Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Boston Science Fiction Film Festival Features: Star Wreck: In The Pirkinning, The Wild World of Ted V. Mikels, Zonad

I say this in nearly everything I write about the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, at least over the past couple of years when it added a week-long screening series in front of the long-running marathon, but it's true: I want it to succeed. I want it to be huge. I want indie filmmakers who make science fiction to have getting into this festival as a goal, because it's the one that genre fans pay attention to. I want them to pass up screening at FantasticFest or SXSW because, well, Boston is cooler and more important.

Even if the fest's ambitions aren't that grand, though, there are a few areas that they need to address before next year, if this festival is intended to continue:

  • Communication: On the second night of the festival, the screening of Summer Wars apparently conked out with twenty minutes to go. I wasn't there - I'd seen it at Fantasia and was catching Perrier's Bounty that evening - but from what I've heard, the festival brass and the good folks at the Somerville Theatre handled it very well, apologizing and handing out free tickets. However, when that happens, it is incumbent upon the festival to let the audience know about any rescheduled screenings quickly and loudly. Ideally, there should have been information rapidly disseminated on Sunday - online (including website, Facebook, Twitter, email, etc.) and with signage in the theater. Instead, the earliest anybody found out was Monday evening when festival boss Garen Daly mentioned it at the screening of Star Wreck and those of us there mentioned it later on the message board. The official "announcement" was Tuesday, although it was less an announcement than quietly filling in the "TBA" space on the festival calendar.

    That's not good enough, especially in this case, as Summer Wars was the only animated/Japanese film playing, and as such might attract an audience that wasn't at other screenings and didn't read the message board. It's not impossible; consider two events at Fantasia: Back in '08, they got stuck with a copy of A Love with utterly indecipherable subtitles; by the end of the day it was off the online schedule, its later showtimes filled with other films, and ticketholders had refunds or exchanges. Last year, a technical glitch on the second-to-last day of the fest was still able to be made up for the next day, with a note on the festival's website almost immediately. And they've got to do it in two languages.

    Also, on Sunday night, I was told that the cast for one of the shorts turned up at the theater (they were local), but there was nobody from the fest to meet them, introduce them, lead a Q&A. That sort of thing can't be taken for granted; guest relations is the lifeblood of festivals.

  • The Website: This is arguably a subcategory of communications, but deserves its own bullet point. Look at it, it's bad. There are spelling errors on the front page that have been there for at least six months, important information is often hidden two or three non-intuitive clicks deep, and I don't think I've ever talked to anybody who has been able to make an order for tickets/passes/merch go through on the first try.

    It's pretty simple: In the twenty-first century, everybody needs to have a decent website. But when you're running something like a science-fiction film festival - an event that tends to draw a tech-savvy crowd - it's doubly important. Make it look good, have important information and/or links displayed near the top, and if you're going to put the site's address on all of your promotion, make sure that it's the first place you update, rather than your Facebook page.

  • Know When/Where Things Have Played: The first film announced last year as a "New England Premiere" was Sleep Dealer... but it had already played Boston, nearly a year earlier, with a run at the Brattle Theatre. When called on this, the programmers said the distributor had told them that the film had only played New York and Los Angeles. You would think that such an obvious gaffe would lead to the programmers double-checking this stuff from then on, but apparently that's not the case: Summer Wars was labeled a "Boston Premiere" despite it having played the Museum of Fine Arts a month earlier, and Zonad a "US Premiere" despite having played the Tribeca, Traverse City, and Austin Film Festivals in 2010.

    On the surface, this probably doesn't matter much to any festival-goer but me, and what's the harm in attendees maybe thinking they're getting something a little more exclusive than they are? But let me put it this way: If you're a Boston-area movie buff, and the first thing you see about this festival are claims you know to be false, it's not making a good impression (it's reasonable to expect someone running a "Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival" to know which sci-fi films have played Boston recently), and you might not be inclined to pay ten bucks to see a projected DVD of something you'd seen earlier. From the other side, if you're a filmmaker, it looks unprofessional. Do you want to take your film there?

    Again, it's minor, especially if you're only really concerned about pleasing your existing base, but this isn't hard: When you're booking a movie or writing up the program notes and schedule, Google "Summer Wars Boston" and "Zonad Film Festival". It takes seconds, you get me off your back, and you don't have to spit out lame explanations about how the distributor counts non-profit organizations like the museum differently. Getting stuff right never hurts, even if you never know how getting stuff wrong does hurt.

  • Double Dipping: There were eight features/short programs aside from the marathon, and two were repeated during the marathon. Truth be told, I haven't minded leaving the 'thon at 10:30 or so the past couple of years, but I think one should probably be the upper limit. Both years, there's been a fair amount of grumbling from people who bought the festival pass months ahead of time for a discount, not realizing that using it to its fullest extent meant repeats. At the very least, mention that one or two movies may be repeated between the "festival" and the "marathon".

    Ideally, though, it would be unique material from start to finish. On the one hand, it's booking more movies; on the other, it's getting people to come out more times, which I'm sure that at least the theater (specifically, the concession stand) will appreciate.

  • The Films: This is subjective, of course, but look at the three films being reviewed: A parody, a tribute to a schlock filmmaker, and another one on the mocking side. Now, to be fair, this is short because I'd already seen Summer Wars and The Revenant elsewhere and figured I'd be better off waiting for the 'thon for 20,000 Leagues, as that would be on film. I go to Fantasia, I get the occasional screener, so there's less new for me than there are other people. But that's still a lot of the schedule given over to movies more concerned with looking back rather than forward, and are movies about movies. The marathon is in large part a nostalgia event, but I think that's the very sort of thing sci-fi films need to avoid right now.

    As I've said before, when your goal is to emulate bad movies, you make bad movies. And if the festival is looking for a new audience beyond the "marathoids"... Well, one of the points I've been trying to make on the message board is that the college kids you'd be marketing to today didn't grow up watching bad movies on a UHF channel's Creature Double Feature or reading Famous Monsters of Filmland; they saw Jurassic Park in elementary school and get their news from Twitch or reading tweets from Fantastic Fest. I suspect that this sort of thing might not be nearly as enjoyable to that crowd. I certainly didn't get much of a kick out of it.

It's still a pretty good festival, and the marathon portion was as good as ever. But if Mr. Daly wants to make this a respected, quality festival, there are certain elements that must be tightened up.

Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2010 in Somerville Theatre #2 (SF/36)

The festival program claims that Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning was a huge box office hit in its native Finland, which surprises me somewhat. Not just because it's not very good; bad movies make good money all the time, all over the world. No, it's because I cannot imagine how it could have been given a sizable release without a bunch of lawyers from Paramount and Warner Brothers grinding them to a paste. Tolerating fan films and being quietly grateful to be spoofed is one thing, but this...

Captain James B. Pirk (Samuli Torssonen) and two of his officers, Commanders Dwarf (Timo Vuorensola) and Info (Antti Satama), have been marooned in early twenty-first century Finland by a time-travel adventure gone wrong. However, while Info cautions against altering the timestream, a frustrated Pirk decides, what the hell, why don't we use the tech from our crashed ship to build a dreadnought and conquer the Earth? Eventually, he manages it, but running a planetary empire is hard, so when a ship emerges from a nearby "maggot hole", implying the existence of new worlds to conquer and pillage on the other side, he leads a fleet there. Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, space station Babel 13's commander Joni Sherripie (Atte Joutsen) is wondering what happened to that patrol ship.

If you've watched sci-fi on television over the last twenty-five-odd years, decoding those character names should not be a difficult undertaking; I suspect that even the Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine worked a little harder on clever puns when creating their spoofs of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5. The real shame, though, is that this really does represent something close to the full extent of the wit on display here. I'm not saying that the filmmakers should necessarily have tried to restart the Nerd Wars of the 1990s when you were either a Trek guy or a B5 guy and the other side deserved no respect whatsoever, but even halfheartedly diving into the two shows' strengths and weaknesses might have made this weak satire rather than weak parody. It's kind of surprising that they only had one actor playing a different part in both universes (although, yes, it's the one that makes for the best inside joke).

Full review at EFC.

The Wild World of Ted V. Mikels

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2010 in Somerville Theatre #2 (SF/36)

It seems like cult and B-movie directors get more documentary features than their more mainstream counterparts. There's a Roger Corman one coming out this year, William Castle had one, as did Herschell Gordon Lewis. It makes sense, I suppose - these are often the guys who have lived colorful lives, and, hey, they've got a cult. It seems, though, that Ted V. Mikels is toward the bottom of the barrel, and director Kevin Sean Michaels doesn't do great with the scraping.

Ted V. Mikels got his introduction to show business at a very early age, cast as a child in a film set to star William Powell that never got off the ground. The bug bit him, and he eventually had a magic act before he got started making films as a writer/director, working in Oregon, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, mostly making schlock, notably horror flicks - his best-known (most infamous?) titles being The Corpse Grinders and The Astro-Zombies.

Mikels seems like a nice enough guy, who in his eighty-plus years of working in the shadowy parts of the film industry has accumulated his share of stories and friends, and many of them are on display here. Most are fairly amusing, but even for non-fans, they have the sound of tales that they have told more than a few times. These anecdotes don't build into something larger, though - it's like one of those DVD commentary tracks that are filled with mere description of what's on-screen with a smattering of on-set stories and tangents that don't actually provide much insight. There's never an "aha!" moment, or even some indication that Mikels is getting better at making movies - the clips of his recent pictures have the same bad acting and writing, but actually look worse for being shot on low-end video with awful CGI.

Full review at EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2010 in Somerville Theatre #2 (SF/36)

If Zonad ever started to make a lick of sense for even one second, it probably wouldn't work. Fortunately, filmmakers John & Kieran Carney are well aware of that, and while they have managed to put something resembling a human heart in their movie, they are able to do so without giving up on being goofy.

It's a fine night for stargazing in a small Irish town, and there's an impressive comet passing by. On the way home, lovely schoolgirl Jenny Cassidy (Janice Byrne) makes it quite clear to her boyfriend Guy (Rory Keenan) that she's quite ready, but he refuses to take the hint, so she winds up going back home with her parents (Geoff Minogue and Donna Dent) and brother (Kevin Maher), where they find a man in a red jumpsuit and helmet (Simon Delaney) passed out on the floor. When someone says he must be a spaceman, he runs with it, calling himself "Zonad" and saying he's on a scouting expedition to Earth. People continue to believe it, so he enjoys the town's hospitality - at least, until Guy starts getting annoyed at the attention Zonad and Jenny are giving each other, and another visitor (David Pearse) arrives.

The premise is silly, naturally, which makes the balancing act that the Carneys and their cast pull off fairly impressive. The story requires the entire town to be unusually trusting, but it doesn't play as pointing at the stupid villagers and laughing. There's a parodic early-sitcom vibe to it, the same kind of orderly innocence, except that those old comedies didn't have the gleeful raunch we see from the beginning here (and this isn't Pleasantville - Jenny doesn't need anybody to tell her about sex). There's a bit of parody of sci-fi/sitcom/eccentric-village tropes in there, but not contempt.

Full review at EFC.


Alex said...

Ah I love that you made a bullet point list of the issues this festival has. I love it and I really want to support it and see it succeed, but it can be so frustrating sometimes. You're completely right about the awful website, "premiere" mistakes (which bother me too), and "double dipping" (at least let us know when something will screen at both- I would have passed on Zonad on Friday if I'd known it would play the thon). It may seem like a lot of little things but it all adds up and I do think the whole event isn't living up to its potential. There was also a major factual error in the program- well, at least one- regarding Metropia, incorrectly attributing the screenplay to Stieg Larsson, deceased author of the Millenium Trilogy, when it was Stig Larsson, just some regular screenwriter.

I'm always tempted to offer my help as a volunteer- either helping with the website/social networking or advertising (it's remarkable how many people don't know about this who would enjoy it), but then that feels condescending.

There was a good turnout this year though!

Also regarding the genre throwbacks and parodies, I don't mind those (speaking as a young twentysomething), but they do lose their charm as more and more uninspired ones are produced. I really enjoyed Alien Trespass two years ago, for example, but from your description In The Pirkenning sounds awful. Glad I skipped it.

Anyway sorry for the overlong comment. Great post! I'm still working on my write-up for the 'Thon itself... there's a lot to think about!

Jason said...

Honestly, drop them an email if you've got ideas (and time!) to help them improve. I've yet to meet anyone involved in any film festival who would say no to more volunteers, especially if they have some expertise the event needs and doesn't have. Granted, with Boston Sci-Fi being more a business than a non-profit, it may be a different situation, but it doesn't hurt to ask.