Friday, February 27, 2009

SF/34 ('Day Two")

"Day One", with the first six movies, can be found here.

You'd be inhuman if you didn't get a little cranky at some point during the marathon. The seats in the balcony of the Somerville Theater have even less leg room than those at Fenway Park (my two youngest brothers would be right out of luck), your circadian rhythms get thrown off, and you're probably eating stuff that's less than great for you. Heck, the last two combine - I had a master plan of ducking out for some sort of breakfast an hour or so into Transformers, but I bought a bag of Reese's Pieces at midnight, and it was filling enough to tide me over until 10am or so, when I wasn't missing I Married a Monster from Outer Space or Star Trek II.

Still, that's the part of the 'thon when I was tested. I wanted to ask the person three rows ahead of me a rude question about whether it was a tiny bladder or a disgusting nicotene addiction that causes one to get up and block my view of the screen 15-20 minutes before the end of each movie, for instance. There was also a narrator just over my right shoulder, and while I hate snapping at kids, I gave in somewhere during Killer Klowns. Amazingly, he actually thought I wanted clarification, and I had to make it clear that I wanted shutting up.

Ah, well. There's still no event quite like it, and I'll probably go again next year, even if I feel doubtful about it every year.

The Thing From Another World

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

Heading to midnight, and I found myself starting to nod off. It's been a while since I've seen this one, and I remember it being pretty decent - the byplay between Kenneth Tobey and Margaret Sheriden is a lot more fun than is typical for 50s sci-fi. I'm not quite sure how it got from the beginning to the end, but that end is pretty enjoyable.

I have to admit, I was a little amused that the guest who introduced kept attributing the original story to "Joseph Campbell", rather than "John W. Campbell". That's kind of embarrassing. Admittedly, I might not have caught it, but I recently bought myself a couple big boxes of Hard Case Crime books in an end-of-year closeout, and I found out they also have a sci-fi imprint... One of the $1 books was The Black Star Passes, a collection of his early books. They looked a lot bigger when I read them in junior high.

Repo Man

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

Yeah, I just saw it a month ago, and though I was still drifting off at points during this showing (it did start at something like 12:30am), I did so at different times than I fell asleep at the Brattle. Between them, I think I've seen the entire movie.

It's one I like more the second time around. The first time, I didn't get much more out of it than "huh, that's weird". To be honest, I don't know that there's a whole lot more to get, but I think the characters are more fleshed out than I first thought. Similarly, I appreciate Emilio Estevez's performance a little more. It's not great, but it's not bad like I originally thought.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers '78

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

I cannot (yet) speak for the 1993 Abel Ferrara version of the story, but there's an argument to be made that this is the best film version. It's not an argument you can win 100% of the time - oddly, one of the things running through my head after I recently saw a late-night screening of this version was how much I appreciated the 1956 edition - but I think this is easily the most memorable film based on the premise.

The basic premise is the same as it was twenty years earlier - spores from an alien world arrive on earth, growing into plants that duplicate people, down to every last detail and memory. Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) is one of the first to see something amiss; her boyfriend Geoffrey (Art Hindle) is becoming emotionally distant. She confides in her friend and co-worker Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), who discusses it with friends Jason and Nancy Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright), as well as popular psychologist and author Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy). Instead of being in isolated small-town America, though, this group of people is in San Francisco.

Though this version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers was made post-Star Wars, writer W.D. Richter and director Philip Kaufman still give it something of the vibe of the "New Hollywood" seventies. The attraction between Matthew and Elizabeth is genuine and a little messy; the scenes where they confront Geoffrey would be interesting from an acting standpoint even without pod people thrown into the mix. There's a sense that the cast has been given room to act, investing their characters with more than what we've been given as exposition and what their function in the story is.

Indeed, part of what's interesting about this movie is that there's not really an expert or person of authority to be found. Sure, Bennell is a health inspector and Driscoll a lab tech, but it's not like they're the scientists, sheriffs, or military men that would traditionally populate this sort of movie; Kibner, the closest thing the film has to a voice of authority, spends most of the film suggesting that there's nothing to be concerned about. It's an unusual sci-fi movie in that it's not particularly concerned with problem-solving, but watching relatively ordinary people react to an apocalyptic situation.

It's an understated apocalypse, but still a striking one. Kaufman never really hides his alien plants, and never does a flashy display, and yet every time we see one with a partially-formed duplicate, they're more unnerving. The "creature" effects are just active enough to convince us they're a threat without making the plants particularly mobile, and the latter parts of the movie, where the pods have replaced enough people that they actually have a sort of infrastructure, is more chilling than it might seem out of context: We look at it and see that somehow, outside of our protagonists' view, the situation has gotten too big for them to handle, and seeing the scale of the threat is far scarier than creature effects, no matter how grotesque they were.

And, of course, there's the indelible last scene, although it's not nearly so effective the last time around; if you've seen the film before, you can see where Kaufman and Richter are setting you up. That's fine; re-watchability isn't everything, and there's something to be said for doing something so well that it imprints itself in the audience's memory that first time.

Also at EFC, with one other review.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

Killer Klowns is a one-joke movie. It's perhaps the most obvious one-joke movie in the history of one-joke movies. It is also, perhaps, one of the greatest one-joke movies ever made; the Chiodo Brothers find a bunch of different ways to tell their joke, tell it well, and then get the heck out about five seconds before it threatens to get stale.

That one joke is, of course, that the people who are phobic about clowns and circuses have it exactly right: The damn things are evil, and the common perception that they are jolly and delightful is because we've done a Disney-style removal of all the murderous and threatening aspects since the last time those alien creatures with their tent-shaped ships stopped of on Earth for a bite to eat. So we get jokes about cotton candy, popcorn, balloon animals, little cars that hold dozens of people, etc., etc. Someone who has only heard the title could likely make up a checklist and tick each of them off. In that way, it's kind of predictable.

So are a lot of movies, of course. Not many of them do such a good job of setting them up and knocking them down. The Chiodos (Stephen Chiodo directs; brothers Charles, Edward, and Stephen write and produce) come up with a dozen or so clown-related gags, and for just about every one, they figure out how to execute it more or less perfectly: The timing would be off if any of them ran just a bit shorter or a second longer, for instance. The Klowns and their props are designed just right, as well, in a fun zone between cute and gross. That fun zone is pretty narrow - a little more cheery, and the mayhem becomes disturbing; a little nastier, and it's not funny. The Chiodos avoid repeating themselves in ways that would make us take any bit of insanity for granted, but tie everything together so that it feels like a story, not just a random assembly of gags.

The story, of course, could be constructed with the "Fifties Invasion Movie" version of Mad Libs: College kids Mike (Grant Cramer) and Debbie (Suzanne Snyder) see a meteor crash land (so does redneck-type Gene (Royal Dano)), only to discover that it's a space ship from which aliens that look like clowns emerge. The local constabulary, Dave (John Allen Nelson) and Mooney (John Vernon) don't believe the reports of alien clowns, at least not until bodies start piling up. What's refreshing - and kind of surprising - is how straight they play it. For all the Sam Raimi-style "splatstick" going on, you will never once see a character wink at the camera or act like they know that they're in a movie. We know this stuff is funny, but the human characters act like they're in a dead-serious horror movie.

They're pretty competent as well. Most of the cast had undistinguished later careers - TV guest star roles and direct-to-video movies, though Christopher Titus would get his own show twelve years later (and I couldn't pick him out in this movie even with a prior trip to IMDB) - but none are exactly liabilities, either. The physical effects are also very smartly done; though the movie is low-budget, the Chiodos are able to write and direct to what they know they can accomplish, and that's quite a bit: The model work, makeup, set design, etc., is all very good.

In fact, it's so good that I've often wondered why the Chiodos never did another feature, instead doing effects, puppetry, and animation for others. They're good at that, sure, but this movie is both good enough and produced in such a sure-handed manner that you'd think someone in the past twenty years would have taken a chance with them.

Also at EFC, with two other reviews.


* ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

I could spend a whole lot of time talking about Transformers, but it's not like EFC needs another review of that one (heck, even Matt contributed a well-deserved slam!). I will say that it is somewhat less migraine-inducing when viewed from the middle of the Somerville Theater's balcony than my usual spot close to the front of the theater, but it is still the kind of terrible script that makes me really worry that its writers are the same ones who did the screenplay for the new Star Trek movie. I guess one must just hope that J.J. Abrams brings out the best in them, since Alias, Fringe, and Mission: Impossible 3 are pretty darn good.

I will, in the interests of full disclosure, admit that I do own a copy of this movie on HD DVD becaue some of the opening desert action scenes are pretty darn cool. In my defense, I didn't buy it the week of release, but this past December when HD DVD had been dead for much of the year and iNet Video was offering a special $1 sale to blow out their HD DVD stock.

I may have overpaid.

I Married a Monster from Outer Space

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

Very few lists of the great science fiction movies will include I Married a Monster From Outer Space, even if one narrows the criteria down to just alien invasion movies, movies from the 1950s, black-and-white movies, movies where dogs can tell something is wrong, or even some combination of two or more those categories. And they shouldn't, it's not a great movie. It is, however, unusual, and unusual in a way that's not just code for "bizarre".

Like many invasion movies, aliens have arrived on Earth and are able to take the form of human beings. The first to be duplicated is Bill Farrell (Tom Tyron), abducted on his way back from his bachelor party. It is thus an alien who marries lovely Marge Bradley (Gloria Talbott) the next day, and soon start replacing many of the men in their small town. By the time Marge is able to put together all the things that ring false during the subsequent year, it's difficult to know who to trust.

Even more than it is today, science fiction fifty years ago, especially filmed science fiction, was very much a boy's club: It was all about action, things blowing up in a more spectacular way than mere earthbound objects, and even when the writers tried to give the subject matter some heft, it was political rather than personal. Women, when present at all, were objects to be rescued, eye candy for the older boys and dangerous temptations for all. That's not the case here; although Tom Tyron is credited first, this movie is about Gloria Talbott's Marge, highly unusual for the time period.

What's unusual is not just that the film has a female protagonist, but that it addresses traditionally feminine topics. I Married a Monster from Outer Space, despite the pulpy title (it really only lacks an exclamation point, doesn't it?), is closer in spirit to a Sirkian domestic melodrama than the traditional monster movie. Rather than the aliens being a metaphor for paranoia about communist infiltration, they instead reflect the idea that sometimes men change after marriage, or the romance disappears. It does so in a manner that's more adult than the title might suggest, too; although the restrictions of the times prevent it from mentioning sex directly, it's never far from the surface: A girl in the bar mentions that she's getting much less action than she used to, and Marge winds up going to the doctor to find out why she's not pregnant yet, after a year of marriage.

Not everything about this movie is good enough for it to qualify for "forgotten classic" status, of course. As much as the movie is Marge's story, she's reduced to a fairly passive part when the time to actually confront the aliens comes; that's still men's work, apparently. Keeping track of who is replaced when is kind of daunting, and leads to some blind alleys - drinking buddies noticing how dull their friends have gotten, and then dropping it as the aliens take their form. The supporting cast isn't great, either.

The two leads aren't bad, though. Gloria Talbott is somewhat wide-eyed and perpetually shocked as Marge, but Tom Tyron is kind of impressive as Bill. Early on, he's the usual stiff, wooden alien who does-not-under-stand-hu-man-e-mo-tions, but as the movie goes on he does seem to get some grasp of them, even while retaining his otherness. Director Gene Fowler Jr. does a good job working around the film's low budget while still coming up with some memorable sequences - the lightning strike illuminating the alien's true face in particular.

It's not enough to make I Married a Monster from Space a great film, but it's an interesting one: Superficially like many others, but with a more adult and female-focused perspective.

Also at EFC.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2009 at Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/34)

I could go on about this for a while, but to be quite honest, it's been a week and a half since I saw it at the 'thon and I need my memory refreshed a bit. It's not quite the masterpiece everyone remembers, but it's still a pretty entertaining space opera. I must admit that I find myself a little annoyed by the "maturity" that the movie series (and, really, science fiction in the media as a whole since) displays: As much as a little thematic heft is nice, I miss the youthful exuberance of the original Star Trek. The original series was all about the universe being filled with amazing things - dangerous, yes, but worth the risk - while the movies tend to boil down to "man, getting old is a cast-iron bitch."

Still, I would be remiss not to include this, a reminder of just how much fun the movie could be and of how things on the internet last forever.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sadly, not everything on the Internet lasts forever -- Geocities has closed and your link is broken. (But one can glean what was there through