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.

No comments: