Friday, February 18, 2011

Short Stuff: The Boston Science Fiction Film Festival

A couple months ago, I mentioned on Twitter that I had a couple ideas for short sci-fi films, and it was too bad that I would likely never find the time to actually write them. A friend sees this, says to get cracking, because he and some other friends could use a good script. So I do, although it's slow going - I've got a full-time job, I try to write something about every movie I see for this blog, and, you know, creative writing is hard.

Seriously, it's really difficult. I have the story's idea, I have an outline of what I want to happen, I even have the backstories for the characters in my head. But the actual putting one word after another in order to create something that, when read, tells a story in an entertaining way and can serve as directions for actors and filmmakers to present it as a motion picture? It drives me nuts. My characters seem to take forever to get the point across, when I speak their lines out loud to see if they pass the "would a human being actually saying this sound ridiculous" test, it leads to revision, I'm not sure how to make the story less convoluted without a lot of boring exposition, and none of the endings I come up with feel right to me.

So, on a certain level, I feel a certain amount of sympathy for the makers of these short sci-fi films - and what I'm doing isn't necessarily the easy part, but it's the part that doesn't really require expending resources. Sure, I have to think about them - just how much does building a full-size time machine cost, anyway, and do I really need two? - but it'll likely be someone else who has to do something practical there. I'm looking at something that will likely run ten or fifteen minutes, and even if I get off my butt, finish writing it, and take advantage of a bunch of friends and family with skills this project will need, it's going to be a crazy undertaking.

But, at the same time, I kind of resent what I see in some of these flicks. Every time someone laughed during "Battle Beyond Belief", it pissed me off a little - I'm trying to give whatever cast winds up performing these characters real human beings to play, and create a story that grabs the audience's attention, and I know that it probably won't get as much visible reaction as a bad Shatner impersonation. "Cosas Feas" might have been a lot better if it wasn't drowning in conflicting homages. And so on. Oddly, I feel no envy of the guys with money for digital effects - you work with what you have - but I'm working hard on my end, and hate that people who aren't putting the same effort into every line are getting by with shortcuts.

Admittedly, "No Time" is a little derivative, but I think that by the time I'm done writing it, it will be something of its own. After that, who knows. Ideally, it would be awesome to have it be an actual part of this festival (and Fantasia, and Fantastic Fest...) next year, but I've got to actually finish writing it first.

Dangerous Visions

Seen 11 February 2010 in Somerville Theatre #2 (SF/36)

"Time's Up Eve"

A woman runs from the beings collecting human souls in this noir-inspired short. The story is nothing earth-shaking - once you've got the lay of the land, the twists in the plot are not hard to figure out, but director Patrick Rea takes us through them with a certain amount of style. It's bolstered nicely by good-looking black and white photography that emphasizes the stillness of the city; there's also a nice score and good use of what special effects are available.

At times, the choice to use a forties-pastiche style is a little overbearing; between the need to explain what's going on, the lack of anyone else for Eve to talk to, and what's inherent in the style, there is a lot of narration. At a certain point I started to start think about the whole "show, don't tell" thing, but just as that happened, the movie started to do that, and it wasn't necessarily good; the acting dropped a level or two. It's an interesting thing to keep in mind, that going with narration had allowed the cast to concentrate on one thing at a time (shoot until the body language looks right, record until the narration is right, and then combine the two) and gloss over where the cast might have been limited rather than accept compromise.

"Cosas Feas" ("Nasty Stuff")

Speaking of style run amok, Isaac Ezban overdoses on it somewhat here. This short is presented somewhat in the style of a Spanish-language sexual educational film, with narration and cinematography that seems right on target for that, and by the end it's piling B-grade horror tropes onto that, with a poorly-synched soundtrack and shots that seem to switch from showcasing how weird this kid's family is to recreating sloppy filmmaking.

It's too much in every way. Many in the audience didn't like the gross-out places it went, but I think the main problem is that it went on too long. Once you've shown the good, so to speak, it's time to end the movie quickly; instead, Ezban drags things out, diluting his payoff, and the two styles being aped work against each other. The movie bounces between tones, making it hard to appreciate either, and making it seem more a collection of odds and ends than a single vision.

And, yeah, it's gross. Nice job building the prostheses, and I get wanting to get as much use out of them as you could, but there's a definite "less is more" principle to be applied here.

"Zombie Radio"

Maybe not quite so much less as this picture, though. Lawrence Gray's shaggy dog story of a nebbish in pursuit of the paranormal only to be mocked by his ex-girlfriend on the radio, is mildly amusing but never has that great moment when the audience really laughs out loud. It's got a set of somewhat standard-issue quirky characters, but whether schmuck or just oddball, none of them grab us. It's also a sad example of failed banter - Frank and Luscious don't click and their conversations don't pop, so as we're following them from scene to scene, it's always acutely evident that there's something missing.

And, like "Cosas Feas", it just goes on too long - even as a short, it doesn't have enough gags for its running time, although the padding here seems early rather than late.

"Planes de Futuro"

This one, on the other hand, was pretty good. In it, a man in his bedroom is visited by a girl who seems sort of familiar, although he doesn't believe it when she says she's from the future. Director Ivan A. Solas actually does a rather remarkable job here - what's going on is supposed to be initially confusing, but enticingly so, as opposed to frustrating, and he edits the film in a way that is familiar from high-end mainstream movies (little jumps in time and cuts to alternate takes), but here is literal, as the time traveler attempts again and again to reach her desired goal.

Quite good, and really only hampered by some technical issues with the presentation (the sound was low compared to the other shorts and there was a strange noise coming from the booth; fortunately, this short was subtitled).


Despite the Latin-sounding name, this isn't another from Spain. It's an American film about spaceships searching for a new homeworld for humanity, with small crews finding solace in virtual reality and sometimes disconnecting from the real world. Familiar, but handled pretty well; each member of the cast has a good moment or two and the effects work isn't bad at all. I suspect that, like a similarly ship-based featurette from last year's fest, this was made as much to demonstrate the filmmakers' skills on the technical side as to tell the story.

It's a little stiff at times for that; at times, I wondered how much experience these actors had at handling digital backlot shooting. Sometimes I imagine that the physical precision needed to hit marks so that the FX guys can add environments and objects in is distracting to the point of being all an actor can concentrate on. Here, the feeling is not quite stiff but there is no feeling of spontaneity, either.

Retro Speculatives

Seen 13 February 2010 in Somerville Theatre #2 (SF/36)

(Note: There was one other short that played, but the Red Line got me to Somerville as it was just ending. It will be repeated during the marathon, so I'll comment on it then)

"Battle Beyond Belief"


Maybe it's wrong to rag on something like "Battle Beyond Belief", which never pretends to be aiming for sophistication, for being lazy. It actually does some things well; the Flash and stop-motion animation isn't bad at all, the music that takes over the last act is a good-enough pastiche of '60s manufactured pop that it actually becomes kind of catchy for a while, and breaking the flick into a three-act structure along the lines of the TV shows it riffs on makes for pretty decent pacing. But...

Seriously, a mincing gay stereotype named "Dr. Unkk"? A womanizing captain who frequently pauses in his speech named "Shat Williams"? These are pretty stock characters, and at one point I resolved to break out some old-school Star Trek DVD/BD/HDDVDs just to see if Shatner ever really delivered his lines like that. I strongly suspect that Shatner's been as Rich-Littled as John Wayne has - as in, nobody actually does an imitation of John Wayne any more; they imitate Rich Little's imitation of John Wayne.

Plus, it's one of those where the filmmakers like to shove breasts in the audience's face, and you sort of know that if anyone asked the filmmaker about it, they'd say it's a parody, and it is, sort of, but it's certainly not above just letting the audience leer, either. It's almost hypocritical - it wants the audience to laugh at something, but its satire/parody isn't close to clever enough to be looking down on that thing.

"The Poster"

Answer me this - why does a movie most likely made by genre fans, which will likely only be seen by genre fans, tend to paint said fans in such a negative light? The main character of htis one is a ridiculous cliché, and watching him is just painful; I'm surprised he wasn't given a Jerry Lewis-at-his-worst voice to him.

Plus, this could use a lot of tightening up. It's almost a half-hour long and doesn't really have enough happening during that time frame to justify it, especially since, as not great as the folks playing the main characters are, the supporting actors are worse.

"The Machine"

Another technology-scare movie, this one about a technology that can put a person in a virtual world without his knowledge using any TV. It's a really silly premise form a technical standpoint, but even if this movie isn't innovative story-wise - the audience will likely see every beat coming - it does okay in execution. Director Jeffrey Stallman paces it well, does well getting the most out of his limited budget, and coaxes good performances out of his cast. It's rough around the edges at points, but well-executed.

"Gear School: Plug and Play"

I never read Dark Horse's Gear School series - I think I resolved to get most of their Rocket line in collections, but the line sort of flopped, Dark Horse lets months go before putting a collection out, and what there was felt like orphan series, Act Is building up to an abrupt stop. Plus, they were pitched to a much younger audience than me.

I don't know whether Luis Calvo and Ismael Ferrer adapted a specific issue or just grabbed the characters and setting, but it looks like I may have missed out there; "Plug and Play" would work nicely as a pilot presentation for a kids' TV series. It's not quite slick, and the special effects may be a notch or so below state-of-the-art, but it feels pretty respectable: It's got big sets with the right amount of people, there are ubiquitous but not overwhelming effects, and the cast is likable and, while not exactly pushed to their limits here, probably good enough to sell a light action-adventure series.

Good luck making one, guys. There's certainly a lot worse out there.

"Keep Watching the Skies!"

James and Robert Dastoli have made a clever enough pastiche of an anti-alien propaganda reel, if you like that sort of thing. Those things are sort of proof against criticism: "There's no logic here!" "Well, there isn't in a propaganda film!" "The effects and acting are bad!" "Just like in 1950s sci-fi movies!" "It's derivative, getting a reaction not for what the filmmakers have created, but what the audience recognizes and remembers fondly from other films!" "Nerd!"

This one's got a few good moments, and I suspect that people with more affection for 1950s red-scare sci-fi than I have will enjoy it well enough. But, like I said up top, making even a short film takes time, money, and hard work - why put that effort into something that won't be more than a mere reflection?


Anonymous said...

Lighten up guy :)

Anonymous said...

you seem like a lonely man.