speak highly of him, and when we get to hear his own voice (taken from a television appearance and a college lecture late in his career), he's laughing and high-spirited.

Schwarz gets a number of filmmakers and fans to comment on Castle, mostly the people you'd expect: Joe Dante, John Waters, Leonard Maltin, John Landis, etc.; people who clearly loved and were inspired by Castle and have worn that on their sleeves for their entire careers. Although Schwarz wasn't able to interview some of the big names - Roman Polanski and Mia Farrow are notably absent - he does get good stories from people who worked for him, notably The Tingler co-star Darryl Hickman and Straight-Jacket co-star Diane Baker, describing the surprisingly easy camaraderie between Castle and urbane Vincent Price and how working with a demanding star like Joan Crawford was a difficult experience. Marcel Marceau is also a great interview; he seems to retain great fondness for the director of his oddball feature Shanks.

There's not much behind-the-scenes footage to be had; Castle was a guy who worked fast and cheap and wasn't one to spend film on anything but the feature. Schwarz makes up the difference with film clips and black-and-white stills with Castle's face the sole color element. It's a bit reminiscent of The Kid Stays in the Picture, actually, or one of the DVD features that comprise the bulk of the output of Schwarz and his company.

That will likely be this film's ultimate destination, disc n+1 in an n-movie Castle box set. It's a pleasant overview of Castle's career, likely not revealing anything new to his die-hard fans, but a fun look at a certain corner of movie history.

Also at HBS.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Boston Underground Film Festival 2008: Altamont Now

Back at work, trying to catch up on these while on the bus or waiting for a query to run.

It was pretty close to a game-time decision between the Leah Myerhoff presentation and Altamont Now or Onward to Calgary and Pop Skull on Saturday. Ultimately, it was the trailers that nudged me in the direction I went - Altamont Now has a nifty parody of the preview for Contempt (which I'd just seen the week before, pushing the upcoming run at the Brattle), whereas Onward to Calgary was kind of off-putting the first time - it's definitely in the "Look, I'm WACKY!" category.

Probably the right decision; Onward to Calgary looks like a long 100 minutes, Pop Skull has epilepsy warnings [I'm not epileptic, but it's generally not a good sign if a movie has to warn against causing actual injury to its audience (then again, I am writing about the William Castle doc next, and that was right up his alley)], and I rather liked Altamont Now.

On the other hand, going the other way would have allowed for food breaks. I think Saturday's nutrition was an egg sandwich in the morning and Twizzlers at seven-ish. Festivals can lead to some really crappy eating if you're determined to see as much film as possible.

Altomont Now

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 March 2008 at the Brattle Theater (BUFF X)

"Someday", the main character of Altamont Now says, "the Altamont babies are going to track down the Woodstock babies and beat them up." That's kind of a clever idea, though it winds up being just one of many bits tossed against the wall in this chaotic movie. This one sticks, and it's joined by enough other clever bits to make the movie generally successful.

Main Character Richard Havoc (Daniel Louis Rivas) was born during the Altamont concert documented by Gimme Shelter and has himself become a huge rock star, in spite/because of the middle fingers he throws the music industry. As the concert's thirtieth anniversary approaches in 1999, Havoc has retreated to an abandoned nuclear missile silo along with former child star Karen Kennedy (Frankie Shaw), one-handed public access ranter Travis Hook (Teddy Eck), and newly-sober but still angry parolee Alex Urban (Matthew Humphries), all of them spewing anger and calls for revolution. Why wouldn't documentary filmmaker Mark Clark (Raphael Nash Thompson) want to capture this group of personalities?

Altamont Now takes the form of a faux documentary, claiming to be the movie that Chuck cut together while he and Havoc were shut in the silo's fallout shelter after 1999's nuclear holocaust, although if that's the case, you've got to wonder who's holding the camera much of the time, because it's certainly not Clark. Indeed, the documentary angle could easily have been dropped completely, except that the scenes of Clark and Havoc in the editing room, arguing over what they see and pointing out some of the artifice, are too good and too central to lose.

What comes in between is a broad but vicious parody of both angry and complacent youth, as the bunker youths let loose a constant stream of vitriol with no comprehension of the system that they're railing against. Aside from the "like, whatever"s that interrupt and undercut their rants, they're buied under a wave of advertising (Alex can't help plugging Mountain Dew-like Green Lightning) and pop cultural obsession (the boys keep asking Karen to repeat the signature line from her 80s TV show, "Why's Daddy Acting Funny?"). They're angry, ridiculous morons, but kids even younger and more sheltered lap them up.

This is one of those independent/underground movies where enthusiasm outstrips talent and resources. It was fun to try and identify which 1980s computers were being used as anachronistic set decoration in the actual decommissioned missile silo (I think I spotted a Commodore 64 and a TI 99/4A, and maybe a Radio Shack Color Computer). Director Joshua Brown has a knack for handling that enthusiasm; the performances that are a little broad for belief do work as people aware of the camera and trying to play it up, and there's a nice bitterness to the scenes in the fallout shelter, as Havoc and Clark get throroughly sick of each other over eight and a half years.

The cast is good enough, for the most part. Rivas is actually pretty good when those shelter scenes call for him to calm down as Havoc is faced with examining his life. Frankie Shaw does a pretty nice job in making Karen open and vulnerable despite the fact that she's being very pushy and running around with a machine gun and pretty clearly trying not to be vulnerable. I think there were some opportunities missed with Raphael Nash Thompson as Mark Clark; he never really manages to be the straight man or as funny a spoof of what the kids are rebelling against.

Altamont Now is enthusiastic, and has some pretty good nuggest buried in it. (The best, though, isn't part of the film proper - its trailer is a nifty riff on the preview for Contempt that works as both parody and homage; I hope it's on the DVD). There are plenty of moments that don't quite work, but there are more hits than misses.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Boston Underground Film Festival 2008: La Belle Bête

No time for more, camping at the Brattle again today.

La Belle Bête (The Beautiful Beast)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 March 2008 at the Brattle Theater (BUFF X)

There are a number of ways for a family to be too close, and the cast of characters of La Belle Bête manages to hit just about every one of them. That makes for some good melodrama, and a movie that would be plenty creepy even without the horse-headed guy.

We meet this family some time after the father has died. Louise (Carole Laure) and her teenage children have retreated to their country estate. Louise dotes upon Patrice (Marc-André Grondin), a handsome young man who is the spitting image of his father, but speaks to daughter Isabelle-Marie (Caroline Dhaveras) with disdain. Still, she leaves Isabelle-Marie in charge when she is called away for a funeral, since Patrice is far too dim to take care of himself. That's when Isabelle-Marie's own hostilities get exposed, and then Louise returns with a new boyfriend. Patrice is jealous, especially since Isabelle-Marie also soon finds a boyfriend of her own. As much as their family relations had not been healthy before, they were in a sort of equilibrium, which has now been thrown out of whack.

Who is the beautiful beast of the title? Isabelle-Marie calls Patrice a dumb animal on more than one occasion, and it at times seems like an apt description. There's something a bit subhuman about him - a tutor throws up his hands at trying to teach him anything, and the scenes where Louise leaves the kids alone show him as easily led and quickly reduced to primal motives. Louise is the more conventional movie version of the concept, still retaining much of her beauty while emotionally abusing her daughter and seducing her son. And then there's Isabelle-Marie, whose attractiveness and capacity for cruelty come to the surface as the film goes on.

Caroline Dhavernas is fantastic, though she's certainly not alone in giving a fine performance. Still, Isabelle-Marie is the the character that doesn't have the straightforward hook. Initially, we might think that she'll be sympathetic or "normal", but she turns out to be, perhaps, the only member of the family that is consciously monstrous. Dhavernas is so good, though, that a part of the audience will understand and still be in her corner - as much as we're repelled by her viciousness, we might find ourselves trying to justify it. Maybe we don't love or even like her by the end, but we're fascinated by her.

That's not to discount the rest of the cast, since they are also well worth watching. Carole Laure makes Louise a woman wrapped up in her own beauty, reliant on men's attraction and potentially unable to cope when something starts to eat away at it. She's petite and often pitted against Isabelle-Marie, but as needy as Louise is, she clearly dominates the house; her tears seem to have a purpose. Marc-André Grondin makes Patrice both innocent and frightening; he is childlike and uncontrolled, like he would be feral save for his connection to his horse and his family.

Karim Hussain directed and shot the film, as well as working with original novelist Marie-Claire Blais on the screenplay. Blais wrote the novel nearly fifty years ago at the age of seventeen, and Hussain preserves that point of view, even as he does give moments to Louise and Patrice. He does a fine job of showing how Louise and her children live in their own world; their stone house and behavior are out of a period piece, but there are more modern things occasionally glimpsed as the characters begin to interact more with the outside world. I'm also very fond of how they played the ending; it's very ambiguous about what could happen next. Have we seen someone break free of a sick situation by horrible means, or are we seeing a cycle perpetuated?

The horse-headed guy? Actually makes a little sense when the characters see him, although he often appears to be mere strangeness for strangeness's sake. The movie could have done without it, frankly, but even with that it's still a fine story of a sick family.

Also at HBS.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Boston Underground Film Festival 2008: Quality Time

Friday's BUFF screenings were all about making sure I could see the movie with the familiar cast members - Corin Nemec, Nancy Allen, and John de Lancie; the neat story about how this movie had a crazy post-production life that started in India and didn't finish until days or hours before the film screened was just icing on the cake.

The 7pm show was "Technicolor Psychotica", a fun collection of shorts that were visually striking. I'll probably do a shorts roundup sometime after the features are finished.

Today is when I fall completely behind in terms of getting reviews done in a timely fashion, as I'll be camping at the Brattle from the 12:15pm show of La Belle Bête to the 11:55 Il Bosco Fuori.

Quality Time

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 March 2008 at AMC Harvard Square #4 (BUFF X)

Those who stay through the end credits of Quality Time will note that it had an indirect path in actually reaching the screen - some pieces are copyright 1997, though it's having its world premiere at BUFF eleven years later. That's a long time to sit on the shelf, much longer than it deserves.

It features Stewart Savage (Corin Nemec), a resident of an ovecrowded future where the polar ice caps have melted. He lives with parents Jack (Bruce Weitz) and Linda (Nancy Allen), but they only have their apartment for half the day - at 6pm, they have to turn it over to Nathan Eastman (John de Lancie), his wife Victoria (Gail Strickland), and their son Victor (Jesse Harper). On top of that, Stewart is quite insane - he's just killed another girl (Meredith Salenger) and brought her home, convinced that he's bringing a still-breathing fiancée home for his father's birthday party.

The time spent on the shelf has allowed some of the visual effects to catch up to what director Chris LaMont envisioned when he first started the process, but even without the CGI, Quality Time would still take place in a well-imagined future, with little details like how Jack flips pictures around to prepare to turn the apartment over to the Eastmans selling an overcrowded world even though there's no way to do big crowd scenes. The shifts between how Stewart sees the world (brightly colored, slightly overexposed) and the way things are (grayish, a little grainy) are straightforward, but get the point across.

The actors, of course, vary their performances between the two main versions of reality as well - full of good cheer and free of any rough edges in the birthday party, frightened and angry in reality, and veering even further into black comedy when the film shifts to other venues, such as a Jerry Springer-esque talk show set when it becomes clear that Stewart isn't the only one with issues. I like how Nemec plays Stewart as fairly low-key even when he's killing or waving a gun around; it makes him seem even more genuinely disconnected from reality. Weitz and Allen are funny as his parents, acting as though their son's activities are mainly embarrassing; I particularly love how annoyed Jack seems to be most of the time. de Lancie and Strickland are similarly annoyed, just with no need to enable, and they're actors who are good with the sarcasm.

Most of Quality Time is good black comedy, and while sometimes the script (based on a stage play) gets a little obvious about which film, television, and stage conventions it is appropriating and lampooning, LaMont does a good job of not going too far overboard with that - it's not subtle, but it's not treating the audience like fools, either. Still, it's worth remembering that the audience responding well to it knew what they were getting into at an "underground film festival"; I can easily see people not liking it nearly as much if they came into it cold.

Strange has a place, though, and Quality Time is, for a movie about a serial killer in a dystopian future, an enjoyably light-hearted flavor of strange.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Boston Underground Film Festival 2008: The Wizard of Gore

BUFF is an odd festival for me; I know, going in, that I'm probably going to dislike roughly half of what I see there, really viscerally hating some of it. I get email about those reviews, saying I didn't get the movies - it's not as much fun as when the directors of small documentaries are just thrilled that someone saw and wrote about their work.

That's part of why I didn't ask for a pass this year; I didn't want to feel obligated to see and write about everything. Then I saw the lineup and saw it looked good enough to buy a festival pass for. I don't know that I'll necessarily see enough movies this weekend to make the pass worth more than buying single tickets, but not having to wait in line and see if I can get in is worth something.

Anyway, if you're reading this within an hour or three of my posting it, you might be able to catch The Wizard of Gore at its encore show at the Brattle, today at 2:30pm. Otherwise, you're probably waiting until Dimension Extreme releases the DVD late this summer.

The Wizard of Gore

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2008 at the Brattle Theater (BUFF X)

You've got to love how the title "The Wizard of Gore" puts it right out there, both for the Herschell Gordon Lewis original and Jeremy Kasten's new remake: This is one for the folks who like blood and guts. It does have ambitions beyond that, sure, but like the title character, it knows you've got to sell the visceral.

Said title character is Montag the Magnificent (Crispin Glover), a stage magician whose underground magic shows feature a woman being pulled from the audience, horribly mutilated, and then restored to life. The next day, though, she is found dead of wounds like the ones she apparently suffered during the show. Underground newspaper publisher Edmund Bigelow (Kip Pardue) and his girlfriend Maggie (Bijou Phillips) have been going to these shows, and team up with Edmunds coroner friend Jinky (Joshua John Miller) to investigate.

As befits a mystery story centered around a magic show, much of what we and Edmund see and learn is lies and misdirection, a challenge to figure out what is really going on. As mysteries go, it's not bad, although it does hinge on a somewhat fantastical element that, while it is revealed early enough to be considered fair play, still requires a bit of a leap of faith from the audience. The setting is a little peculiar, too - a subtitle early on reminds us that the film takes place in the present day, since one might get the impression from Edmund's vintage suits, printing press, and apartment decor that it takes place in the past, while the industrial-goth style everywhere else might suggest "bleak (near) future" to us boring middle-class suburban types.

The cast, at the very least, is a bunch of fun. Pardue comes across as a sort of lower-cost Matt Damon, not quite managing the charm but convincingly deteriorating as the film goes along. Bijou Phillips and Joshua John Miller are fairly likable as his partners-in-crime-solving. But it's the familiar faces in supporting roles that are the big draw: Brad Dourif as a local herbalist and acupuncture practitioner who uses leeches to cleanse his blood makes exposition fun. Jeffrey Combs is almost unrecognizable at first, but does well in his creepy part. And then there's Crispin Glover, spending almost all his time on stage, playing the creepy showman as funny and threatening as few others could.

But what, you may ask, of the gore? To be honest... It's a little disappointing. Kasten and writer Zach Chassler come up with imaginative ways to dispatch a series of Suicide Girl models and various others, and there are a couple of nasty money shots, but if you've got "gore" in the title, you should probably be raising the bar or something. Also, most of the bloody scenes during the magic shows are kind of difficult to see - there's a prop that consistently gets in the way, the lighting is low, and the quality of the digital projection wasn't that great. The latter means it might look better in another situation, but I don't get the rest - if you're selling gore, let us see the gore.

Clearer shots of the viscera probably wouldn't make this new Wizard of Gore a good film, even with the genre's frequently lowered expectations - the story's kind of a mess, for starters. Still, it's a decent enough effort, and not really a bad choice if you're in the video store looking for a bit of blood, camp, and nudity that you haven't seen before.

Also at HBS.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Action! Mystery! Romance! En Français!

Man, you would think that with these new prints making the rounds, there would at least be placeholders on Amazon for forthcoming DVD releases of the likes of Diva and Last Year at Marienbad. Diva is apparently scheduled for a June release in the USA; Marienbad doesn't even have that yet.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 February 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (Special Engagement)

How things can change. The advertising around the re-release of Diva includes examples of how, when this movie first appeared, its style was comapred to MTV, and it was clear that this was no bad thing. Today, critics likely wouldn't use those words as a compliment, but the intent behind the words still holds up: It's still eye-catching and fast-paced, brimming with youthful energy.

Our young protagonist is Jules (Frédéric Andréi), a mail carrier whose true passion is music. As the film starts, he's sneaking a rather large reel-to-reel tape recorder into a recital hall where American opera singer Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez) is performing. Hawkins doesn't believe in recording music, so she would regard this as a much greater theft than the dress Jules swipes from the dressing room. Jules isn't looking to sell it - likely disappointing to the Taiwanese gangsters who observe him recording it - he just wants it for his own use, and maybe to impress Alba (Thuy An Luu), a girl he spots shoplifting in his favorite record shop. Ah, but there's another tape, a cassette dropped into Jules's satchel by a passing woman, one which contains the identity of the man behind the Paris drug and flesh trade - both the cops and the local gangsters would like to get their hands on that!

At times, Diva plays like the offspring of film noir and the New Wave. Jules finds himself besieged on all sides by factions wanting something in his possession and willing to kill for it, with even the police coming across as far from safe, but he also has chances to sit around funky lofts with Alba to talk about music, or to engage in activities somewhere between flirtation and romance with both Alba and Cynthia. Alba and her apparent boyfriend, Gorodish (Richard Bohringer), seem pretty open-minded about this, which is good, because they'll both wind up involved in the thriller side of the story by the time its over. Another way of looking at it is that Diva is the early prototype for the flood of pop-crime movies that came a decade and a half later in response to Quentin Tarantino's success; the music obsessed over is opera and jazz, and the tone is youthful sincerity rather than something more showily self-referential.

This movie may not be as slick as its more recent brethren, but even MTV was frequently a makeshift work-in-progress back in the early 1980s. Screenwriter/director Jean-Jacques Beineix throws a lot of story at us early on, but does a reasonable job of juggling the various plot threads. Not a perfect job - this is his first feature, and I confess to scratching my head at one point, not quite sure who had tossed Jules's loft. Occasional stumbles aside, it's a very well-balanced film, with the mystery broken by comic relief that never gets too jokey, and a deft way about slipping between art talk and action.

The action sequences are memorable without being overly grandiose. The murder which starts the dominoes falling, for instance, starts with a simple indication that something is not as it should be - a woman getting off the Metro without her shoes - before quickly cranking the suspense up, intersecting three of the groups, and then being over as quickly as it began. There's a nifty chase with Jules steering his moped onto the Metro, and a quality standoff in Jules's darkened loft. Beineix has a knack for shooting the action clearly and making it exciting without falling too much in love with it, so it's still a blow when people are injured or killed, and we're still able to share Jules's horror when he eventually finds and listens to the second tape.

Part of what works so well about that is that Frédéric Andréi isn't cast from the later action-hero mold; he's a young guy who is thoroughly over his head in most of these situations. He's appealing for that, and his simple, pure devotion to things like art, music, and beauty. His pairing with Cynthia is fun; Ms. Hawkins is played by Wilhelmenia Fernandez in her only screen role, but she's as natural in the character as she must have been on stage, a tremendous talent whose commitment to a certain principle is sabotaging her career. The characters played by Richard Bohringer and Thuy An Luu are actually the main characters in the series of novels that includes Diva, and there is something cool and larger than life about Borodish, though Bohringer plays him as something well short of a pulp character. The folks in the smaller roles are good, too - notably Anny Romand as one of the detectives, Jacques Fabbri as her boss, and Dominique Pinon in an early role as one of the gangsters.

Twenty-five years or so on, with a new print making the rounds, Diva is still an exciting adventure. In some ways, it's a little quaint, but there is something a little wonderful about how it allows its worlds of gritty action and beautiful music to co-exist without self-consciousness or irony.

Full review at HBS.

Le Samouraï

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 February 2008 in Jay's Living Room (rental DVD)

This film is the basic prototype for cool french crime, with Alain Delon as hitman Jef Costello and François Périer as the detective chasing him. It's a wonderfully procedural thing, as Jef and the detective plot their next moves carefully, showing step-by-step how Jef executes a hit without being discovered (ideally) and the police track him down. Later, of course, the organization Jef works for decides to eliminate him as a liability when a misstep creates a trail that can lead back to him.

Le Samouraï features a lot of what makes for a good policier: Meticulous attention to procedural detail, a pair of antagonists who are both intelligent and driven enough to be evenly-matched, with just enough humanity to not appear psychotic. Jean-Pierre Melville and Alain Delon have a knack for making this sort of character cool; I love the scenes where Jef will stroll into an unlocked car and then nonchalantly try every key blank out of dozens on a chain until he find one that starts the car. It's a perfect minimalism, without wasted effort.

I should probably watch some more of Melville's films; I really like his style, but whenever one plays near me, it seems as though I never have a chance to get there.

L'année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 March 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement)

You can tell a lot about my favorite sorts of movies by the fact that the film which kept going through my mind during this one was Dark City. Not that I was expecting a clock or the revelation of the luxury hotel being an alien spaceship, but, yes, my brain kept going to the idea that someone, maybe "M" (Sacha Pitoëff), was somehow constantly resetting and changing the memories of the guests, with "X" (Giorgio Albertazzi) at least partially immune and drawn to "A" (Delphine Seyrig), the woman M had claimed as his wife.

Naturally, that's not what happens; Alain Resnais's film is much more purely surreal than that. It's strikingly beautiful, with marvelous black and white photography of elegant spaces and people. Amid all the deliberate vagueness, there's a simple idea of contrasting X's passion (though his story changes frequently, his aim doesn't ) with M's coldness and utter control over the situation. We watch M win games of Nim over and over again, while maneuvering A into a situation where he can punish her for even imagined or potential infidelity.

All in all, it's a nicely eerie little mindbender.

One review at HBS.

Friday, March 14, 2008


I've been going to The Boston Sci-Fi Marathon for several years now - started at the Coolidge, followed it to Dedham and West Newton before it landed back at Somerville for what seems like a fairly permanent arrangement - and I admit, I've got some mixed feelings about it. It's the sort of event that is absolutely the most fun the first time, and eventually becomes as much a social event as a chance to see a bunch of movies. That's probably why my love for it has waned a bit since I started going; I don't have a group of friends I meet there, and none of the people I've ever tried to talk into going has ever come. So it has, for me, become about endurance to a certain extent, and that's no attitude to have toward something you mainly do out of love.

This year actually had a pretty nice line-up; I wish I could have stayed awake through the whole thing. Maybe next year I'll have someone to elbow me during whatever the equivalent of 1984 is.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2008 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/33)

As I said in my previous review, this is one that grew on me quite a bit even after liking it a lot the first time. A second viewing didn't do anything to dissuade me from that view; although I still wonder about some of the things that Hud films when I think he and sane people everywhere would either turn the camera off and devote all his attention to running, or when it might not be convenient to evesdropping, there's enough slack because the movie needs it.

Also, it's fun to check for the things I missed the first time around but read about later, like the very last scene, which doesn't just serve a fitting coda.

Full review at HBS, along with eight others.

King Dinosaur

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2008 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/33)

Later on in the marathon, people were subjected to A Sound of Thunder, which is similarly awful but in a cynical way. The makers of King Dinosaur, on the other hand, lack the resources of both finance and talent that the makers of today's terrible sci-fi movies possess, and that works in their favor a bit. You see the terrestrial animals shot in extreme close-up to make them appear to be giant alien creatures, and admire the attempt to make something out of nothing.

That doesn't make this a good movie or close to it; too much is still laughable - the useless woman who traveled months in a rocket-ship to Counter-Earth an wants to go home ten minutes after landng, the amount of filler necessary to nudge the running time over an hour, the gung-ho use of an atomic bomb that isn't just awful in retrospect. This is a bad movie all around, the type that is only partially excused by the earnest effort put into it.

The Last Mimzy

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2008 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/33)

The Last Mimzy doesn't quite rate "buried treasure" status, but it's certainly in the "buried thing worth seeing" category. It's about kids who find a box of toys from the future, which gives them strange powers but also draws out their innate abilities. They draw the attention of Homeland Security, of course, and inevitably escape with the help of a sympathetic teacher.

It's a kids' movie, but one of the good ones which doesn't talk down to its audience or assume they've got ADHD. The adult characters are sympathetic and reasonable. The effects are restrained but nifty when they do appear. It's a fine sci-fi movie whether or not you've got any little guys watching it with you.

Five reviews at HBS

In the Shadow of the Moon

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2008 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/33)

There were a couple people talking behind me during this one, which isn't particularly noteworthy in and of itself, although it bothered me more than usual. The manned space program is one of the most fantastic things in human history, and the moon program its greatest achievement. I'm not a religious person, but I suddenly understood the feelings of anyone who ever shushed me for talking in church.

For this really is an exceptional document - there is no narration beyond a title card or two; the film consists almost entirely of the reminiscences of the surviving Apollo astronauts and actual footage cobbled together from NASA, television news, and other sources. The archival footage (we are reminded that it is all the real deal) generally looks to be either exceptionally well-preserved or restored; the interview segments show us lean men who are still capable of inspiring awe despite their age, but are also generally genial and funny. There's anecdotes that even die-hard space fanatics may not have heard, and the familiar ones are well-told. The closest thing to a complaint is one I have with many documentaries that lean on "talking head" segments, in that I'd like to have everyone constantly identified; the nature of this particular film means we're juggling a bunch of old white men. But it's a small quibble.

Now I just have to hope that the UK HD DVD announced for the end of March actually comes out; I've got that pre-ordered and I'm not quite hopeful about a Region A Blu-ray disc coming out any time soon.

One review at HBS

Ever Since the World Ended

* * (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2008 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/33)

This faux-doc has a nifty idea - chronicling life after a nasty plague wipes out ninety-odd percent of humanity - and does a pretty good job of making the audience believe that the characters are living in a nearly-empty San Francisco. The trouble, I guess, is that this world-building doesn't really lead to anything. We find out that the world's children aren't really interested in the pre-plauge world's history and the reaction is just "yeah... that makes sense". We wind up kind of short on interesting conflict; what there is is deliberately small in scale.

It's also a movie where I was still trying to decide whether or not I had already seen it until about about thirty minutes in or so. It has been kicking around for about five years, and I do enough events where a low-budget sf-y film like this might show up that it was a possibility. Eventually, I think I decided that I hadn't, but you know what? If I see it again in five years, I strongly suspect that the only way I'll know that I'd already seen it would be because it's documented here.

One review at HBS

War of the Worlds '53

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2008 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/33)

Speaking of anti-climaxes, this story in all its forms is predicated on a thoroughly deliberate one. When Matt saw the recent Tom Cruise version, he actually complained about the ending until being reminded that without that ending, more or less exactly, it's not War of the Worlds. I do kind of wonder how H.G. Wells would react to this film's insinuation that the aliens were eventually brought down by prayer, as he tended toward the atheistic.

That aside, this version of War of the Worlds still stands very tall among fifties sci-fi films. It shares many of that group's faults - it treats "scientists" as something close to magicians and tends not to question authority - but its sights and sounds hold up very well.

(And, besides, it inspired that stupid but fun late-eighties sci-fi/horror series. The first year of that holds a special place in my heart for teaching me that gore can be fun!)

Two reviews at HBS

2001: A Space Odyssey

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2008 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/33)

There's seldom been anything quite like 2001, either before or since. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke shared both a grand vision and a mania for detail, along with the skill (and obsessiveness) necessary to actually get it on screen. I tend to gravitate toward the detail; seldom has interplanetary flight ever seemed so right, so precisely imagined and reasonably extrapolated, as it does here.

The grander story, the alien monoliths scattered throughout the solar system that guide and boost human evolution, leaves me a little colder; I tend to be pretty fond of the idea that we got where we are by hard work and taking advantage of favorable mutations. I do love how the stargate grabs the audience and forces them to think, while also staring in wonder at what Kubrick and company created with the visual effects and animation capabilities of the time.

I did start nodding off during this movie, though (at least I made it past midnight!). i'm sure of it, because I missed HAL singing "Daisy, Daisy". Ah, well - at least it gives me an excuse to see just how good the HD version is; I've heard great things.

Two reviews at HBS

Black Sheep

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2008 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/33)

Some of the SF/33 promotion labeled this as a regional premiere, which wasn't the case - I saw it at the Boston Fantastic Film Festival a couple years back, which is just a quick hop on the red line or 91 bus away. I liked it then, and liked it again on the second go-round It's perfect for the wee hours of a marathon like this - shockingly funny and gross as well as bright and colorful enough to fool your brain into thinking its still daytime.

Some people describe it as a horror movie, but I really don't see it that way - it's never really trying to scare you. Make you jump, yes. Gross you out, yes. But no-one's going to have nightmares about killer sheep gnawing off their dangly bits because of this movie, or worry about anything. It's just a fine, gross, black comedy.

(I was surprised by the people I overheard saying they had trouble with the accents. On the scale of accents being close to "American", New Zealand is way closer to the Canada side of the scale than the rural Scotland side!)

Full review (and four others) at HBS


N/A (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2008 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/33)

Here is where I got most of my sleep for the night. Remember how bright and colorful I described Black Sheep as being? 1984 is the opposite of that. It's grey and overcast, populated by serious people speaking in level tones. The voiceovers are probably taken directly from Orwell's prose, and they're dry political theory rather than something that comes from the characters as individuals.

Which, I think, might be a problem with the movie even if it wasn't a 4am death slot. 1984, after all, is about its ideas; the story is close to incidental. It is so thoroughly a lecture on how fascism works and where it ultimately leads that any sort of plot twist would be completely missing the point. That's why I could tell that I had fallen asleep several times during the movie but not really feel like I had missed anything, even though I could see that the story had moved forward without me.

One review at HBS

Journey to the Seventh Planet

N/A (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2008 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/33)

I'm just not charmed by old, bad sci-fi movies. Some folks are connisseurs, I guess, of such things, and look at John Agar's name in this film's credits as a sort of stamp of legitimacy; he's been in other bad sci-fi flicks and he's a comfortable, reassuring presense. These people tend to be in their forties or fifties or older, and probably don't like the movies themselves as the years in their lives in which they were encountered, whether that be in the theater or on television.

They're not good movies detached from that, and this one is worse than usual, bad enough for the American distributor to actually spring for new visual effects. The film involves landing on Uranus to find an environment that is not hostile - except, of course, for the telepathic creature that convinces the crew that there are some fine-looking women there, in order to lure them to some sort of doom. It's ridiculous, it's been done better, it's just generally not worth the time.

One review at HBS

A Sound of Thunder

* (out of four)
Ignored 18 February 2008 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/33)

I generally don't get that much of a kick out of writing negative reviews. I know there are people who do, and the general image most people have of film critics is something like Jay Sherman ("it stinks!"), but I sometimes worry that my reviews cluster in the 2.5-3.5 star range, because even the worst movie still has something within it worth watching.

Not this one. This one is just junk, through and through, and a lot of people were justifiably upset at its inclusion.

I took it as an opportunity to get myself a bacon-and-egg crepe next door and hit up the ATM across the street. This movie's vortex of suck was so powerful that that meant walking out into a downpour, which had mostly cleared up by the end of the marathon. After that was done, I hung out in the upstairs lobby for a half hour or so, enjoying the leg room that you just don't find in the Somerville Theater's balcony section.

Full review at HBS, along with four others.

A Boy and His Dog

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2008 at the Somerville Theater #1 (SF/33)

Post-apocalyptic stories generally don't do much for me. Not just because many are set in the far-off year of 1999 only to be tripped up by the fact that we didn't blow ourselves up leaving all of North America a radioactive wasteland and it looks less likely all the time so stop making these things even if they are cheap and people think a cynical view of the future is cooler than an optimistic one...

Ahem. Sorry; pet peeve. Anyway, this isn't a genre I'm particularly fond of, but A Boy and His Dog is a better-than-average example of it. The telepathic bond between the title characters is a neat idea, and there's some fun insanity in the underground society where Don Johnson's horny teenager winds up. Curiously, these two things don't intersect much at all - the title characters are separated at this point. Before then, though, there's a bunch of wandering around the desert, encountering various hostile but uninteresting groups. Been there, done that.

One review at HBS

I did wonder if I might have gotten through everything better if the films had played in their intended order - A Boy and His Dog was initially scheduled to play at about 10pm, while War of the Worlds was scheduled to close things out at 10am, but the brand new film print that the director had struck just for the Marathon (it did look pretty nice) wound up locked up in a UPS warehouse until it opened on Monday morning

Ah, well. Another one in the books. As cranky as these pieces generally are, I'm looking forward to next year's.

Saturday, March 01, 2008


Weird what sticks in one's head, huh? There were several movies on either side of Jumper that I didn't really have much comment on, but this one stuck in my head well enough to get a full review. Mainly that's because I had the notion of it being a good (but prohibitively expensive) TV pilot stuck in my head after watching it. I'm a little taken aback by how bad the reviews have been - it is definitely a flawed film, but those flaws don't come close to being crippling.

As I said, this would make a pretty nifty TV show, and the filmmakers do just what you'd want to set one of thoes up, building an interesting mythology to play with. It is a bit too focused on that mythology, though - generally, franchises don't get as inward-focused as Jumper until they've been around to accrue all that detail naturally, whereas this one just starts out more or less ignoring the real/familiar world and playing in its own sandbox.

(Which is, quite frankly, one of the things I hate about Harry Potter, but which doesn't bother me so much here. Odd.)

Also, I do like the comic book tie-in that Oni did, even though I say this particular story wouldn't really work as a comic. Well, a story following the Jumpers really wouldn't, but following the Paladins actually does all right.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2008 at AMC Boston Common #17 (first-run)

Jumper is in many ways not a very good movie. By saying that, I don't mean that it's not entertaining, or that anybody in front of or behind the camera fails to execute in any specific way. I like it, and wouldn't term it a guilty pleasure in the least. That said, I don't necessarily think that it's a particularly good fit for film as a medium.

The story is full of fun events - David Rice discovers that he can teleport during high school, and uses this knowledge to get away from Ann Arbor, MI, as fast as he can. A few years later, he's living in a New York penthouse, financed by "jumping" past a bank's security system and helping himself, but he crisscrosses the world on a daily basis. One day he gets home to find Roland (Samuel L. Jackson) in his apartment, bad news because Roland is a member of the Paladins, an order dedicated to hunting down and exterminating jumpers for a number of reasons - they always go bad, they have a power that only God should possess, etc. Rice (Hayden Christensen) jumps back to Ann Arbor on instinct, where he reconnects with high school crush Millie (Rachel Bilson) - who, of course, has always dreamed of traveling; the pair later meet up with Griffin (Jamie Bell), an English jumper who has gone underground, except for the times he emerges to take a Paladin out.

One of Jumper's strengths is also its greatest weakness: The filmmakers do a good job of building a believable universe - at least, in science fiction terms! Director Doug Liman generally does a good job of explaining the rules and limitations of Rice's jumping ability without an obvious exposition dump; we're able to grasp that he can only teleport to places he's been or can otherwise locate through experience, and the tools Roland uses to subdue jumpers make intuitive sense. The trouble is that Liman and his writers are so busy with world-building that they really don't have a lot of time for anything else. By the time the movie is over, you'll know how everything fits together, but there hasn't been much in the way of character growth or resolution. Only one story is even sort wrapped up, one what was so far in the background as to almost not be there, and even then it doesn't feel settled - it feels like set-up for what comes next.

That's why Jumper doesn't really feel like a movie - movies are generally self-contained things, with a beginning, middle, and end. Jumper feels less like a movie than a television pilot or a comic-book origin story, and I say that as a fan of both of those media. It wouldn't quite work as either, though - it's too concerned with movement to fit the static images of a comic, and its globetrotting scope would blow a TV series's budget. Maybe there's a good animated series here (although the real locations are part of the fun).

For all that Jumper doesn't really fit the structure of a movie, though, it remains quite good on an action level. The writers have clearly put some thought into what Rice and company can and cannot do, and that attention to detail is what allows the audience to feel some suspense despite the fact that people might be able to teleport out of danger at any moment. Liman, meanwhile, shows a real knack for portraying that on-screen: The action is fast, over-the-top, and FX-laden, but still pretty easy to follow.

The acting, on the other hand, is a little less impressive. Christensen and Bilson are amiable enough, but never really come across as fully-formed characters, though it's tough to know whether that's on them or the script. Samuel L. Jackson is there doing what Samuel L. Jackson does best, convincing the audience that his character is formidable by the simple dint of being Samuel L. Jackson. Jamie Bell, however, gets to cut lose as Griffin, a fun surprise for those who still remember him as Billy Elliot. Michael Rooker and Diane Lane make appearances as David's parents, though Lane's part is so small that the only reason for her to be in this movie is if there's a bigger part planned for her in the sequel.

And I do hope for a sequel; it would kind of be a shame if all the world-building the filmmakers did was only used for one movie. Now that the pieces are in place, this team couple probably tell a couple of pretty good stories within this universe, rather than just the one that's made to introduce everything to us.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with six other reviews.