Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Red Riding Trilogy, and multi-part movies

The multi-part movie is not exactly a new idea; the second and third Back to The Future movies were filmed together in the late 1980s. It's become a much more popular mode of operation since the Lord of the Rings was such a massive success, though. The second and third Pirates movies were shot together or back-to-back, while in Japan, the adaptations of the sprawling Death Note and 20th Century Boys mangas were planned as big, multi-film projects from the start. Not only are the Harry Potter andTwilight series being produced with an unusually quick turnaround for modern Hollywood event films, but the final volumes (of series whose source novels' page counts increased with their volume numbers) are being split in two. There were rumors that Spider-Man 4 & 5 were going to be shot back to back, to somehow morph into a panned new trilogy. And the interconnectedness of Marvel's movie universe is pretty amazing.

What's behind this, in a time when the movie industry seems to be becoming, if anything, more risk-averse? Part of it is that risk-aversion, I imagine; if you can get two blockbusters for the price of one and three quarters, it's not a bad deal, although committing to something open-ended isn't always a great move (see: The Golden Compass; Chronicles of Riddick is potentially another example). But I think another factor can be found in the medium for which Red Riding was partially created: Television.

Though still the home to a lot of crap, the upper end of television has gotten much more impressive, in large part by recognizing what its particular strengths were. For the longest time, TV tried to create mini-movies, using the familiarity to excise a bunch of exposition after the first week, but essentially making each episode fairly self-contained. Not all shows were like this; soaps were designed as never-ending serials, almost entirely based on familiar personalities. Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, a shift began. Sci-fi fans like to point to Babylon 5, although Murder One did something similar a few years earlier: Leverage viewer loyalty to create stories larger in scope than movies, or even the mini-series of years past, but which unlike soaps, offered the promise of a satisfying climax, either at the end of the series (B5), or at regular intervals (Buffy).

It worked, in part because technology allowed people to follow these stories without having to giving up every Thursday night (thank you, VCR, DVR, streaming video). But it left film, which had historically been considered "bigger" than television, having to play a bit of catch-up. Folks already avoiding theaters because... well, that's a whole different rant... anyway, not only could they claim that the technological experience was better at home, but that television had more sophisticated storytelling.

Thus, the multipart movie. I don't think they'll become the norm in Hollywood - it's still a big commitment right off the bat. I think it will happen more for can't-miss franchises, though, especially as television is considered more and more the equal of film. I don't know how many more Red Riding-type project we'll see, although I think the number and profile will increase. Despite the frequent complaints about the dumbing-down of America (and the world), the trend is still toward more complexity, not less.

Red Riding: 1974

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

The Red Riding trilogy is a daunting prospect, especially if one is inclined to see it during its brief American theatrical release as opposed to as a video on demand offering or on DVD. I'd recommend it, as it's a fine piece of work and everything is better in the theater, but finding the five hours can be tough. So start with just committing to the first; it's the tightest and most self-contained, and thus will either be a satisfactory experience on its own or will serve as motivation to find time for the rest.

As the subtitle tells us, it is "The Year of Our Lord 1974". The place is Yorkshire. A nine-year-old girl has disappeared, and Eddie Dunford's father has died. Eddie (Andrew Garfield) is coming home not just for his funeral, but taking a job with the local newspaper after a brief time in London. Naturally, one of his first assignments is the Kemplay girl's disappearance, and while the senior crime reporter, Jack Whitehead (Eddie Marsan) has a close relationship with the local constabulary, Eddie finds himself more sympathetic with colleague Barry Gannon (Anthony Flanagan), who sees conspiracies around every corner, particularly in developer John Dawson (Sean Bean) and his plan to build a shopping plaza on land currently occupied by gypsies. Eddie finds that this may be the third girl in the area to go missing in five years, and his attempt to interview the mother of one of the missing girls, Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall), gets him a visit from coppers Bob Craven (Sean Harris) and Tommy Douglas (Tony Mooney). Only she says she never complained to the police...

Red Riding: 1974 is a murder mystery, for certain, although it's not one that's too terribly difficult to puzzle out. As horrifying as the crime in question is, though, it's not really what the film is about. Plotwise, the girl's disappearance soon becomes a terrible part of something more pervasive, too large to be contained by just one film, although the story will not feel incomplete after two hours. But even more than the conspiracy, the film is about Eddie and Paula - who they are as people, who they can become, and what they could mean to each other.

Andrew Garfield is just what the movie needs as Eddie; he comes into the movie with a young man's cynicism, resenting how respected his father is, acting like he knows it all despite the fact that he washed out of the big time and makes a fairly serious blunder or two along the way. He's more than a bit of a jerk, and yet, somewhere underneath that, we see the other traits of youth come through - idealism, belief that he can change the world for the better, compassion. It is, in some ways, the reverse of the path one might expect for a movie packed with vice, corruption, and betrayal, and that is part of what makes Garfield's Eddie the most memorable of the series's protagonists; we believe him even as he makes growing up a positive.

It's a bit of time before Rebecca Hall shows up, but she is also oddly captivating. We know who she is, of course; the young mother who has seen everything in her life destroyed is a familiar type. What sets Paula apart is how Hall plays an aspect of the character that screenwriter Tony Grisoni never quite has anybody say out loud, that she is still young and capable of starting over. She never says anything like that, and we never get the sense that she wants to leave any part of her old life behind, but there is a sense that, along with grief, she's oppressed by the town's pity, their inability to see her as anything but the poor woman whose daughter disappeared, and that part of her attraction to Eddie is that, even though he's investigating that disappearance, he's also seeing her as an attractive woman rather than seeing her as incomplete.

The rest of the cast is very good; many won't have their characters fully fleshed-out until later films, but several make an impression: Flanagan's paranoid reporter, John Henshaw's editor, Peter Mullan's friendly and unorthodox preacher. Then there's Cathryn Bradshaw and Sean Bean as the Dawsons. Bradshaw makes wife Marjorie a disturbed wreck, while Bean has bulked up since his leading-man days, and there's a palpable sense of his character's power whenever he walks into a scene.

Interesting, 1974 is the only film in the series to be presented in the standard HD television ratio, at least in the theater where it played in Cambridge, MA. It is a visually arresting film, though, with every inch of the frame putting us into mid-seventies Yorkshire. There's a sense of the poverty and decay, with the coal plants looming over the mining town. A scene where Eddie walks through a gypsy camp that has been burnt down feels like a trip through a war zone. Director Julian Jarrold also does an excellent job of planting things for the other filmmakers to use, without being too obvious about it, even though at least one moment will have the audience kicking themselves for not picking up on it during 1983.

It's a grim story he creates, even if it does have the seeds of redemption inside. If 1974 is all you can see of Red Riding, you'll get a satisfying experience, but, fortunately, there's another three-plus hours of connected crime to look forward too.

Also at eFilmCritic

Red Riding: 1980

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

David Peace's Red Riding novels are described as a quartet, and if you look at the titles to the filmed Red Riding Trilogy, there's clearly a hole where 1977 should be. For whatever reason, screenwriter Tony Grisoni and the producers decided to skip that one, and though its events are referred to in 1980, it is by no means critical to understanding that year's story.

(NOTE: Although I will attempt not to give away too much of 1974 in reviewing 1980, just the presence or absence of certain characters may be considered a spoiler; continue reading at your own risk.)

Full review at eFilmCritic

Red Riding: 1983

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

The finale of a series never stands up well on its own, no matter how well-intentioned the production may be. One can argue that it shouldn't, that by the time we get to the third act, the only people left watching are the ones invested in what has come before. It's a delicate balance, rewarding loyalty on the one side and telling a story that maintains the same satisfying feel of earlier installments. I suspect that Red Riding: 1983 doesn't quite manage the latter, but has a fine enough ending to make it worthwhile.

(NOTE: Although I will attempt not to give away too much of 1974 and 1980 in reviewing 1983, just the presence or absence of certain characters may be considered a spoiler; continue reading at your own risk.)

Full review at eFilmCritic

Thursday, February 25, 2010

This Week In Tickets: 15 February 2010 to 21 February 2010

I may just make Thursday the standard TWIT day, if only because it gives me a chance to mention interesting stuff worth seeing in and around Boston (and elsewhere) without giving them a blog post of their own. And there is a bunch of it this time!

* I'm delighted to see that the Red Riding trilogy is getting a second week at Kendall Square. Hoping for a third would probably be pushing your/my luck, so if you'd like to see a set of three connected English crime movies that are quite good, carve some time out, whether it be a Sunday marathon or mixing and matching showtimes.

* I missed it last week, but the Spike & Mike "Sick and Twisted" and "New Generation" animation shows are running 25-26 February at the Regent Theater in Arlington ("New Generation" 7:30 on Thursday and 9:30 on Friday, vice versa for "Sick and Twisted"). It kind of took me surprise, both because it's very easy to forget that the Regent occasionally runs film programs and because I had sort of figured that Spike & Mike was more or less defunct, selling off their inventory of VHS tapes but not doing much else. Indeed, I figured that the Judge/Herzfeldt "Animation Show" was created in large part because Spike & Mike had closed up shop. Good to see that's not the case.

* Summer Wars will be playing the New York International Children's Film Festival on Friday (26 February 2010), with the director in attendance. I was pretty excited to see it in the New York/Tokyo mailing, since I loved The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, but it's only playing once and a Friday trip to NYC is tough enough in most situations, and just would not have flied with this week at work.

* Chidren of Invention opens at the Brattle, sharing a screen with Antichrist's 10pm shows. I liked Children quite a bit when it played IFFB last year, and have no interest in seeing Antichrist whatsoever.

* The Alloy Orchestra will accompany Man with a Movie Camera Saturday at the Somerville Theater. It's a very cool silent movie, and Alloy tends to get nice restored prints as well as create great scores.

* Bong Joon-ho will be at the Harvard Film Archive to introduce a preview of his new film, Mother, on Sunday (28 February 2010) and his excellent Memories of Murder on Monday (1 March 2010). After that, I presume he heads back to Korea or France or somewhere, although the HFA will be playing The Host and Barking Dogs Seldom Bite on Saturday (6 March 2010).

So now that you've got some idea of where I'll be next week, here's the crowded tally from this week:

This Week In Tickets!

I'm not sure it's a matter of my being too thrifty, technology generally hating me, or what, but I saw my third USB memory card reader in approximately two years crap out this week. Now, the first admittedly died an impact-related death, but the last couple just stopped working. That's three different brands that have given up the ghost on me, mainly related by the fact that I probably maxed out at $15 on them. We'll see if the Sony I picked up at Staples tonight does better by me - or works with my old 1997-era tower.

And, yeah, you can bet that my new computer will have one of those suckers built-in.

Saint John of Las Vegas

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

This one had a short run on the plex's smallest screen, and it's not hard to see why. It's a pretty decent movie, with a good cast, but it's also a weird one, with gambling addict John encountering a variety of bizarre characters both in Albequerque and the outskirts of Las Vegas. in what I'm told is a loose retelling of Dante's Inferno.

It's not a bad hour and a half if you've got patience for the quirky. Steve Buscemi plays John, and he turns in another excellent performance. John's as off-center as any of the characters played by Buscemi's co-stars, but there's a desperation to his eccentricity. His gambling addiction is obviously self-destructive, and John knows this even as he seems incapable of fighting it. We sometimes wince watching him, but he also works as the sane man in a crazy world. It strikes me that it's been a while since we've seen Buscemi as the quirky supporting character in a mainstream movie, and I kind of wonder whether it's a case of him banking the money he made on those to do things like this, or he's been relegated to them because people are casting John C. Reilly in those roles. Whichever the reason is, it's great to see him doing good work.

The Last Station

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2010 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run)

The Last Station is a perfectly adequate sort of historical drama. Nice cast in Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti, and Helen Mirren. Nice production values. Interesting subjects. You may learn something while watching it, whether in terms of history, literature, or philosophy, and it's fairly entertaining.

The thing is, it's got James McAvoy in one of those parts he seems to specialize in: The "viewpoint character", whom the audience is meant to identify with, but whose storyline just winds up taking up space that could be much better spent on the actual interesting characters he interacts with. Here, the extent of his personality is that his character sneezes when he gets nervous. Yeah. That's totally a reason to spend time on him rather than, say, Leo Tolstoy and his wife. Certainly, he learns from watching the Tolstoys' loving but complicated relationship, but there's very little we can get from him that we couldn't get from the source.

Bitch Slap

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2010 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (IFFBoston Presents)

Bitch Slap is energetic, I'll give it that. It piles one fight scene on top of another, tying them together with flashbacks that contain even more action and chaos, jumping from a nice-looking desert to locations that were pretty obviously added by computer. It's also buxom, introducing its three main characters with shots that linger on their breasts and then making sure that, no matter what costume they're wearing, there's plenty of pushed-out cleavage to stare at.

I like both those things, so I'm not complaining. I do wish director Rick Jacobson had just a little bit more craft in tying it together, and maybe a little more talent from his good-looking cast. Julia Voth is the best of the bunch, having a grand time playing the stripper who really isn't into the same sort of physical stuff as her badass companions as the funniest of the bunch, and Erin Cummings might be a pretty good action heroine with a little more practice. America Olivio gets a little tiresome as the bad girl among bad girls; she just seems to be trying too hard.

The action isn't bad at all, though, especially when stunt co-ordinator Zoe Bell gets to take charge of the hand-to-hand stuff. And sure, I really like Ms. Bell (what person who has watched Double Dare and Death Proof couldn't?), but I don't think I'm cutting her any slack; when characters get into it and stunts are done in-camera, the movie's a lot of fun, much more so than during the crazy, over-the-top gunfights or the convoluted story that tries to hide how simple (and kind of dumb) it is by telling things out of order.

From Paris with Love

* * (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2010 at AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run)

And, hey, Bitch Slap is at least better than From Paris with Love, an movie out of Luc Besson's Europacorp action factory that suffers more obviously in comparison to the other Europacorp movie I saw that day, District 13: Ultimatum. That's not to say that Paris is no fun at all, just that for all its rushing from one action bit to the next, it's never a grabber, never really obscuring where its story is kind of dumb and, if not actually racist, uncomfortably close.

The big, obvious fault with it is that one thing Besson and company do really well is to tailor their action movies to their stars' strengths. He does a movie with Jet Li, expect some brutal fights; David Belle, some crazy acrobatics. He figured out that Jason Statham looks good behind the wheel of a car and that Liam Neeson should be intimidating and efficient. What particular strengths do John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys Myers have? Crazy for Travolta, I guess, and good-looking for Myers, and those just don't seem to be enough.

The Red Riding Trilogy

* * * + (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

I will (hopefully) be getting full reviews of these up over the next couple days, so let's just lightning-round them and get this posted:

1974: My favorite of the bunch, laser-focused on one flawed, but interesting and redeemable, character who is in way over his head.

1980: Perhaps suffers a little bit by the non-inclusion of 1977, but it's kind of intriguing to see what has happened with minor characters a few years down the road.

1983: Spends a lot of time flashing back to 1974, to the point where the story in the present suffers a little. But, when the end is approaching and it's time to wrap up five hours of movie, it does deliver an exciting climax.
North FaceSaint John of Las VegasThe Last StationBitch SlapFrom Paris with LoveDistrict 13: UltimatumRed Riding: 1974Red Riding: 1980Red Riding: 1983

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Not long for Boston: North Face & District 13: Ultimatum

Also not long for the area: The Red Riding trilogy, which plays as a marathon on Wednesday and Thursday; if you've got the day off work or can get out early, it is not a bad way to spend a chunk of movie-watching hours. They're all pretty good crime films, and I suspect each could hold up well enough individually, but come together nicely.

I'm really disappointed to see District 13: Ultimatum leaving town after just one week. It's not quite as good as its predecessor, but it's a flat-out fun action/adventure movie, with the sort of physically astonishing athleticism you generally don't see outside of Hong Kong. A few weeks ago, while watching Edge of Darkness, I found myself thinking that even the brief action scenes we saw there wouldn't have been done so well when Mel Gibson first started making movies; as brief as the period of guys like Jackie Chan and Jet Li not only headlining American movies but getting their Hong Kong stuff into theaters was, it left an indelible imprint on Hollywood action: We know what good fighting looks like now.

Still, while you can coax a good fight out of Mel Gibson and the like, the guys like David Belle are pretty unique, and though their work deserves to be seen on the big screen, it's going to be tough to see it that way unless you live in a big city and you act fast. Ultimatum and North Face both end their runs at Kendall Square on Thursday, after a mere one and two weeks respectively, and North Face getting that second week was a matter of relatively strong first-week attendance, as it was only booked for one originally. Red Riding was always only going to get one week, and it was always in a rough position: It's too big a risk to plan for a multi-week run, even though audiences might want to spread it out a bit, but it wasn't going to get any word of mouth until people could finish the trilogy on Sunday, by which point the bookers have to start making decisions about whether it gets extended or not.

But North Face and District 13: Ultimatum should get more butts in seats than they do. They are both tremendously entertaining movies, perfectly suited for mainstream tastes in both subject matter and production values, held back because of how sharply fragmented film is these days. Because these films have subtitles, they are consigned to different distributors, different sets of cinemas, and even get reported on by different websites. Occasionally, lucky circumstances will allow for a crossover hit, but that's becoming very rare. More often, what happens is what happened with D13:U - the audience for action/adventure doesn't even know to look at the listings for Kendall Square, because they assume it's all snooty art films, and the audience that goes to Kendall Square has little interest in a movie where people run, jump, and kick each other.

And then, when they finally hit DVD, they get shelved not in "Action", "Comedy", or "Drama", but "Foreign", and missed by a whole new group of people.

So here's what I'd like anybody reading this blog to do: Take your friends to a fun foreign movie. If you're in Boston, you've got these two through Thursday; you may have to hit video in smaller towns. The original District 13 is a pretty good choice. Just spread the word that subtitles don't equal boring - in fact, what makes it over here tends to be the cream of the crop, much better on average than what hits multiplexes.

Nordwand (North Face)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2010 in Landmark Theaters Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

I saw a poster advertising a mini festival of "climbing movies" in the same theater where I saw North Face, and the fact that most of us can instantly deduce what that means probably counts as a strike against this one by those looking for something unique in their moviegoing expeditions. I admit, seeing several in rapid succession would probably be a somewhat repetitive experience, but spread them out a bit, find an interesting perspective, and handle the technical aspects well, and seeing something like North Face can be exhilarating.

It is 1935. The north face of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps has never been ascended; indeed, the most recent attempt has taken the lives of the climbers. The surge of German interest in sport with the upcoming Olympic games leads for popular calls for a German team to conquer this challenge, with the most promising being a pair of Bavarian mountain rangers, Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andreas "Andi" Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas). The pragmatic Kurz is against it, although his opinion is swayed somewhat when their childhood friend Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek) visits from the big city, saying that the paper she works for would like to cover their ascent. Naturally, Kurz and Hinterstoisser won't be the only ones making the attempt; among the others are Edi Rainer (Georg Friedrich) and Willy Angerer (Simon Schwarz), Austrians but Party members. And there wouldn't be a movie if nothing went horribly wrong.

Interestingly, the film does not actually start off with the climbers, but with Luise. We see her staring longingly at a top-of-the-line camera in a storefront and then treated with a certain amount of condescension by senior writer Henry Arau (Ulrich Tukur). In many ways, even though the latter half of the film is the expected story of danger and survival, she is its central character, and her story is the one that we'll be thinking about once the movie ends: As friendly and charming as Luise is, there's something the tiniest bit predatory about her first meetings with Toni and Andi; she is, after all, asking them to do something extremely dangerous in part for the advancement of her career. And while director Philipp Stölzl and his co-writers only occasionally hammer the point home, the scenes with Fellner and Arau have interesting things to say about the press - both as being sensationalistic and how they can function as propagandists, even when not directly being directed by outside hands.

(It's actually a relatively unique use of the Nazis on film, at least in my memory. Though the Party is referenced, and it's clear that they not only exert an influence on much of German life, but are making their presence felt on a larger scale - the annexation of Austria is an important piece of background - they are not yet the overt, in-your-face monsters we remember. They're still at the insidious stage, when many might not yet realize how thoroughly dangerous they are.)

Despite the potentially mercenary image we might have of Luise early on, she actually winds up being a pretty easy character to fall for. After all, she's got a storyline to go through and grow with, and the filmmakers opt against glamming her up even as much as a Hollywood girl-next-door. There's something very authentic about her, just one-of-the-guys enough that it's believable she might get involved in the rescue efforts later, but also plays nicely opposite Tukur's Arau. He's also interesting to watch, not particularly corrupt but still somewhat complicit in the business of journalism not matching Luise's ideals. Friedrich and Schwarz have a nice dynamic as the Austrian team shadowing Toni and Andi, especially Schwarz as the tunnel-visioned Willy. In comparison, stars Fürmann and Lukas almost seem a little bland, though they play their confident, capable characters well.

What Andi and Toni perhaps lack in the way of personal flaws is countered by how they get to do the bulk of the exciting adventure story. Stölzl takes his time getting us to the mountain, taking great care to establish the unique location, giving us reasons to take the danger involved seriously, and teaching us about not just mountain climbing, but how it was done in the 1930s. It's hardly safe now, but we immediately see what disadvantages climbers then were at, with homemade pitons, ropes that fray versus today's nylon cord, etc. The information is presented organically, demonstrated as Toni and Andi prepare as opposed to being a lecture.

And then, once on the mountain, we see plenty that is stunning and terrifying. the photography by Kolja Brandt is top-notch, capable of showing us the beauty of the environment while also demonstrating just what the dangers are. Stölzl stages things so that we get a sense of were things are in relation to each other so that distances spouted by characters mean things, and everything we've learned about climbing comes into play as the danger increases. The make-up guys do a fantastic job as well, not just in making frostbite look realistically nasty, but subtler things like how Andi and Toni appear sun- and windburned from the start, as actual climbing enthusiasts generally would.

Are these somewhat familiar ingredients to a man-versus-mountain movie? Absolutely. What Stölzl does to make it noteworthy is to execute flawlessly, not just in building exceptional tension during the life-or-death situations high above the earth, but to work Luise Fellner and her story in just enough not to distract from that drama but to give the audience a little more to think about.

It's a tricky balance, making a story of journalistic morals a central part of the movie without it seeming petty compared to the story's other half; maybe as tricky in its own way as climbing an imposing edifice. It's what makes North Face stand out in a range of climbing movies as worthy of audience's attention.

Also at HBS

Banlieue 13 - Ultimatum (District 13: Ultimatum)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2010 in Landmark Theaters Kendall Square #3 (first-run)

I hate to be a scold about such things, but I saw District 13: Ultimatum back-to-back with From Paris with Love (well, back-to-back with time to walk from one theater to another). Both came from Luc Besson's action-movie factory, and the director of Paris actually directed the first District 13 film. One featured heavily-doubled Americans, while the other had French guys doing amazingly athletic things. One was still playing a few mainstream theaters after being in release a few weeks; the other just getting one week in a boutique house which doesn't really draw fans of pure popcorn movies. Why? Because for some reason, when American audiences go to a movie looking for action, they actually care what language the actors are speaking enough to choose John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys Myers over Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle.

Those who saw 2004's District 13 know what Raffaelli and Belle are capable of, and as Ultimatum picks up three years later (in 2016), nothing has really changed. Though France has a new President, D13 is still walled off. Belle's Leito still lives there, trying to blast down the walls separating it from Paris; Raffaelli's Damien is still an undercover cop. Crimelords such as MC Jean Gab'1's Molko aren't too unhappy with the arrangement - they go about their business more or less in peace, and D13 supports the city's more tight-knit ethnic neighborhoods - but that neglect isn't going to last forever. Walter Gassman (Daniel Duval), head of the Department of Internal State Security, sees prime real estate for development, and figures that the best way to go about that is to start a riot where DISS must go in and take control.

The story is more than a little silly, and that's before getting to some of the details. In some ways, it's more than a little obvious what Besson, his co-writers, and director Patrick Alessandrin are trying to say about gentrification - in some ways, it's the thematic follow-up to John Carpenter's Escape From New York, where the white flight of decades past is now being thrown into reverse, with a Starbucks on every corner and rents that price the locals out of their homes. The film's heart is in the right place about this most of the time, although it sometimes misses the line between "better a vibrant neighborhood with gangsters than a mall full of yuppies" and "gangsters are awesome!", and it more or less completely stops practicing what it preaches toward the end for one last (offscreen!) bang. Plus, well, it's hard to get a message taken seriously when you start off with an action scene featuring the top cop in curiously effective drag.

That action scene is fun as heck, though, as are the later ones. They're built around what Raffaelli and Belle can do, and that's a lot: Raffaelli is really good at the marital arts, as well as a top-notch stunt coordinator, while Belle is the inventor of parkour, a form of "free running" that stresses getting from point A to point B in the most efficient manner possible. So we see Belle's Leito making a bunch of crazy jumps and squeezing through tight spots as DISS agents chase him through the city, and Raffaelli's Damien goes Jackie Chan on the various thugs around him with whatever happens to be available (especially a priceless work of art which he's mentioned cannot be allowed to be scratched). Alessandrin does a good job of hitting the right tone with these action scenes, too - they're often playful and silly enough to make the audience laugh, but played out with enough skill to make the pulse race a bit.

Part of that comes from the cast. As mentioned before, Raffaelli and Belle have more background in stuntwork than acting, but they've got easy on-screen charisma and play off each other well here, even without the adversarial pairing of the first movie. Elodie Yung, MC Jean Gab'1, and the other folks playing gangsters add color to the goings-on, both literally and figuratively; they're fun to watch and remind us that D13 is multicultural. Daniel Duval isn't quite so gloriously evil as the first film's Taha, but he is enjoyable scummy, and Pierre-Marie Mosconi is suitably imposing as his lead enforcer.

District 13 - Ultimatum isn't quite the holy-crap-I've-never-seen-this experience of its predecessor - like when Hollywood finally took notice of Hong Kong in the 1990s, parkour sequences have been integrated into recent James Bond and Die Hard installments. The difference is that Raffaelli and Belle can do it without the camera having to fool us, making for smoother, more amazing action. Yeah, they're speaking French, but what's more important, familiar faces tossing off one-liners without subtitles, or people who are really good at action doing action well?

Also at HBS

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, Days 10-11: The Marathon

I did some live-tweeting during the marathon, and since I've seen most of this stuff (and even written longer reviews for many of them) before, this will just mostly be a bunch of links.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2010 in Somerville Theater #1 (SF/35)

I tweeted: "Have now seen "Moon" with appreciative fesival audiences at #sxsw and #sf35. It remains '09's best."

And truth be told, I think I liked it even more, seeing it again, than I did at SXSW, and I wrote about it twice: Once the day after I saw it, and again a couple weeks later. A year ago, I half-suspected that I liked it as much as I did because it's the sort of movie I'm naturally inclined to love. Seeing it again, with a second large, packed auditorium enraptured(*), I realized: Yes, it really is that good.

(*) Except for the guys yelling "Mark!" whenever that rover's name was mentioned. I can lack patience with the 'thon's sillier traditions even when they seem vaguely appropriate, but mess with Moon...

Colossus: The Forbin Project

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2010 in Somerville Theater #1 (SF/35)

I tweeted: "Colossus" looks much better in 35mm than the P&S DVD played at the Brattle last year.

Colossus at the Brattle last spring may not actually be most disappointed I've been when going to see a movie in 2009, at least where presentation is concerned, but it's up there. There was no indication that the film would be presented on video as opposed to film, and an ancient cropped DVD at that. Fortunately, the 'thon managed to scrape up a nice 35mm print, and even though that doesn't excuse some of the severe stupidity inherent in the story (would anyone who has actually used a computer seriously build one that could not be turned off or debugged? The things being infallible is something that no-one with experience seriously considers!), it's a major improvement, especially considering how many shots in this movie take full advantage of the full Panavision screen.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2010 in Somerville Theater #1 (SF/35)

I tweeted: So, anyone still object to #sf35 including "9" on the grounds of it being a "kiddie movie"?

There had been some kvetching about that on the Boston Sci-Fi message board, with Garen actually using "kiddie film" to describe it in the introduction, which seemed to indicate that these people had not actually seen the movie. I found myself liking it a little more than I did back in September. Maybe I was comparing it with itself rather than with the half-remembered (but brilliant) short. It's got its problems, but it's eye-poppingly amazing. I also find myself wishing that this had been made in 3-D; it seems to be one of the few CGI movies that wasn't, and it's too bad, because that would have really suited this film.

The Giant Gila Monster

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2010 in Somerville Theater #1 (SF/35)

I tweeted: "They came back, but the start of 'Giant Gila Monster' emptied the balcony." and "I don't support excessive violence, just enough beatings of people with laser pointers to send a message."

The first really not-good movie of the marathon, and with the film starting at about quarter past five, maybe folks felt that this would be a good time to go get some supper or fresh air. It became a ghost town up in the balcony. The folks still in their seats downstairs kept some chatter up, though, including using laser pointers, which seems to cross a line that mockery doesn't. Maybe because the guys auditioning for Mystery Science Theater 3000 are at least ostensibly reacting to what they're seeing honestly, while the jerks with the pointers are just saying "look at me!"

As bad movies go, though, The Giant Gila Monster is pretty inoffensive. It's just too darn cheerful and lacking in cynicism to really hate.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2010 in Somerville Theater #1 (SF/35)

I tweeted: "Jim Henson was a cinematic anarchist of the first order."

Which isn't as good as what I said when I last saw Labyrinth in 2005: "Labyrinth is a good film in spite of the many ways in which it is really, really awful." Jennifer Connelly is not yet anywhere near a place where she can elevate a bad script, and Henson and company ain't giving her much to work with. They do, however, surround her with new Muppets and give David Bowie the David Bowiest role imaginable. It's crazy in the way the best Henson stuff is: Lovable, full of broad slapstick, utterly chaotic and paced in such a way as there can be no complaints.

Man, I miss Jim Henson.

I then proceeded to leave the theater for a couple hours, as they were doing the trivia contest (I'm shocked there were only three perfect answers. Most everyone in the auditorium had access to Box or something similar, capable of sucking any information off the internet through the air and into your hands) and a reprise of Thursday night's program. I opted for dinner at Mike's across the street (Boston Burger Company had just closed), and found out that apparently a "Meat & Cheese Calzone" there includes spinach. Yuck.

District 9

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2010 in Somerville Theater #1 (SF/35)

I tweeted: "'District 9' - still pretty decent, once you get past the #spoilers motor oil mutating a human thing."

and: "I mean, MOTOR OIL. Made without knowledge of the human race it works perfectly on!"

... seriously, doesn't this bother anyone else? I mentioned that last August, and I guess it still kind of bugs me. One thing I noticed is that this time around, I was seeing it much more as an action movie than any kind of commentary on South Africa and/or apartheid.

District 9 was followed by the Alien Mating Call contest, which needs to end, and a set of performances by the Black Cat Burlesque. Honestly, that was a bit disappointing. Maybe if I were up closer, it would have been more impressive, but the thing that sticks out the most was that the dancer seemed to have problems with her costume, having to sit to get the boots off.

The Thing

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2010 in Somerville Theater #1 (SF/35)

I think I last saw this a couple years ago, and damn if it isn't still a sort of perfect horror movie. The environment wants you dead, there's monsters, there's paranoia about your fellow man, a creepy Ennio Morricone score, amazing creature effects...

There's apparently a remake or prequel or something being made, and I have to laugh at the folks who complain that a remake can't possibly equal "the original". They make the wrong point: This is, more or less, a remake of The Thing from Another World, and it's clearly superior, but the fact that this is such a great movie is what makes a new edition such a tall order.

The Lathe of Heaven

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2010 in Somerville Theater #1 (SF/35, video projection)

I tweeted: "If I'm dragging during Carpenter's "The Thing", "Lathe of Heaven" will demand caffeination."

And... Honestly, not so much. It's not as visceral as The Thing, but it's a darn good movie, with shocks and surprises of its own that were as amazing as anything else we saw during the marathon. Enjoyment was hampered by some issues with the digital file being projected. If I were the type to make call-outs, I might have gone with "It Just Works!" every time we saw the conspicuously Apple-labeled screen that appeared when the movie froze and had to be restarted. An Apple-loving crowd might not have liked that, though.

It was weird to see young Bruce Davison, though. These days, he's got a very specific niche he fills: Silver-haired, somewhere between a father figure and an authority figure in cheap sci-fi productions. He was the father on the recent Knight Rider revival, and he always seems to be doing some variation on that. Still, he was really good here, in a movie that for the longest time was just as famous for its unavailability as its quality.

Night of the Creeps

N/A (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2010 in Somerville Theater #1 (SF/35)

I tweeted: "Rats. I slept through a bunch of 'Night of the Creeps', despite it looking like more fun than the usual schlock homage."

... and there's not much more you can say than that. It was 4am, I had just about reached the end of what I could take, and this is where I dozed through no fault of the movie. Maybe I'll catch up with it sometime, but I kind of figure that the 'thon is the ideal environment for it; much more so than watching it at home.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2010 in Somerville Theater #1 (SF/35)

I tweeted: "Love 'Rabid', but think it would have been funny to play it right after the burlesque for the mixed message."

... because one minute, we're supposed to be enjoying unabashed sexuality, and the next, terrified by it. Although I re-iterate what I said when reviewing it a couple years ago when the Brattle did a grindhouse series: What's terrifying about Rose in Rabid is not that she attacks during sex, but that she's most poised to strike when she hugs someone. That's just even worse; we're not supposed to feel guilty about that.

The Day the Sky Exploded

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2010 in Somerville Theater #1 (SF/35)

I tweeted: "'The Day the Sky Exploded' sets a benchmark for how boring global catastrophe can be."

This movie is seriously boring, from the opening where a space mission goes awry after being presented in the dullest possible way almost through to the end. The acting is terrible, the danger is kept too abstract... Nothing works.

Night of the Comet

* * (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2010 in Somerville Theater #1 (SF/35)

I think I'd seen bits of this twice - once on TV when it was relatively new, and a few years ago when it popped up again as co-star Robert Beltran had resurfaced in a similarly thankless role on Star Trek: Voyager (but, then, wasn't everything about that show pretty thankless?). It's not good, and in a frustrating way, because it has a pretty likable star in Catherine Mary Stewart, a couple good and scary ideas, and a potentially nifty hook.

For me, it just doesn't come together. The tone always seems to be just off, or the acting on the part of the leads isn't quite up to what writer/director Thom Eberhardt is trying to do.

I think I'd really like to see this one remade, and not because I'd like to take a crack at the screenplay. It seems like there's something there, but it could be done so much better.

... And once this ended, I left. I considered sticking around for Sleep Dealer, but if they were just going to run the same commercial Blu-ray that they did a week earlier, well, crap, I was tired and hungry. And so I went home, made myself a burger, and then somehow kept from crashing until about 3pm, at which point the fatigue hit me like a ton of bricks.

Kind of like now, with it nearing midnight after a mere four movies within twenty-four hours.

Friday, February 19, 2010

This Week In Tickets: 8 February 2010 to 14 February 2010

Late. What can I say, the sci-fi marathon ate Sunday and Monday, then my company laptop started acting bizarre, in a way that made me glad I'm not prone to seizures or prone to believing in things like machines being demonically possessed. Between the flickering and shutting down and restarting on its own, that freaked me out.

I may have to finally buy myself a new machine of my own. My desktop is ten years old, at least (it runs Windows 95), and I never use it any more. But I'm starting to think that getting one with a Blu-ray drive and HDMI port would allow me to kill a few birds with one stone: My Blu-ray player kind of stinks, I don't have a region-free DVD player, and my SlingCatcher is unreliable.

Plus, I love the springiness of the keyboard of the loaner I'm using. I got so used to mushy.

This Week In Tickets!

Stubless (individually): The 2010 Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival screenings - Little Space Oddities shorts, Extra-Terrestrial Extravaganza shorts, Planetary Paranoia shorts, Famous Monster and other shorts, Lunopolis, and Ink (all in the Somerville Theater video room)

Run-down of the marathon will come after this and be included in next week's This Week, because this thing is running late enough as it is and, hey, I think I technically watched more of it on Monday than I did Sunday.

Fish Tank

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

Mia (Katie Jervis) is one angry young lady. She's got a mother (Kierston Wareing) who doesn't seem interested in acting her age, an obnoxious sister (Rebecca Griffiths), and is on the outs with her best friend. The closest thing she's got to an outlet is practicing hip-hop dance in an empty flat, at least until her mother's new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), shows up.

Yes, this is absolutely a movie about how a girl who has never known much besides aggravation is likely to read a lot into someone being nice or encouraging to her. It's a good one, though, because Katie Jervis is fantastic. She's got to be, because she's in just about every scene, playing a character who could easily get on the audience's nerves because anger is potentially pretty monotonous. She and Andrea Arnold come up with ways to make her more, hints that she doesn't want to be angry, even if she sometimes can't help giving in to her worst impulses.

And I suspect she'll find some way past it; even if she does do something terrible at one point, there's also the dance audition scene to counter it. I didn't realize while watching it, but it's instructive in that a lot of girls like Mia would probably do something different; their anger and frustration metastasizing into self-loathing. For all her faults, we see her as a little stronger than that, even if we don't immediately recognize what that scene means.

The Wolfman

* * (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2010 at AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run)

My internet (and occasional film festival) friend Scott reacted to The Wolfman with a piece on why werewolves are inherently lame. I'm not exactly in his corner on this one; I think that there's good stories to be told about submerged and released fury and lust in werewolf stories, and a potentially great gang metaphor, though it's not always done particularly well.

Take this movie as an example. Director Joe Johnston does just about everything he can to make a movie that is both a slick product of the twenty-first century and a loving throwback to the Universal Monsters classics, but he's hobbled by his main character. Somewhere, between the script (by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self) and Benicio Del Toro's sleepwalking performance, we miss any hint that there's anger or passion in Lawrence Talbot, ready to burst out. When the curse does fall on him, it's just random outbursts of bloody violence. At least Anthony Hopkins gets a chance to convince us that the beast is a part of his character. He's chewing scenery, but at least he doesn't stop the movie dead like Del Toro does.

And it's not his fault that the movie ends on a terrible anti-climax. The big brawl between the Talbots is over before it starts, and what goes on after that with Lawrence, the Scotland Yard man set to figure out what's going on (Hugo Weaving), and the love interest (Emily Blunt)... Well, it's not just that it doesn't mean anything compared to the previous scene, but it doesn't make any sense. One minute we're hearing about how there may be a way out (which seems to be what's driving Blunt's character), the next there's none, and it's silver bullet time.

(And, let's be honest - are silver bullets that much more exciting than regular bullets in a movie? It's not like you can tell the difference!)

Disappointing; with all this movie had going into it, something much better should have come out.
Monday: Little Space OdditiesTuesday: Extra-Terrestrial ExtravaganzaWednesday: Planetary ParanoiaThursday: Famous Monster and ConlangFriday: LunopolisFish TankThe Wolfman

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, Days 4-7: Short stuff

I'm going to whip through these fairly quickly, since it can be difficult to say a lot about short films without just giving them away, and because the combination of marathon-induced sleep deprivation and truly amazing computer problems (it's always a pleasure when the IT guys take a look at what your machine's doing and say "that's a new one!") has me running well behind where I want to be on writing things.

It's also a bit odd that I saw most of these shorts more than once, between the screening group meetings and the festival, and a second look can sometimes change maybe not what I think of a film, but the degree to which it is felt. This is particularly true of shorts: If a feature length film is being told a story, a short is almost like being told a joke (even the serious ones), and the impact can be greatly blunted if you know the punchline ahead of time.

Little Space Oddities
Seen 8 February 2010 in the Somerville Theater Digital Screening Room (DVD)

"Theosaurology" - * * ¾ (out of four)
A cute animated film from the Rhode Island School of Design that substitutes a great deal of enthusiasm for polish. It's madcap, although the way it integrates its animation into a book is pretty clever despite the apparent crudeness of the drawing.

"Empathy" - * * *
A familiar but fairly well-done Twilight Zone-type story with an ending you can likely guess very early on from the title, but it's mostly very well done. I think it also works as well as it does because in the places where, like a lot of short films, it's a little rough around the edges, that imperfection works: The overdone callousness of a drunk driver may be bad acting or it may be a trick of memory; the flat tone another character uses potentially shows a little more cruelty.

"The Package" - * * *
The gag is obvious, but built up to quite nicely. I do think that the short could have been improved a little with some sort of establishing shot that establishes the time period as the 1980s or 1990s, so that using VHS makes sense.

"Destination Day" - * * ¾
The opening hook, about how various cities have at one time or another announced "time traveler conventions" only to have nobody show up (suggesting that time travel is impossible), is neat, but the actual story, about a man traveling back in time to make things work with a girl he likes, doesn't work that well beyond a couple of jokes. It finishes on a visual gag that's clever, but doesn't quite fit into this particular story.

"Operation: Blast! - * * * ½
Just the cutest widdle stop-motion action thing ever, with tiny "Talibots" infiltrating an American house and soldier robots coming to stop them. Cartoony fun, with the robots having personality that comes out in body language and the subtitles to their beeping dialogue.

"VHS Reporter" - * *
My friend Tony once described something like this, and I've appropriated it: "There's quirky, and there's random. I'm fine with quirky, but can't stand random." (Actually, he was quoting a friend of his, but we'll stop there.) "VHS Reporter" is random, a bunch of odd behaviors stitched together with the punchline being why these guys are so weird, but it's not actually that funny or clever.

"Dimensional Meltdown" - * * * ½
I really liked this one, but it's got a few problems that I understand why some don't. Either the photography or the encoding is wonky, too dark at times, and it moves quickly enough, with relatively little exposition, that it's possible to miss what's actually going on: A man traveling to a parallel universe where his girlfriend was not lost tragically, to take the place of his local doppelganger, only to find he's not the only one with that idea. Still, I kind of love its fast pace and willingness to let the audience figure out what's going on compared the awkward telling-over-showing a lot of shorts with somewhat complicated ideas go for.

"Frank Dancoolo: Paranormal Drug Dealer" - * * ½
Here's the thing with "Frank Dancoolo": We had it in one of the screening deals, and my comments there were something along the lines of how you can see that there's a bunch of talent at work, but it's trying too hard, and it could be better if it didn't rely on the crutch of self-parody. I was apparently the only one who felt that way, though, and at the next meeting they pulled it out again, to watch as a "bonus"... And on a second view, I hated every second of it. I tend to think that camp is what people do when they can't actually manage wit, and that was all I could see on the second run-through.

On this, the third, I think I was better able to see it does well, but there's still a fair chunk in it that is pretty stupid. Fortunately, there's about as much that is pretty funny.

Extra-Terrestrial Extravaganza
Seen 9 February 2010 in the Somerville Theater Digital Screening Room (DVD)

"Perfect Companion" - * * ¾
A little on-the-nose at times - it never misses an opportunity to insert the title into the dialogue, for instance - but otherwise, a pretty good example of how it's tought to have everything in a relationship.

"Escape from Death Planet" - * * ¾
I wouldn't be shocked if this was mainly done as a visual effects highlight reel - a demo tape for the CGI industry. The technical stuff is pretty impressive for a short, although the acting is, well, not great, to the point of me thinking that most of the dialogue was ADRed (everyone wears mouth-obscuring helmets).

Also, I was kind of expecting a pull-back of some sort to show that the entire thing takes place inside a classic Atari Centipede arcade machine.

"Type A" - * * *
Relatively lax maintenance standards at a cryonic storage facility leads to zombie issues. The filmmakers do a nice job with sets and make-up, and there's a pretty nice cast, but I get the feeling that this is one that was originally written longer, and as they confronted their budget, wound up getting pared down to the point where audiences have to make some leaps to figure out how the story got from point A to point B.

"Mr. Bojagi" - * * ¼
Scores the biggest casting coup of all the shorts, with Brian Blessed as the title character, and his expansive personality fills the short to overflowing (although Hildegarde Neil is just as good as the old woman who visits his gift-exchange desk. The filmmakers have a nifty, if fuzzy, idea, but don't quite have a real story to go with it, and director Marco Van Belle isn't quite up to reigning Blessed in a bit when he needs it. Still, it's a spiffy-looking short and a nice cast.

"All Systems Go, Neil Armstrong" - * * ½
A music video that has some decent animation. Harmless, kind of forgettable.

"The Kirkie" - * * * ½
This is one of those fan-made productions that announces its geek cred by dropping a dozen references per minute. It veers perilously close at various points to both pandering and biting the hands that feeds it, but on the balance actually winds up as a solid little comedy. The filmmakers are smart enough to recognize that you can't just quote something and expect people to laugh, but there has to be an actual joke there.

"The Latest Thing" - * * *
Takes a pretty simple concept - brain firmware updates, and why our experience with this sort of thing on computers should make us wary of it. Jumps from joke to joke without messing around, and while not all of them work, enough do to make it worthwhile.

"Enigma" - * * * ¼
It's too bad there aren't anthology series left on TV, because at 42 minutes, "Enigma" is just the right length to slip into a one-hour time slot, and probably has better visual effects than the average episode of the Showtime/Sci-fi version of The Outer Limits. It wouldn't be a bad way to get it in front of a larger audience, either.

It's pretty good, if a bit schizophrenic. The framing sequences, set in a Pentagon-equivalent back on Earth, are more than a little stilted, but the scenes on board the spaceship transporting an alien prisoner are impressive as heck: Good fight choreography, plenty of effects, a ship that feels as built-out and real as Serenity, and good acting all around. It's an impressive achievement, and here's hoping the people involved get to jump to the next level soon.

Planetary Paranoia
Seen 10 February 2010 in the Somerville Theater Digital Screening Room (DVD)

"Sita" - * *
I won't lie to you - I only remember the tiniest scraps of this one. I do, however, remember thinking it was kind of full of itself even while watching it.

"Rats" - * * ¾
Post-apocalyptic world, people living in isolation, suddenly something breaks down. The movie is based on an Italian comic, and it does have that Eurocomic feel to it: Grimy and dirty, philosophical without seeming full of itself like, say, anime often does, almost eager to not worry about being friendly. It generally does all right, although the ending lacks a bit of pop, because it can't quite surmount how twist endings aren't surprising if a downer twist is so much the default as to be expected.

"1:03 AM" - * * * ½
I like this one quite a bit. It posits a pretty good spec-fic premise - "what if you could get a license to commit a crime, but only in a very narrow time frame?" - but is short and punchy enough that the audience doesn't have much chance to start wondering just how this becomes a possibility. It's acted well-enough and has bits of dark, dark comedy. And it pulls a nifty little trick at the ending that gives the audience a little bit to debate: I think the hesitation was deliberate, in order to show that he feels strongly enough to be charged with a crime, but it's absolutely up for debate.

"The Replicant" - * * *
Well-enough done bit about how the logistics and ethics behind uploading one's consciousness into immortal android bodies is going to have messy ethical and logistical complications. I did want a little more from it - does the replicant feel guilty at the end? What implications does either a positive or negative answer to that question have? Would the alternative have been tenable in any way? But I suspect that those are questions for a feature rather than a short.

"Die Schneider Krankheit" - * * * ¾
I liked this one quite a bit when I saw it at Fantasia last year (attached to Mutants), and I found it holds up. Something about the film being into German and then overdubbed into Spanish makes it even more sinister, and the production design and re-creation of 1950s propaganda/educational films feels dead-on. That way, it's able to get a creepy vibe out of something that might otherwise come across as silly, only coming across as something other than dead serious for moments at the end.

"Under God" - * * * ½
This one is a slick, highly polished speculative story about President Eisenhower inspecting UNIVAC and being initially dismissive. The actor playing the lead is a pretty convincing likeness, although the answer to the President's question (and a bit of what comes before) likely owes more to Colossus: The Forbin Project than the real (or projected) ability of computers in the 1950s.

Interestingly, at the test screening, one person came up with an alternate take to the ending - that Eisenhower was capitulating, rather than bolstering his beliefs. I was a little more intrigued by that idea the second time through, although his attitude on leaving the building doesn't really seem to suggest it to me.

"Afterglow" - * * * ¼
One thing I notice on writing all these reviews in reasonably consecutive order: Film-makers, especially when doing shorts, shouldn't use a framing sequence unless it really adds something. There's really not room in this ten-minute piece for a second environment and set of characters, and it pulls us away from what had been a solid, even haunting, story of just how an invasion by (presumably) shapeshifting aliens would mess us up.

"Oxygen" - * * *
This one kind of has the same story as "Rats", but I like it a bit better. There's a feeling of realism to its world, even in the little details. It's got a twist, one that's kind of obvious, but it doesn't try to spring it on the audience as a "gotcha" moment; it plays into the story organically. And it's got a really nice handle on human behavior - we get the sense that even though the main character has figured out what is going on, he's not ready to actually act on it until there's no choice in the matter.

"Lifeline" - * * * ¾
My reaction to this when seeing the test screening was something along the lines of "2001 in the style of Bill Plympton". It's pretty close to that visually, and I rather love it for having that sort of combination between mechanical detail and abstract trippiness. And as much as I hate to be the guy who says "the cool sci-fi stuff isn't as important as the emotional content", this one is bolstered by being metaphorically dead-on about the need to take risks in one's life.

"El ataque de los robots de nebulosa-5" ("Attack of the Nebula-5 Robots") - * * *

Not, in fact, terribly science-fictional, despite the name - there's a 90% chance that it's not about a kid with advance knowledge of a robot invasion, but a sad kid who hates the world and has built a delusion around it. Pretty good for that sort of thing, with a few excellent mean-but-funny moments.

Fanac Stuff
Seen 11 February 2010 in the Somerville Theater Digital Screening Room (DVD)

"Frank Dancoolo: Paranormal Drug Dealer" - * * ½
Enough already!!! And you say it's going to be in the marathon, too?

"Conlang" - * * *
This covers reasonably similar ground as "The Kirkie" - jokes taken from the at-times insular world of fandom, this time the subculture being folks who study and create synthetic languages. It's fun, and a neat sort of hook for a story that could be pretty generic - geeky guy getting pushed around and shy around the girl he likes. It works better than most because the languages are a great little metaphor for not being able to say what you want, and it's a vein of comic material that hasn't really been mined except as easy mocker. There's some of that here, but the mockery is pretty light, and the characters in the end are explicitly unapologetic for how they enjoy creating words and grammars.

"Famous Monster" - * * ¾
Confession time: Forrst J Ackerman and his Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine has a spot of honor on the list of people, places, and things that you might expect me to love, given all my other interests, but which I don't. Don't get me wrong, I recognize his contributions, and am grateful for them, but on an gut-reaction level, he really doesn't do a lot for me. Also on this list: Heinlein juveniles, Tron, Charlie Chaplin, the 1967 Impossible Dream Team, the history of the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, and Pulp Fiction.

So, I'm not going to love this documentary based on its subject matter alone, and it's the type of doc that is made by people who love the subject matter and likely expect the same sort of affection from the audience. It's not a bad documentary - it's a fairly good overview of Ackerman's life - but it's also the type where I wonder about how certain things are presented. When things go badly for Ackerman, for instance, it always seems to be things that happened to him, presented as if he were a passive bystander, rather than someone whose decisions might have led to the situation. That sort of thing.

If you're a fan of Ackerman and Famous Monsters, that's fine. And it's not a negative otherwise; I get the impression that he genuinely is a nice guy and, heck yes, I'd love to get a chance to sit down and chat with a sci-fi fan who met H.G. Wells sometime. "Famous Monster" is a pretty good proxy for that, and might be even better if you're already fond of the guy.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, Days 8-9: Lunopolis, Ink

Not spending a lot of time here, as I really should head out for Davis Square now for the Marathon. I'll cover that and Days 4-7 (the shorts) once I get back and get some sleep, but I'll be doing a little live-blogging of it on my Twitter feed, at least as log as Box has a charge in its battery. I see some others will be too; look for the hashtags #BostonSciFiFestival and #SF35.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 February 2010 in the Somerville Theater Digital Screening Room (DVD)

Fair warning: I was part of the group screening potential entries for this festival, and Lunopolis was one of the ones I watched and commented on. That's not just a warning that this could potentially be viewed as me further pushing a movie that I've already advocated for once, but to relate a story about it: We were watching samples of movies, and Lunopolis was the one where we wanted to see a bit more, all the way to the end.

It starts with a strange video, apparently showing some sort of paranormal event. From there we back up twelve days, to 9 December 2012, where two guys who moonlight as paranormal investigators in Redwater, Louisiana - Matt (Matthew Avant) and Sonny (Hal Maynor) - have received a box of strange things from a radio host who got them from a guy claiming to work at Area 51. Most is indecipherable, but numbers scribbled on a Polaroid turn out to be GPS co-ordinates of an abandoned houseboat, which hides the entrance to a secret base where they find a strange machine. Doctor Orin Raymond (Ray Blum), a professor of "Alternative Sciences", helps them investigate, and the trail leads to the mysterious Church of Lunology, with their best source being David James (Dave Potter), who claims to be a "lunar escapee".

We follow Matt and Sonny primarily through their own documentary footage, although unlike many of these faux-found-footage films, they get pretty good coverage, as it's established early on that the pair are documenting their work to the point of having two and sometimes three camera people with them at all times. This allows the filmmakers to cut it together much like a standard narrative feature, although the variable quality keeps the homemade feel. Unlike many films of this type, the filmmakers spend some time and resources building it out, adding documentary elements graphics and interviews with experts.

Indeed, at some points in the midsection,the movie is a little too filled with that stuff as we get a pretty massive amount of information on the Church of Lunology and their tenets. It is, perhaps, necessary: Lunopolis is a Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory story, and its GUCT is more complex than most that try to fit within such a relatively compact work, involving not just Roswell and Area 51, but Atlantis, a secret base of people on the Moon, something akin to alien astronauts, and time travel. Throwing that last one in there has the potential to make everything a complete, incomprehensible mess, but I think that ultimately, it holds up. It may take a little stretching by the viewer to wrap their brains around it, but I think most will manage.

If so, they'll probably be impressed with the scale of the story for the budget, considering that this is something perilously close to backyard filmmaking: Co-star Matthew Avant also writes, directs, and performs many of the other jobs, while the camera operators appear to be family, based on the shared last name. Maynor shares some of the work and does a good chunk of the rest, including some better-than-good-enough visual effects and graphics. Nothing hugely flashy, but always a good fit for their relatively lo-res media. I suspect it helps that they likely had a much tighter script than many faux-docs, and that helps immensely in keeping the movie relatively quick-paced.

As one might expect from a locally made, tiny-budgeted film, the cast is likely friends, family, and local community theater people. They're not bad, though - Avant and Maynor come across as exactly the sort of folks that would do this sort of paranormal investigation, with Maynor especially amusing as the more impulsive of the two. Dave Potter is the other guy who gets plenty of screen time, and though he's got no other credits, he comes across with the instant credibility of a seasoned character actor. That's important, as he's got to make James seem both like a crackpot and fairly trustworthy.

Not everyone hits that balance, in front of or behind the camera but even when they don't, Lunopolis always seems worth following through to the end. It takes some wobbly steps on the way there, but seldom falters despite the ambitious story.

Also at EFC


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2010 in the Somerville Theater Digital Screening Room (Blu-ray)

The makers and marketers of Ink are a little bit too ready to call it a cult classic, although given time, I could see it getting there. It's got a better-than-decent urban fantasy set-up, a few extremely impressive visuals, and so much well-meaning philosophy that it might be best enjoyed in an altered state.

Dreaming is the original altered state, and Ink tells us that dreams, at least the good ones, are brought to us by Storytellers, spirits who appear in the world around us as we sleep. Their opposite numbers are Incubi, the bringers of nightmares. On this night, though, something sinister is afoot - an active and creative little girl, Emma (Quinn Hunchar), has been targeted by Incubus-in-training Ink, and when her Storyteller Allel (Jennifer Batter) fails to stop Emma's spirit form from being kidnapped, she is assigned a blind Pathfinder, Jacob (Jeremy Make), to help bring Emma's estranged father John (Chris Kelly) to her side. Fortunately, Ink has lost the means to bring Emma to the Incubus Assembly, and thus has to find a pair of codes, which gives another Storyteller, Liev (Jessica Duffy), a chance to try and convince Ink to let Emma go.

Considering that Ink is a true independent - self-financed and made by a filmmaker in the Denver, Colorado area - it does some really cool stuff visually. The initial introduction of the Storytellers, for instance, is probably a simple enough effect but still looks and sounds pretty nifty, and the moments which follow are suitably mysterious enough to keep the audience intrigued. The Incubi have a simple, yet unsettling design - men with plastic sheets in front of their heads that flatten the faces behind and cast them a sickly yellow, and searchlight eyes that blot out the rest of their faces when the sheets are removed. And the action scene as Allel and her allies attempt to keep Ink from kidnapping Emma is so clever and well-implemented that one might be surprised to find it in a small, independent film, as the physical things that these beings smash reform instantly, leaving no evidence of a spiritual battle in the world.

The trouble with a scene like that is that you can't help but suspect that the movie has peaked early when it's over. There are another two impressive set pieces, but they're not quite so amazing as the first, although they would probably be quite eye-catching in another independent fantasy that didn't have the abduction sequence to compare them to. Even setting the action elements aside, the moments linking them are a little bit of a let-down; the time spent on John's work is profoundly uninteresting, and presentation of his story is too choppy for us to really get the proper impact of how he met and lost his wife, and then lost custody of Emma to his in-laws. Emma, whom we're introduced to as a loud and boisterous kid, winds up a fairly passive kidnap victim.

How much of that is filmmaker Jamin Winans's writing and direction versus the cast is something I'm not sure of. Chris Kelly and Quinn Hunchar both have quite a few good moments, but also have their share where they are unconvincing. Jeremy Make is kind of annoying as Jacob, and while I appreciate that that is part of the character, he never comes off as particularly otherworldly, even with electrical tape covering his eyes. Jennifer Batter, on the other hand, nails Allel as a thoroughly believable dream warrior, tough and kind and human despite being something else as well. Eme Ikwuakor and Shelby Malone are right in tune as her allies; the movie is at its best when this group is front and center. Jessica Duffy's Liev is the spiritual one who sees good in all, even Ink, and she does a fine job of not making that an annoying stock character.

Watching Ink, there's little doubt in my mind that Jamin Winans has a whole bunch of talent, but may be stretched a little thin trying to do everything (Jamin Winans is credited as writer, director, producer, editor, and composer; another Winans is credited with sound, costumes, and art direction). Even taking that into account, he does very well on a project that is probably insanely ambitious for an independent film, and has made something whose best scenes alone make it well worth a watch.

Also at EFC

Thursday, February 11, 2010

That other Sherlock Holmes movie

Memo to The Asylum: If you are event thinking of doing a sequel to your Sherlock Holmes movie to come out around the same time that Warner Brothers releases their next one with Robert Downey Junior, give me a call. I'm pretty sure I can write a better screenplay than Paul Bales did here, if only because it will not involve me stating that Sherlock's full name is "Robert Sherlock Holmes", and having a character address him as "Robert" throughout the entire second half of the film.

And I'm cheap. This blog post? I'm writing it for nothing! I probably won't even try to to get you to reimburse me for the various Arthur Conan Doyle books I'd buy for research, which was clearly a hold-up for Mr. Bales and company. You'd get not just a steampunkish Sherlock Holmes story with dinosaurs and robots, but one which fans would praise for how it connects Holmes to Professor Challenger and other Doyle works.

That said, despite joking about expecting this movie to drive me mad, I rather enjoyed it. Between it and the previews for other films by The Asylum that preceded it, I get the impression that the folks at Asylum are the modern equivalent to Roger Corman: Making genre entertainment on a budget, taking their work seriously but still having a sense of fun. I laughed a lot at those previews, but felt oddly affectionate, too. "It can't be stopped... Unless she can stop it!" (MegaFault).... A John Carter of Mars movie with Anthony Sabato Jr. and Traci Lords... Using the same footage of L.A. getting destroyed in at least two of the previews.

These things are B-movie silliness, but they're honest, hard-working B-movie silliness, rather than weak parody. Well, okay, "honest" may not be the best way to describe a marketing campaign based around giving movies a similar title to something in theaters so that confused people pick them up, but you know what I mean.

Sherlock Holmes (2010)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2010 in Jay's Living Room (upconverted DVD)

I don't entirely blame The Asylum for how disappointing their "mockbuster" Sherlock Holmes movie was. My slightly elevated expectations are the responsibility of the guy who entered the information that Dominic Keating was playing Spring-Heeled Jack on IMDB. A person sees that and thinks, okay, this is going to be a cheap B-movie, but if they're using a nineteenth-century English urban legend as the villain, then there's a chance that the result may at least be clever. Sadly, that information isn't accurate, and while what's left is kind of fun, it is decidedly not clever.

As an aged Dr. Watson relates to his nurse in 1940, the greatest and most painful adventure in Sherlock Holmes's career happened in 1882, and started with the sinking of a treasury ship filled with tax money from the West Indies - apparently by a kraken. Inspector Lestrade (William Huw) engages Holmes (Ben Syder) and Watson (Gareth David-Lloyd) to assist with solving the mystery. He also asks about Sherlock's brother, whom he hadn't heard from in years. While Watson and Lestrade dismiss the idea of a monster out of hand, Holmes thinks there's some connection to mysterious dinosaur attacks in Whitechapel. Meanwhile, a paralyzed veteran (Dominic Keating) comes to Watson to refill his pain medication, though Watson's attention is drawn to his lovely niece Anesidora (Elizabeth Arends).

Many will read that description, see "dinosaur attacks", and figure that fans of Sherlock Holmes will immediately hate the very concept. That doesn't necessarily have to be so, though - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous non-Holmes work is The Lost World, and there have been numerous pastiches which posited that Holmes and Professor Challenger were friends or even relations. Drop the right line, and everybody is eating your steampunk Sherlock Holmes adventure up. Unfortunately, writer Paul Bales often gives the impression that he's not terribly familiar with the character's history. When Lestrade mentions Holmes's brother, for instance, he's not referring to Mycroft, and the film doesn't see the need to clear it up. There are a few other choices made that suggest a lack of familiarity of with the character's world.

That's a shame, because the film has its good points as a steampunk adventure. The Asylum makes B movies, the sort of thing that Roger Corman used to do, but one seldom gets the sense (at least in Sherlock Holmes) that they are holding anything back. Some of the CGI is dodgy; intercoms visible on the doorways of Baker Street; and scenes that would logically take place in the middle of smoky, Dickensian London seem to take place in the country. But there's a sense of fun with the various crazy bits - the kraken and dinosaur lead to clockwork robots and hot air balloons outfitted for combat, and the filmmakers never use a low budget as an excuse; they try their best and don't wink at the audience. They even resist a joke about how the film's climax boils down to Sherlock Holmes fighting Iron Man.

Director Rachel Goldenberg is a big part of that. She could have gone for something self-parodying but doesn't, and she turns out to be pretty good with the action and pacing. There's not a lot of quick-cutting to cover for the effects work, for instance, although it could occasionally use covering. The movie is fast-paced without seeming frantic, or grinding to a halt for excessive exposition. She even manages the occasional moment when the audience might feel a little bit of awe.

The cast she's working with isn't bad, either. First billing, unusually, goes to Gareth David-Lloyd as Watson. He's a good fit for that part, catching Watson's eagerness for adventure and frequent impatience with Holmes, along with his weakness for the ladies. Dominic Keating is a fine, bombastic villain, chewing the requisite scenery and convincing us of both his genius and insanity. Unfortunately, that means they both overshadow apparent newcomer Ben Syder as Holmes. It's not just that he's physically too short for the role, especially when standing next to David-Lloyd, but he seems far too nice. There's none of the eccentricity, irritability, or arrogance that often makes Sherlock Holmes so memorable. Even when condescending to Lestrade, he sounds polite and apologetic, rather than prickly.

Maybe a better Holmes would have allowed this movie to more squarely hit the mark, as it otherwise does surprisingly well by playing its outlandish premise fairly straight. Just change the script a little and you'd actually have an Asylum Sherlock Holmes movie that could rise above the guilty pleasure that this one is.

Also at HBS