Sunday, February 22, 2009

SF/34 ('Day One")

Despite the relatively low scores below, I had a pretty good time at this year's Boston Sci-Fi Marathon. Believe it or not, this is actually a pretty good batch of new films for the 'thon. Finding good new movies isn't really what they do there - it's not Fantasia, or even the late, lamented Boston Fantastic Film Festival, as much as I often wish it was - but it's a fun place to see a bunch of movies.

The six movies below were seen on Sunday afternoon and evening; the stuff after midnight will come a bit later (I'm actually looking forward to writing about Killer Klowns and I Married a Monster From Outer Space!).

EDIT: Second half reviews!

Alien Trespass

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

If you go to enough genre-oriented film festivals or keep an eye out for would-be cult films, you will probably feel like you see a new movie like Alien Trespass every month or two - a fifties sci-fi pastiche that is described as either homage or parody. Most are awful. Alien Trespass is pretty decent, and probably as good as these things get.

After a mildly amusing bit of newsreel footage that tells us how one of the biggest-budget sci-fi films of the 1950s never got released (and was thought destroyed) because of a contract dispute between the studio head and star Merrick McCormack (the fictional actor who is a dead ringer for grandson Erik McCormack), we get to the film proper. An asteroid has crashed out in the desert, observed by astronomer Ted Lewis (McCormack) and his wife Lana (Jody Thompson). A dangerous alien Ghota has escaped, and the ship's pilot Urp takes over Ted's body to pursue it before it eats enough people to divide. He's assisted by local waitress Tammy (Jenni Baird); also in the mix are the three teenagers who saw the crash (Sarah Smyth, Andrew Dunbar, and Sage Brocklebank); the local cops (Dan Lauria, Robert Patrick, and Aaron Brooks), and a couple not-so-bright farmhands (Johnathan Young and Michael Roberds).

What separates Alien Trespass from the vast majority of retro-sci-fi is that it almost never goes for the cheap laugh of "look how bad this is/was!" (which often seems to be all the comedic inspiration these movies have). The alien is not top-of-the-line CGI, but instead looks like something that would have been impressive in 1957. After all, not every old sci-fi movie looks terrible; when people complain about CGi, after all, one of the typical arguments is that the old stuff still has more character. The Ghota visually owes much to the creatures from It Came From Outer Space (as does a good chunk of the plot), and if the filmmakers occasionally err on the side of making it unusually mobile and otherwise modern enough to seem a little threatening, I'm okay with that.

The other area where these movies often point and snicker is in the acting department, and while this movie does make its jabs at the sorts of clich├ęs that inhabited those movies, it does so by letting its cast of solid character actors use their solid comic timing rather than having them pretend to be bad actors. Robert Patrick, in particular, wrings the maximum laughs from just about every line he's given, as does Dan Lauria as his boss. Eric McCormack is pretty funny as well, playing the differences between Ted and Urp much less broadly than many others might.

The film does get a few jabs at fifties pop culture in, but it's actually a lot more general and well-executed than it often is. The gigantic steaks that Ted puts on the grill is a detail other filmmakers might have missed, and the filmmakers actually go for something resembling subtlety when the time comes for the inevitable joke about how married couples arranged their bedrooms in 1950s movies and television. Director R.W. Goodwin and writers James Swift and Steven P. Fisher put a few good jokes in, including one that had the audience groan in a good, "should have seen that coming" way.

For as much as Alien Trespass is as good as this sort of movie gets, that's not the highest bar to set. It's slick, and competently done, but it's much harder to capture the soul than the surface. There are some good bits, sure, but what's between them just the work of a gifted mimic. The monster loose in the movie theater, for instance, just reminds one of other movies where that was a fun gag. There's a lot of filler, where the filmmakers are putting things in because the plot needs them or because the character type is expected, but it's uninspired, even bland at times.

Saying Alien Trespass is better than most movies like it isn't damning with faint praise. Its affection for 50s sci-fi seems much more sincere than most parody-homages, and while it could be a little sharper and more clever without losing that good feeling (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies is perhaps the best recent example of that), the feeling is still generally positive.

Also at EFC.

It Came From Outer Space

* * (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

I reviewed this one a couple years ago when it played a 3-D festival at the Coolidge, and my opinion is more or less unchanged - it's technically fairly nicely done, although it's plain to see they reused certain shots in order to save some money. The 3-D is done well. Unfortunately, it's built upon an idiot plot that would infect many other high-minded movies - that the aliens are highly advanced, not only technologically superior to us, but morally more advanced... And they express this by doing numerous hostile and stupid things.

It was amusing to see just how much Alien Trespass borrowed from this movie by playing them back to back, although I don't know how intentional that was.

Chrysalis

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

Some bad movies are interesting to watch as a sort of game - where, exactly, did things go wrong? After all, very few people set out to create a movie that stinks; it's just the unfortunate end result. Chrysalis is not one of those; things were too obviously doomed from the start, when filmmaker Tony Baez Milan decided to adapt a Ray Bradbury short story and decided that a movie whose main subject just sits there would be terribly engrossing.

It's one of those futures where the environment is wrecked and the consolidated nations of the world are engaged in a war of attrition. Dr. Hartley (John Klemantaski) is doing plant research in an underground bunker, assisted by McGuire (Corey Landis) and Smith (Glen Vaughan). Smith is close to cracking up when one day he collapses, and the others find a green growth on him. It eventually envelops him, becoming a hard shell, and Hartley reluctantly calls hospital colleague Rockwell (Darren Kendrick) and Rockwell's assistant Murphy (Danny Cameron) in. Mondragon (Larry Dirk), a gung-ho military type, also interjects himself as the scientists try to answer the question of what's going on with Smith and what should be done with him?

The large and obvious problem with this set-up is that it's not very conducive to things actually happening. The middle of the movie is what seems like an hour of people standing around Smith, re-iterating that they really don't know what's going on. Hartley becomes more paranoid and hostile, frightened of what will emerge from Smith's chrysalis. Rockwell becomes obsessed with the apparent healing properties of a fluid he has extracted from it. McGuire and Murphy stand around rather interchangeably, and Mondragon wanders off when he realizes that he really doesn't have anything to do. The scientists "debate", if by that you mean exchanging wild hypotheses based on the scant information they have. There's news footage of the outside world that is utterly irrelevant to the story in the bunker.

That's just one way the filmmakers try to stretch the story out, by the way - it has some of the slowest fade-outs and fade-ins I've ever seen. Of course, given the environment I saw it in, I was thankful for that, as the festival/marathon crowd would cheer with each fade out, only to make a collective groan of disappointment when the movie failed to end. You make your own fun in these situations.

There is, after all, precious little of it to be had elsewhere. Chrysalis isn't even entertainingly awful; the cast is bland but not generally inept. The make-up effects for the chrysalis actually look kind of good, and as cheap as everything looks, it's not the kind of cheap where you can see shoddy workmanship. The ending is terrible - it's not quite out of nowhere, but it's also not something that's been set up beyond the wild theorizing. The movie doesn't end the way it does because of any particular actions of the characters or any outside force that has any meaning to us.

So, even when something big happens, it feels like nothing has happened. You can get away with that in a short story (and I suspect that Bradbury's original story was very short indeed), but in an 85-minute film, it's a form of torture.

Also at EFC.

Logan's Run

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

It's no surprise that there's a remake of Logan's Run being worked on; what's surprising is that it hasn't happened sooner. It's got the three things that make it prime remake material: A name people remember, a premise that seems like it might be worth another shot, and enough shortcomings that it could clearly be done better.

Logan 5 (Michael York) lives in a domed city where everything is taken care of by the machines that run it and no-one has to work. Well, few except those like Logan and his friend Francis 7 (Richard Jordan) who work as "Sandmen", hunting down those who refuse to die on their 30th birthday - the only way, we're told, for the city to sustain itself. Logan has just been given a new assignment - infiltrate the would-be runners to find their "Sanctuary", and destroy it. He starts with Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter), who had expressed some misgivings about the way things work, but soon finds himself on the run from Francis, who hasn't been told about Logan's undercover assignment, and toward a destination that isn't what any of them believed it to be.

Logan's Run starts out pretty well - it's visually eye-popping, with a miniature city that actually looks active in the establishing shots (in large part from the moving elevated trains). It works well close-up, too; what we see of the city looks like the center of a large shopping mall or a luxury hotel lobby, though not so much that the audience is completely aware of it. We get a feeling of what this world is like, the state of innocence and grace that its inhabitants live in, even as we're shown that they don't have the same values as the audience. The "carousel" sequence is remarkable, both for how it is staged and how it shows us how completely right dying at 30 seems for the people in this world.

And then the story starts and things go straight to heck. The powers that be give Logan information that might affect his loyalty just as he's starting an undercover assignment, and one would really think they'd give instructions for Francis to make it look good rather than have him go off like a loose cannon and jeopardize that. The first encounter with the outside world is even more mind-bogglingly stupid, though after that it simply becomes tiresome. It turns out that all the film's clever ideas were back in the city, and what's left is simply having the characters come across as morons as they re-learn about the family unit and other twentieth-century ideas. The finale is also pretty ludicrous - sure, it's a tradition that things will fail catastrophically at the least provocation, but that doesn't make it a good idea.

It's not all bad - the cast is actually pretty nice. I'm not just talking about the fact that Jenny Agutter is in her prime and nobody in this city appears to wear underwear - she's more capable than a lot of other young women cast as eye candy in this sort of movie. Michael York is similarly good as Logan, at least to start; like Agutter, he's got the ability to project innocence without being stupid. It doesn't work quite so well once they're out, especially once York is called upon to sincerely orate. Peter Ustinov is sort of bizarre when he shows up later on, but that kind of works for this movie.

Maybe, when it comes right down to it, Logan's Run isn't as clever an idea as it seems - all the opportunities for satire and wit are in the supposedly utopian society of the beginning, and thus the really interesting bits are lost once Logan actually runs. Those pieces are worth a look, though, and maybe the next people to take a stab at this will figure out how to make the rest work.

Also at EFC, along with two other reviews.

Runaway

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

It's surprising, twenty-five years later, how well Runaway has aged. Not because it is anything close to prescient in its vision of the future, or because it is so well-executed technically that it stands ahead of its contemporaries. Instead, Michael Crichton's movie about cops chasing robots run amok holds up is because, despite its low-fi trappings, it manages to put together a world the audience can believe in.

Sgt. Jack Ramsay (Tom Selleck) is a Chicago Police Department officer assigned to handling robots. It's not glamorous work, more like animal control than anything else, but he's gotten to be the best in the department at it. He and new partner Karen Thompson (Cynthia Rhodes) are called in to deal with a malfunctioning domestic robot, and an extra chip inside leads them to Dr. Charles Luther (Gene Simmons) and Jackie Rogers (Kirstie Alley), who may have the answers behind a rash of robot-related incidents.

Michael Crichton writes and directs, and he makes the choice of not setting the film too far in the future (as seen from 1984). Cars, hairstyles, clothing, etc., are thus all from the mid-eighties, rather than anything particularly futuristic (which generally means, the current time period only more so!); Ramsay mentions that one of the older robots they corral is still running on an 8088-series processor (the kind the then-current IBM PCs used; the IBM PC AT with its 80286 chip had just been introduced). Give Chrichton credit for not having robotics technology make the immediate leap to self-aware androids, but the robots themselves do often look cobbled-together, not so much like a mass-produced product.

That's the big problem with Runaway: Even for 1984, it looks cheap. Crichton's got good ideas, but the execution is kind of shoddy, and not just in special effects. Crichton piles a cute kid, two potential love interests, guilt over a dead hostage, and crippling vertigo onto Ramsay. It's a bit much at times, even though it's seldom overwhelming.

Part of that's because Tom Selleck is good at selling it; it's surprising he never had much of a career outside of Magnum, P.I., because he does a fine job of making the unreal or potentially trite believable. Gene Simmons is suitably crazed as the villain. Cynthia Rhodes is likable enough as Selleck's partner, though Kirstie Alley is kind of annoying as the woman they recruit to help bring down Simmons.

Despite all its faults, Runaway holds together. It shouldn't; it should seem incredibly dated and tacky. Instead, it has a sort of understated charm.

Also at EFC.

Alien Raiders

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

By now, people attending this event sort of expect the "premieres" to be nothing to write home about, and this year was no exception; though Alien Trespass was a notch above average, the other two were as bad as usual. What's interesting (at least, if one is of an analytical bent) is that these two movies were terrible in completely opposite ways: Where Chrysalis was austere and boring despite having more ideas than it knew what to do with, Alien Raiders is frantic, grimy, and more or less bereft of a single original thought.

Much of the action takes place in Hastings' Supermarket, located in the quiet Arizona town of Buck Lake. Around closing time, stockboy Benny (Jeffrey Licon) is flirting with cashier Whitney (Samantha Streets), whose stepfather Seth (Mathew St. Patrick) is the new chief of police. A few customers are still milling about when Aaron Ritter (Carlos Bernard) and his paramilitary team arrive, locking the place down because they believe that someone in the building has an alien slug wrapping itself around their cerebral cortex. One of the customers is an off-duty cop, who gets a few shots off, thus preventing Ritter from exterminating his alien quickly and quietly.

Alien Raiders is, believe it or not, even more generic than its name suggests. The main body of it is a standard hostage drama, with Ritter riding herd over a clashing team and Seth trying to get background on them while worrying about his stepdaughter. The other 25% of the movie is similarly familiar "the alien could be anyone!" paranoia. On paper, that sounds like a good combination, but it doesn't work that way. Ritter's team are too professional to be worried about their hostages; the hostages are too scared of Ritter to entertain the notion of a parasitic alien.

The standoff plotline is even more lifeless. Where most movies built on that line have some intrigue coming from the hostage-takers' plans, there's none of that here; heck, I'm not sure Ritter even has an exit strategy. Tension fails to materialize between Ritter's group and his hostages; sure, they try to escape, and there are tests to try and determine which may be aliens, but it's never the sort of situation where something we learn may become important later, and nobody ever does anything unexpected. In addition, Bernard and St. Patrick do not make compelling adversaries, both of their characters are too level-headed.

That doesn't mean that things don't happen. Plenty happens; the action is fast-paced, bloody, and what we see is handled competently enough. Much of the action happens in dark rooms, and we never get a really good look at how the humans are mutated after the aliens completely take them over. There's a needlessly gruesome method of detecting alien possession (a blood test wouldn't work just as well because...?). There's plenty of going on, but it's all stuff we've seen before, and done better.

That's Alien Raiders in a nutshell. It's filler, stuff cranked out so that the Sci-Fi channel can have new programming on Saturday nights or so that Blockbuster can rotate a new bit of sci-fi action onto the new-release shelves every few months. It doesn't hurt to watch it, but there's so much actually good stuff out there, why bother?

Also at EFC.

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