Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Boston Underground FF 2011 Day 4: Son of God, "Future Imperfect", Atomic Brain Invasion, The Dead Inside, and Phase 7

And here's Sunday. It turned out to be a pretty good day, all told - it included my favorite film of the festival (The Dead Inside), an interesting documentary (Son of God), and a really good thriller (Phase 7). Even the throwback sci-fi movie (Atomic Brain Invasion) was enjoyable enough, although the shorts were a pretty mixed bag. Some just annoyed the heck out of me, but others had some good imagination.

It wound up being a bit of a long day - even with the inevitable delays at the starts of movies that tightened time between screenings, it was still a half hour between them toward the end, which is a bit of a bummer when you're hungry: There's not a lot of fast food around Kendall Square, and the two nearby restaurants that sponsored the fest - The Friendly Toast and Tommy Doyle's - are not quite places you can run into, order, and finish a meal between shows. I'm just glad that the hot dogs at the theater are edible - even though they're microwaved and, you know, hot dogs, it makes the day feel less like one where I'm subsisting entirely on junk food. This is also the only situation where the free refills on those jumbo sodas actually makes sense.

It was cool to see Phase 7 on film, at least - after the previous day's issues, there was something reassuring about seeing the specks and lines that indicate 35mm appear on the screen. You'd think digital would be more reliable without the moving parts, but the simplicity and standardization of film certainly translates into reliability.

This was also the official "closing night" of the festival; it continued through Thursday, but that was repeat showings, and as they were evening-only, much less exhausting. Awards were given out at a party that overlapped with Phase 7, and they make me scratch my head a little, but I'll get to that when I get to those movies over the next few days.

Son of God

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 March 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival 2011)

Did Khavn de la Cruz and Michael Noer stumble upon a potentially fascinating movie by pure chance while walking around the streets of Manila? Or did they know about the subject and gracefully insinuate themselves? Or were things somewhat more scripted? On the one hand, it doesn't really matter; the ideas and events of the film are the same either way. And yet, it's worth asking the question, given that this is a movie about taking advantage of faith, whether or not our faith in the film is justified.

As the movie starts, experimental filmmaker Khavn (he's often credited without his surname) and Danish documentarian Noer are shooting in Quiapo, a poor Manila neighborhood, when their path intersects a marching crowd. They're members of the Church of the Black Nazarene. It's a noisy, flamboyant sect, and that seems harmless enough. Then Khavn and Noer find a group claiming that Christ will soon be resurrected, in the Philippines. Not unusual. Then we meet "Son-of-God" (Ali Doron), a diminutive guy with curly white hair who claims to be that resurrection, and who surprisingly lets the filmmakers tag along as he spreads the word.

Is Son-of-God a fraud? Almost certainly. Certain elements come from a standard playbook, and aren't necessarily executed all that well - watch how Doron pulls tumors out of a man during a faith-healing exercise; though it's easy to see those who want to believe falling for it, a closer look makes his hand seem a much more likely source. And yet, it's not all that hard to sympathize with those who believe in Son-of-God; these are people who need to believe in something, after all. And Doron comes across as quite sincere; a confrontation with a believer who lost someone close after having been "cured" by Son-of-God does not play out cynically. Instead, there are moments of guilt and moments that suggest something more like a crisis of faith. Even the skeptical might find themselves very curious about what's going on in Doron's mind here; the pilgrimage that follows certainly seems genuine, rather than something done for show.

Full review at EFC.

Future Imperfect

Seen 27 March 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival 2011)

I'll punt this one a little, rather than running down every short, mostly because it's been a couple of weeks and thus many of the details have fallen out the back of my head. Also, a number were very short, and not clever enough to make an impresion in their brief running time.

Still, there were some memorable entries - "Apocalypse Story", for instance, in which a boy and a girl come across each other in a post-apocalyptic landscape. It's interesting for being almost entirely dialogue-free, possibly because language has fallen into disuse when other people are so few and far between. "Spark" is another one featuring a young cast, with a clever conceit - that genetically engineered plants have increaded the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere to the extent where people are legitimately terrified of fire. A lot more, though, were like "Robotic Panic", a low-budget but somewhat amusing bit where a robot's requests become increasingly uncomfortable.

Atomic Brain Invasion

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 March 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #3 (Boston Underground Film Festival 2011)

It's fair to look at a movie like Atomic Brain Invasion and sigh. Another one of these things? After all, to put it bluntly, the people with legitimate first-hand nostalgia for 1950s sci-fi flicks are dying off, and going the spoof route just seems unsporting. Writer/director Richard Griffin splits the difference, making a throwback sci-fi flick that's kind of funny, but occasionally seems to miss opportunities.

It's the 1950s, and this small New England town seems typical. Sure, the occasional mushroom cloud on the horizon probably should make the residents wonder just exactly what sort of velocipedes the army is working on at the Bicycle Testing Ground. That's not the only strange thing going on, though - something has crashed in the woods where the local high school has a field trip. Among those teenagers are misfits Sherman (David Lavallee Jr.), Kevin (Daniel Lee White), and Jim (Colin Carlton); academically inclined cutie Betty (Sarah Nicklin); and Lukas (Michael Reed), son of the general in charge of the army base (David Erin Wilson), who is having a hard time dealing with the fact that Betty doesn't like him nearly as much as Sherman. As slimy aliens infiltrate, another group of aliens lands - good-looking teenage ones (Alexander Lewis, Alexandra Cipolla, and Ruth Sullivan), asking to be taken to the king. They can't mean Elvis (Brandon Luis Aponte), can they?

Look at the credits of Richard Griffin and his cast, and you'll see a lot of overlap. This is a group that has been cranking out horror movies on a fairly regular schedule, and this time around they wanted to make something less R-rated. On that count, they succeed; it's a pretty mild movie, with no swearing, not much even the easily-horrified fifties moms in the cast would find terribly suggestive, and what violence there is more likely to involve puppets and glowing green goo than graphic blood and guts. In that way, Atomic Brain Invasion is a tends more to the pastiche than the parody; it respects the 50s monster-movie conventions much more than it mocks them.

Of course, it can't help but make fun much of the time, and sometimes they could have done with pushing it a little harder. While the kids are often played as kind of broad and maybe oblivious, the characters are at their best when they poke each other with something a little sharp. For instance, Lukas isn't nearly as funny as a dim-bulb bully as he is when he's playing weird, eccentric, and perhaps in a deep, dark closet. A conversation by the ladies horrified that kids might be going to that rock & roll concert rather than their pie-baking contest is a little obvious, but General Bedfellow commenting during a lecture that "we don't know a lot about radiation, and most of what we do know is wrong" is funny because it jabs at present-day scientific ignorance on film and in life as much as it does the past. Heck, Elvis is funnier the nuttier he seems. Basically, every time Griffin, co-writer Guy Benoit, and company go for the screwy, bizarre joke, it works a lot better than just repeating formula.

Full review at EFC.

The Dead Inside

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 27 March 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (Boston Underground Film Festival 2011)

Films like Travis Betz's The Dead Inside are some of my favorites to write about. Not so much the genre - although, let's face it, you don't pass up a chance to write up singing zombies - but because it's a well-made movie that goes in clever, often funny (but often not), directions. Plus, the surprises start coming early, so there's the challenge of saying just why it's so cool without giving the game away.

We start with the zombies, Harper (Sarah Lassez) and Max (Dustin Fasching), who know that there is a delicious young woman on the other side of a door. However, while they are able to converse well enough with each other, that locked door is too much of a challenge for their zombie brains. And they are not in line for a whole lot of help, as the tiny room beyond contains Fiona (also Lassez). Fiona's a writer of a series of books starring Harper and Max, and the locked door has her stuck. And as her boyfriend Wes (also Fasching) - a wedding photographer growing sick of weddings - soon discovers, it's rather worse than a simple case of writer's block; Fi seems to be having a full-fledged breakdown. Or, as the surprising direction Harper's and Max's story takes indicates, something stranger may be afoot.

Many independent movies confine themselves to a small cast and a single location out of necessity; many horror movies do so to keep the tension up. Few make such a virtue of it as The Dead Inside, where people other than Fi, Wes, and their alter egos are glanced (or heard) only briefly, and the decision not to redress the sets between the Fi/Wes and Harper/Max sequences reinforces both just how similar the couples are and what sort of turmoil Fi is undergoing. Betz moves between the scenarios smoothly, sometimes during songs, sometimes with shots of Fi at the computer, but never with the intent to confuse.

Full review at EFC.

Fase 7 (Phase 7)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 March 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (Boston Underground Film Festival 2011)

In most zombie/contagion movies, the point where the tension really cranks up is when, after braving the various horrors to get to what should be a safe place, the characters discover that the greatest danger isn't out there; but in here. Phase 7 cuts out a lot of the time used in getting to that point, making for a thrilling siege picture.

Coco (Daniel Hendler) and his pregnant wife Pipi (Jazmin Stuart) don't know anything is up as they're doing the grocery shopping, just buying the usual while the people around them are stocking up. It's not until they get home that they find out that there have been outbreaks of a nasty disease around the world. When one of their neighbors is taken away for displaying symptoms, the Argentine equivalent of the CDC places the entire building under quarantine. As time passes with no news of the restrictions being lifted, tensions begin to form - Coco's neighbor Horacio (Yayo Guridi) seems disturbingly prepared for this situation, and a number of others are already making plans on how to consolidate and distribute assets, starting with elderly neighbor Zanutto (Federico Luppi).

Phase 7 is being presented in some circles as more black comedy than thriller, and I think that characterization does the movie a bit of a disservice. That's not to say that it's not frequently funny - it is - just that its sense of humor is often bone-dry, to the point where it can easily be confused with bad plotting. For instance, the opening scene, where Coco and Pipi are too wrapped up in their own minor concerns to notice that everybody around them is hurriedly buying in bulk - that's smart, satiric, and just gets funnier as the scene continues to play out. As things play out, though, with indications that a fair amount of time is passing, Pipi's continuing obliviousness and Coco's often head-scratching behavior become less amusing than frustrating to watch.

Full review at EFC.

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