Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, Days 1-3: Sleep Dealer, Mutant Swinger from Mars, Caller ID

I readily admit - my hopes for the expanded Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival were perhaps too high. I was hoping for something akin to what Ned Hinkle and the Brattle did with the Boston Fantastic Film Festival, which was probably far from realistic. That's nothing against Garen and Michelle and the other folks putting the festival together, just an acknowledgment that if the schedules Ned put together for that festival were a sufficient draw in the area, we'd still be having that event. This is clearly a case of needing to start smaller.

Still... I was kind of worried when I saw Sleep Dealer announced as the first film. It had already played the Boston area - the Brattle, in fact, back in May. I was fond of it then, and I remain fond of it now - but that's not the profile of a movie that opens a festival. There was a brief back and forth on Facebook ("are you sure? the distributor says it's only played NYC/LA" "Uh, yeah. I was there.") that did not end with "and it's on DVD!" I admit, I hoped that the people running a Boston Sci-Fi film festival would have been a little more on top of which sci-fi had played Boston over the past year.

But, regardless, it packed the 60-ish person video screening room in Somerville. It's still a pretty darn good movie, although on a second viewing, I did notice that while the filmmakers had a bunch of nifty ideas, the apparent main character, Memo, doesn't actually drive the story much himself. Still, very impressive for a young filmmaker, and it does a great job of presenting immigration issues in a different light.

The next two features, well, weren't quite at its level:

Mutant Swinger from Mars

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2010 at the Somerville Theater Screening Room (BSFFF, DVD projection)

This shit needs to stop.

Shouldn't young filmmakers with no money have moved on from spoofing bad 1950s sci-fi by now? It's too easy a target if the intent is to skewer, and if the goal is to pay tribute, a filmmaker would honor what was enjoyable about those movies far more by following the intent of these "classics" - making the best sci-fi movies they can with what they have available - and improving on the results. Because when you do what Michael Kallio does with Mutant Swinger from Mars and try to recreate crap, you succeed - at making crap.

Things actually start out kind of promisingly, with interview segments apparently produced for a documentary on the life and work of forgotten schlock director Orton Z. Creswell (Pete LaDuke) - writer, director, actor, and psychic. We're also introduced to his ex-wife and frequent scream queen Miriam Van Saint (Colleen Nash), and frequent co-stars Lance Feldman (Michael East), Laszlo Brockingham (Bart Williams), and Gary Dunn (Bob Young). All too soon, though, we get to the "forgotten cult classic" that this is meant to be documenting - where Martians Slagathor (Brockingham) and Xedor (Dunn) come to Earth to demand a scientist build them a reanimated chick magnet, Fez Flackman (Creswell) to lure Earth cuties back to their spaceship. But when Flackman sets his sights on Mitzy Nussbaum (Van Saint), that spurs Rusty Rave (East), the town's swingingest swinger, into action!

The "Mutant Swinger" part of Mutant Swinger from Mars isn't aggressively, offensively unfunny like some other entries in the retro-schlock category, but it is, by its very nature, a one-joke movie that spends close to an hour on that one joke, and rarely comes up with a more clever use for it than inserting the phrase "Mars Needs Women!" into the dialogue. To be fair, that plays well to a certain audience; there's a certain level of fun in watching a movie and thinking, ha!, the director likes the same thing I did - and so does the guy in the next seat. It's a sense of community and connection that is, under the right circumstances, a passable substitute for actual wit.

Isn't it great when you also get the actual wit, though? When they were at their peak, Mel Brooks and Zucker/Abrams/Zucker built bits that were memorable on their own instead of just name-checking; Quentin Tarantino's films steal bits all the time but he often puts them together in new, exciting ways. Kaillo and company fail at that, and perhaps even more frustratingly, they fail after showing us in the opening that maybe they could if they wanted to: The interview footage shows them creating actual characters who are funny as individuals, if only for a few moments. Creswell's delusion and the derision heaped upon him by his frequent collaborators are not really a whole lot more original than the B-movie parody, but they are much funnier.

You can offer up excuses for stuff like Mutant Swinger from Mars; this sort of thing is generally made as a labor of love, and that Kallio and company were able to get this in front of people at all is an impressive accomplishment; six years passed between photography (2003) and it getting in front of people. The thing is, too many people have worked under the same conditions and come up with good movies, worth watching entirely on their own merits.

Mutant Swinger isn't one of them, despite its occasional moments of cleverness. Having those moments likely puts it a leg up on the likes of Epic Movie, but should we as moviegoers really settle for something we can damn with faint praise, or should we hope for invention and originality?

Also at EFC

Caller ID

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2010 at the Somerville Theater Screening Room (BSFFF, Blu-ray projection)

The filmmakers did a Q&A after Caller ID, and it turned out to be sort of informative in learning where all the seemingly random elements came from. It was interesting, but probably not something that the average audience member will receive. And though it was a nice look inside the process, it didn't do a whole lot to smooth out what is a very disjointed movie.

Three college students who have known each other since high school are entering a special independent study in psychopathology, under the supervision of Professor Adam Whitney (Douchan Gersi). Each is given different assignments that they are not supposed to discuss with others: Miles (James Duval) is building and installing monitoring devices; Noah (Nathan Bexton) is watching horrific case studies; Dale (Denny Kirkwood) is monitoring Miles and Noah. Noah inevitably snaps, and he doesn't seem to be the first; a previous group of Whitney's students had their own issues. And it seems that Whitney's goals don't just involve the study of the human mind, but attempts to control them.

Caller ID can, at times, be immensely frustrating. There are times when it feels like filmmaker Eric Zimmerman tried to make the movie twice, running out of resources both times, and edited the footage together as best he could, piecing it together with text of patent applications and a mysterious voice leaving messages on an answering machine, railing against psychiatrists. There are some neat ideas in there, and, if you want to give it multiple viewings, you could probably piece together a story, but it's so tangled as to be nearly incoherent. It winds up feeling something like a conspiracy thriller, except that the conspiracy seems to be Whitney alone, and he doesn't seem to have any aims other than being creepy.

The film does have some success at giving off a creepy vibe; there are a few impressive scenes where characters are either losing their mind or something genuinely freaky is going on. The recorded messages make us nervous because they convey the feeling of someone who is genuinely damaged and mentally disturbed in a way that a pathology made up to fit a plot seldom does (Zimmerman told us were left on his machine over the course of a year by a very persistent wrong number). It's possible, I guess, to interpret this as the audience only seeing something large and sinister from the very limited perspective of these graduate students, but while that is fine in creating atmosphere, it doesn't do much in the way of story.

It's also difficult to get attached to any members of the cast. We're given fairly standard introductions to Miles and Noah, with Dale added to the mix, but they'll go and disappear for large chunks of time, with other cast members (John Cho's Kama and Roger Guenveur Smith's Blake, mainly) turning up and filling similar roles. Of all the students, Nathan Bexton probably stands out the most; he's the one given a role called on to show a lot of emotion that he nails pretty well. Smith is a little too cool as Blake, while Duval seems to be trying too hard as Miles. Douchan Gersi, meanwhile, is at least fun as the over-the-top vile Whitney, chewing into his villain role with enthusiasm. And while Kirkwood occasionally goes a bit broad with Dale, on balance he comes out ahead of the game.

A lot of the production could probably do with throttling back. During the Q&A, Zimmerman and Beston talked about how it was sometimes hard to keep ahead of technology while shooting over time, and how the cast was given a lot of freedom. Maybe they could have made an excellent movie rather than an interesting but disjointed one if they had locked more in from the start.

Also at EFC

1 comment:

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