Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival Daily, 2012.10-11 (19-20 February): The Marathon

You get early admission to the marathon with the festival pass, and apparently that's what most people by them for - when some of the fest's later shows were sold out, Garen said that technically all of them were, because they sold many more passes than the micro-cinema could hold. That's crazy talk to me - I got there at about 11:50, found a seat that was OK in the balcony, and didn't hang around in the cold waiting for doors to open. Maybe if I were the type that arrived with a large group of friends and a picnic basket and other stuff that I felt the need to spread out, it would be different.

Part of why I was so close to late was because I decided to do a diary thing (like I'd done for eFilmCritic in 2005 and 2006) and was looking for a cheap watch of some kind - so that I could note times without whipping out my bright phone - but I've got no idea where you'd find such things today. Not in CVS or the like. Maybe I should have tried Staples, but I don't know if they're even open on Sunday mornings. I wound up using the not-quite-satisfactory trick of keeping my phone inside my sleeve and hoping the screen was bright enough to show the time through the fabric but not quite so bright that it created light pollution. I'll be getting the cheap watch next time.

I do this not just for ready-made blog entries, but to keep somewhat active as the day stretches into night stretches into day. It doesn't always work (as you'll see around 2am or so), but it's fun. So without further ado...

11:48am - Major Tom appears on stage to lay down the ground rules. I idly wonder what he does with his Martian camouflage outfit the other 360+ days of the year. Fortunately, he's not instructing people on callbacks this year.

(I don't hate all the callbacks, but I say let them happen or evolve organically, rather than because people feel obliged.)

11:52am - I notice the guy in front of me has bought a noisy toy laser pistol in the lobby. I hope I won't have to "accidentally" break it.

11:55am - "Duck Dodgers" begins with the traditional popping of the Atomic Fireball, with a tribute to its inventor, who passed away this past year.

11:58am - I spit the fireball back into its plastic wrap and drop that into my trash bag. Really, those things are gross.

12:00pm - Time for the marathon to begin in earnest...

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, 35mm)

12:32pm - Ha! Li'l Caesar has a Statue of Liberty toy!

12:52pm - I get that the thing Caesar drew on the wall of his cell is his window from the house. Either the movie is clever or I am dense.

12:59pm - They've been calling the puzzle where you try and move a set of differently-sized discs from one spindle to the other "Lucas Towers" throughout the entire movie; I've always heard it called "Towers of Hammurabi". Is this some weird "Americans aren't cool with foreign names" thing, or has that always been a commonly-used alternate name?

1:13pm - Okay, this bit is really great, and I'm shocked that I only had it half-spoiled for me a week or so before the 'thon. It's an example of how smart the people involved are in handling the franchise, in that it feeds us a callback to the originals that is kind of obligatory and campy, but before we've really had time to laugh, drops another bomb. That's having fun and taking the material seriously, and precious few sequels/remakes/reboots do one right, let alone two at the same time.

1:17pm - Also, every bit mentioning the Mars mission makes me smile.

1:27pm - Did the CGI guys stick a "Donkey Kong Jr." reference into this? I swear, that ape climbing the Golden Gate Bridge by straddling two cables is trying to rescue his father from Mario.

1:40pm - So, that was really good, which is quite the pleasant surprise; I never really got into the original Apes pictures, but this one stands quite well on its own while calling back to the original with style.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, 35mm)

1:50pm - Wow, the lights went down for this early. With 24.5 hours of film to fit into 24, it looks like no time will be wasted. Also, for a movie made in 1983, this has some downright awesome, modern-looking credits.

1:54pm - Damnit, "Mark" is happening. I hate whoever started that at marathons past so much.

2:00pm - Some major product placement going on here - I think this shot of Christopher Walken going home exists just so he can pass sponsors' billboards.

2:13pm - I'm not sure if this is the first time in the movie that people have put on the helmets and had the images go from "flat" to full CinemaScope, but it makes me really wish (a) the Somerville's 70mm projection was ready and (b) 70mm prints of this were available. I bet that would be amazing.

Also, I wonder how these transitions are handled on video, because going to VR shouldn't make the image smaller.

2:21pm - Louise Fletcher is just awesome in this movie. Seriously, there's nothing not fantastic about her chain-smoking scientist. Meanwhile, Christopher Walken is making me doubt that he ever had a pre-self-parody phase.

2:25pm - Okay, moviegoers, I know we've had this talk before, but let's have it again. When there's a technical problem, don't yell "framing!" (or "focus!" or "sound!", as the case may be). If the projectionist can hear you, he knows about the problem and is trying to fix it. If not, you are annoying the guy next to you. Get out of your seat and tell an usher/manager rather than let the audience know you're annoyed.

2:40pm - (Squints at program) Yep, my parents would have let 10-year-old me see this back in 1983. Seriously, PG-rated nudity is great, just for that moment when your eyes go wide because the MPAA wouldn't have let that through.

2:59pm - The house in this movie is fantastic - it's got a river running through the living room and an observatory.

3:07pm - I didn't actually have a modem with acoustic couplers back in the 1980s, but I think they topped out at 300 bps. Go ahead, figure out how much faster the data on your phone is than that. What I'm saying is, you must have amazing compression to get immersive data through that pipe.

3:32pm - That's what you're ending it with, huh? Well, it's pretty.

A very cool movie; by a nifty coincidence, director Douglas Trumbull was recently honored by AMPAS for his contributions to special effects, and there's no doubt that he made the camera do some absolutely amazing things here. Highly recommended.

War of the Satellites

* * (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, 35mm)

3:44pm - Ah, terrible Roger Corman special effects. Only consume in moderation.

3:58pm - "Applausewut?" That's what I wrote. I'm guessing we were applauding something silly.

4:23pm - "I'll die before joining a race that kills innocent people for abstract ideas!!" This movie was made in 1958, so there may be some Cold War irony here, but Vietnam was a ways off.

4:25pm - Not just a funeral - a space funeral

Overall, a silly Roger Corman feature notable for Dick Miller having a rare lead role and starlet Susan Cabot, who really was good/pretty enough to have a much better career than she had. Mercifully short, at least.

I think this is where I accidentally spilled my Sierra Mist into the popcorn bin. Sorry, good people at the Somerville Theatre.

Endhiran (The Robot)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, 35mm)

4:55pm - That animated credit for "Superstar Rajini" is a thing of awesome ego. Seriously, it's longer, louder, and more elaborate than the logos for either the production company or distributor.

5:00pm - The audience here is more into Aishwarya Rai than Rajinikanth. It's going to be very different from when I saw it with a mostly-Indian audience at Fresh Pond.

5:14pm - Huh, I could have sworn Rai didn't kiss on-screen. Scandal!

5:48pm - Isaac Asimov name-checked in the lyrics; audience cheers. That kind of crowd.

6:09pm - I'm just saying, if I had a girlfriend that looked like Aishwarya Rai, I would not give my android "hormone simulation" subroutines. No good can come of this.

6:34pm - Did she just "just a friend" the robot? Yes, she did. That's going to go well.

6:50pm - INNUENDO!: "You'll be a tree / I'll be a woodpecker ... nibble like a goat!"

(One of the sad things about not having many older movies in the festival as prints get harder to find is the lack of hilarious, obvious innuendo. Chaste Indian musicals are similar, but it's just not the same.)

7:00pm - It gets nuts. "Happy Diwali, folks!"

And from here on, I sort of just soaked up the insanity that is the last act of Endhiran. I must admit, it's a strikingly different experience with two different crowds - both times, the audience was rambunctious, but the intermission and the audience more used to Indian movies' rhythms meant the Fresh Pond crowd was more into it by the end. I think the marathoids just got worn out.

Having seen Dimensions (scheduled for a 7:50pm start time) roughly twenty-four hours earlier, I figured this was a good time to get some food. I'd heard good things about Christo's, so I headed down the street for a couple of slices. When I got back, at 8:15, the movie still hadn't started; getting picture and sound out of the DVD player was driving Dave The Projectionist nuts.

To fill some time (and make sure things didn't fall further behind later), the Alien Mating Cry contest got moved up to 8:25pm from 9:50pm. Now, understand, nobody likes the Alien Mating Cry contest - it was funny once, but there's not a whole lot of variation that can be brought to it year-to-year. Garen keeps doing it because he sees the chance for cheap, easy publicity - why, this year, we almost had NPR come to do a segment for their goofy competitions thing. Me, I have my doubts how many new people come because of a local news story on the silly noises people make to an indifferent audience.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, 35mm)

8:36pm - It's started!

8:48pm - The folks who were there the previous night laugh a bit at something that the filmmakers pointed out but which many of us didn't catch.

9:08pm - I have no idea whether this bit about calling an apple an orange is meant to establish an alternate universe with different rules or show Stephen as eccentric. There's a lot of that in this movie.

9:45pm - Stephen really needs to be on the receiving end of the "you should pay attention to the actual living girl who likes you!" lecture.

9:50pm - Of course, Annie could do with hearing something similar about boys who will never put her first and notice how Conrad likes her more than his memories of Victoria.

Anyway, about as good as it had been the night before.

Attack the Block

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, video)

10:18pm - It's been there all day, but there's a really annoying draft in the balcony. At this hour, wind from outside is not welcome!

10:25pm - I am briefly terrified that someone in this movie is named "Mark". Fortunately, not the case.

10:40pm - I didn't really notice it the first time through, but the first act of this movie really establishes the setting in detail. There are maps, comments about making jumps from one walkway to another... Basically, every bit of geography that might come in useful during later action scenes.

11:43pm - "MOSES! MOSES!" It's funny how this movie has these conflicting themes of working together and protecting the tribe. Good movie, though.

Island of Lost Souls

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, 35mm)

11:52pm - First caffeine of the day, believe it or not!

11:55pm - "Take him to my room." INNUENDO! Take it where you can get it.

12:06am - Worst. Captain. Ever!

12:24am - This is where Star Trek writers learned about evolution, like it was a pre-programmed sequence heading for something.

12:55am - Uplift is just a bad idea, isn't it?

Not bad, although it's not really the best work either Charles Laughton or Bela Lugosi has done

1:05am - Tinfoil hat time. Just as silly as the Alien Mating Call one. Kind of surprised that one contestant didn't win off cleavage.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, 35mm)

1:16am - Cronenberg time!

1:22am - You know, it's it's such a rare thing to see Michael Ironside giving such a low-key perform--HOLY SHIT!

1:25am - That's why I don't drive: Cars just EXPLODE!

1:54am - I'm awake! Really, I am!

2:28am - I need me a giant 80s computer setup.

2:47am - OK, this is just awesomely gross. I miss creepy body-horror Cronenberg. I really hope his son has inherited this knack.

I can't really rate this one fairly; I zonked out at some point. Did you know this is out of print on DVD? I wound up buying a used one from Newbury Comics. Thus, we're almost certain to find out that the rights are now with Lionsgate and they're planning a deluxe Blu-ray release any day now.

Frankenstein (1931)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, 35mm)

3:00am - The warning from Carl Laemmle Jr.: "If any feel like you should not subject your nerves to such a strain..." "Dude, we just watched Scanners!"

3:26am - "It's ALIVE!"

3:31am - Applause for Karloff's entrance.

3:37am - Fritz is an evil f--- who gets what is coming to him.

3:50am - It's embarrassing, but as the villagers start chasing the Monster down, "Kill the Beast!" from Disney's Beauty and the Beast starts running through my head.

4:10am - "Puttin' on the Ritz" for in-between music.

Man, I love this movie, and the amazing thing is that every time I see it, it's like discovering it again for the first time.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, 35mm)

4:15am - I'm a bad nerd for never having really wanted to see this, aren't I?

4:43am - Kitty abuse

... and from here on out, it's "what'd I miss?" Here's another one I'll have to catch up with, because what I saw was a lot of fun, even though I generally don't like its mix of comedy and horror. A catch-up when it hits Blu-ray is a must.

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, 35mm)

And I just stopped taking notes here. This is another one where the marathon's going to cost me money; I'm pretty sure that I saw this during its theatrical release, but both then and now I didn't know enough about the series to really get into it beyond "cool music and fight choreography". This is so slick, though, that I'm pretty sure I'm going to have to spring for the "Remix: Complete Collection" of the series on DVD and maybe the movie on Blu-ray after that.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, 35mm)

Liked, but didn't quite love, this one when it hit theaters last spring, so I missed the beginning getting some breakfast (it was 7:30am-ish), vaguely remembering that it got better as it went on, and it absolutely did.

The crowd made a lot of difference. Seeing it in one of the lesser theaters in AMC Harvard Square, I had a lot of "is that really funny, or am I laughing just out of recognition?" moments, especially when the rest of the audience didn't join in. The same questions kind of come up here, but it doesn't matter, because everybody's laughing.

Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, 35mm)

Apparently, this pair of episodes from the original Battlestar Galactica series got edited together for a European theatrical release. It's... Well, honestly, it's better than I expected, without the casino-planet goofiness of last year's movie from the first two episodes. Not quite up to the heights of the newer series, but it kind of works.

Still, stripped of ads and edited to show up the action, it becomes clear pretty quickly that Universal did a few stock effects shots that got repeated throughout the series, and, wow, did we see them a lot.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 February 2012 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, video)

It's kind of weird that I've been put in the position of defending this movie on the Festival Message Board, since I really didn't like it that much, and on the second time through, it didn't make quite the good impression that it did the first time. Even then, I couldn't help but notice that a lot of the laughs came from the same two loud ladies directly behind me.

Still, the audience hated this. Or at least, that's the way the herd seemed to go, and I sort of hope that it's a case where those of us who kind of liked it weren't as adamant in our opinions as the people who despised it. Its shortcomings really aren't short enough to deserve the venom people were hurling at it.

And with that, it was time to go home and try to stay awake long enough to get normal sleep for work the next day. Thing that really happened, though: I was writing something, had a nod-off/space-out moment, and looked up to see I had actually typed "ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ". That's almost too good to be true, isn't it?

Anyway, a fun marathon, and here's hoping that the festival and thon are still going strong next year!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival Daily, 2012.09 (18 February): Time Again and Dimensions

Have some Not-Quite-Horrible Photography:

Let me tell you, Antony Neely is a dedicated Scot: I'm not running around New England in a kilt as a joke for even one day, but he was rocking something similar the next evening at the Marathon. Sure, it probably gets you remembered, but I just have a hard time imagining packing my luggage and thinking "I should bring two of these!"

Antony Neely and Sloane U'Ren were pretty charming guests, folks who know their stuff and can speak with confidence compared to the first-time filmmakers that make up the bulk of this festival's visitors. They had plenty of stories, and were happy to discuss details with the audience.

One question I get a lot after film festivals, especially the likes of Fantasia or SXSW where I see a pretty massive amount of films in a short amount of time, is how I keep them straight. The truth is, most of the time it's not that hard - unless you go to festivals that are very narrow or just see the studio films at major festivals, these events are composed of movies that tend to stick out in a crowd. Indeed, things only really get difficult in cases like this day, when there's little flexibility built into the schedule and you find yourself having to write about the same sort of thing twice in a row.

In this case, it's time travel that doesn't quite "diagram". And because this involves talking about the ends of movies, I'll pick this up after the reviews & links to EFC.

Time Again

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2012 in Somerville Theatre Micro-cinema (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, video)

It would be nice if Time Again were a little better. The filmmakers are trying so hard to make an entertaining movie, and at times they've got the right idea. Energy, enthusiasm, and good intentions can only take a movie so far, though, and this one could probably use a little more in the way of resources and experience.

Sam (Tara Smoker) and Marlo (Angela Rachelle) are sisters who live, work, and play together - although Sam is older and more responsible while Marlo is impetuous. And yet, it's Sam who disappears in the aftermath of a bloodbath at the diner where they work on her birthday. Six months later, a man with an office in the same building (Scott F. Evans) tries to have Marlo kidnapped because he thinks Sam stole something from him and now Marlo has it, though she's rescued by Detective Lym (John T. Woods). Things get really strange when an old woman (Gigi Perreau) shows up with a set of strange coins, somehow sending Marlo back in time to the day of the incident.

Director Ray Karwel knows what he wants to make here - a fun action movie which can be done with limited locations and budget, with a story simple enough for the audience to not have to worry about it but just enough twist to keep things interesting. On the larger scale, he gets the tone right more often than not. Things move fast enough to keep from getting dull, there's just enough irreverence for the tone to be breezy despite the real danger, with the silly, pulpy nature of the central plot device helping in that regard too. Karwel and his co-writers don't strive for more importance than the story can support, and that serves them well.

Full review at EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2012 in Somerville Theatre Micro-cinema (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, video)

As much as I found the festival describing Dimensions: A Line, A Loop, A Tangle of Threads (to give it its full title) with "Imagine a sci-fi film on PBS' Masterpiece Theatre" to be a bit too glibly "X meets Y", there's no denying that it is a very proper little English period science fiction story. Though there may in fact be less to it than meets the eye, it's handsomely mounted enough to be a real pleasure.

We start in 1921 - "one of many", as a subtitle informs us - watching three children play: Stephen (Sam Harrison) and Conrad (George Thomas), cousins who are more like brothers and now living together, and Victoria (Hannah Carson), the next-door neighbor who is mutually smitten with Stephen. A strange old Professor (Patrick Godfrey) drops in on the garden party and delights them with talk of time travel and other dimensions, but that will, unfortunately, be what the week is remembered for fifteen years later. In 1936, Stephen (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) is still living with his mother (Camilla Rutherford); he's a brilliant theoretical physicist obsessed with building a time machine even though his theories suggest, with ninety-nine percent certainty, that changing the past is impossible. He's aided at first by Conrad (Sean Hart), with the pair later joined by Annie (Olivia Llewellyn), who attended one of Stephen's lectures and may perhaps have grown interested in more than just the structure of spacetime.

It's interesting that writer Antony Neely (through Stephen) implies not just a "many worlds" cosmology for Dimensions, but the extreme one where every possible binary decision is made both ways (perhaps even at the quantum level), because the implication is not just that you can't change the past, but that free will itself is an illusion. This is done early, and sets the tone for the rest of the movie - it won't be a story of the mechanics of getting a specific result; rather, it will be a story of paths that cannot be left - a tragedy of unavoidable obsession.

Full review at EFC.

From here on out, the ends of the movie will be discussed

When I talk about time travel films in particular not "diagramming", what I basically mean is that you can draw a flowchart of the movies' events and find clear paths of cause and effect for all characters. It may sound like a ridiculous, nerdy thing to worry about, but a post on whether or not a direct-to-video movie fits together or not likely has the most pageviews and comments of anything I've done on this blog.

Time Again has problems in the area. It seems, structurally, to be a "closed loop" sort of story, where the circumstances that cause a character to travel in time are the results of that character traveling in time. The Terminator, pre-sequels, is close to the platonic idea of this structure; David Gerrold's "The Man Who Folded Himself" is it taken to its absurd extreme. If Time Again were a shorter movie, we could probably plot it something like this:

T+0. Marlo leaves Sam to get ready for the Vegas trip; remains off-screen until T+3.
T+1. Marlo from T+4 arrives to prevent Sam's death
T+2. Marlo and Sam leave the building, thus jumping forward to T+5. At this point, there is no Sam in the timeline.
T+3. Six months later, Marlo from T+0 is almost kidnapped by Mr. Way.
T+4. Sam from T+6 appears, gives Marlo the coin, and Marlo jumps to T+1.
T+5. Marlo and Sam return from T+2; final fight; old Sam leaves the building and jumps back to T+6
T+6. 45-ish years later, Sam jumps back to T+4, apparently comfortable waiting so long because she knows this is a closed loop and her jumping back is destiny.

That's actually kind of tight. The trouble is, there's not just a T+4; there's T+4.1 and T+4.2, with Marlo not getting things right the first time, changing history, and actually seeing Sam die at least once, which breaks causality - once Sam has died at T+2, where does the Sam from T+6 come from? Normally, this is the point where sci-fi films start doing handwaving ("we've got to jump back quickly before the time waves catch up and collapse this reality!"), but this movie doesn't even do that. I suppose with magic coins, you don't need to make sense, but it bugs me.

Dimensions sort of has the opposite problem - it diagrams perfectly, in part because it's built so that it it can't help but do so. When Stephen travels back in time to become "The Professor", his theory explicitly states that he can't actually change history, and his attempts to do so wind up not even creating alternate universes; by its logic, all possible timelines exist and all paths are taken.

And, that's kind of unsatisfying. Larry Niven once mentioned in an essay that he hated this sort of thing - it meant that nothing we do matters, and even our mistakes should be things we own. Sure, there is the inevitable line at the end about how Stephen was only 99% sure - and maybe his taking Victoria's jump-rope creates a new timeline where she survives, becomes best friends with Annie, and two couples pair off to live happily every after... But that's a last-second bit of bet-hedging.

Kudos to Dimensions for offering up a fairly clear view of this sort of structure, but by suggesting all timelines "count", it implies none of them do, and that does sort of suck the wind out of the movie's sails a bit.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 24 February 2012 - 1 March 2012

Whoa... SF/37 over, no Japanese class this weekend... It feels like a strangely vast expanse of free time!

It ends with the Oscar telecast, and I wish I had thought of buying Statler and Waldorf puppets and setting up shop in one of the corners of the Brattle's balcony and heckling Billy Crystal all evening. However, they apparently don't make those things and I totally forgot about RSVPing. And, if you follow me on Twitter Sunday night, you will se that I probably am not nearly quick-witted enough to make it work.

  • If you want to do some last-minute catch-up for the smaller awards, the Coolidge is the place to go - not only do they still have the Animated and Live Action shorts programs playing in the GoldScreen, but they are also opening Bullhead in the screening room. It's nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, and while A Separation seems to be the prohibitive favorite, it's pretty darn good.

    Arietty and The Artist continue in the 35mm rooms, along with a few special engagements. The Toxic Avenger plays at midnight on Friday and Saturday; somehow, this gory Troma flick spawned a kids' cartoon back in the day. On the other side of the class-o-meter, they will be presenting a repatory series featuring Viggo Mortensen starting on Tuesday the 28th: It kicks off with A History of Violence that night, A Walk on the Moon on Wednesday the 29th, and The Road on Thursday, March 1st, continuing during next weekend with a Lord of the Rings marathon on the 4th and the award presentation on the 5th.

    If you'd like to see something cool and support Independent Film Festival Boston, they're presenting a live performance of The Tobolowsky Files, the popular spoken-word podcast of ubiquitous actor Stephen Tobolowsky. Well, I assume it's cool, considering that Tobolowsky is a scene-stealer who makes every movie or TV show he's in better.

  • Kendall Square also has the Oscar Shorts, but otherwise remain mostly the same, swapping Declaration of War out for Addiction Incorporated, a documentary on how tobacco companies knowingly made cigarettes more addictive.

  • The mainstream theaters are much busier. The most screens go to Act of Valor, a military thriller with the distinction of being cast with actual Navy SEALs. Likely not the strongest of plots, but might be interesting in a documentary fashion. It plays at Somerville, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, and Harvard Square. Other thrills come from Gone, in which Amanda Seyfried plays a woman who escapes from a serial killer, who comes back to finish the job but kidnaps her sister. It plays the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and Fenway.

    On the lighter side, there's Wanderlust, in which down-on-their-luck married couple Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston get sidetracked into a hippie community on their way to move in with Rudd's brother. Director David Wain and his co-writer Dan Marino have done some great stuff, especially with Rudd. It plays Somerville, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and Fenway. There's also Tyler Perry's Good Deeds,, in which writer/director/star Perry plays a successful businessman discovering what he really wants in life. No Madea, apparently; it plays Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and Fenway.

  • The Brattle is all special events this week. They finish up the Bugs Bunny Film Festival with Friday and Saturday matinees of the "Looney Tunes Revue", with Battle Royale playing evenings. Sunday is the Oscar party, with a special fundraising gala at 5:30pm and the awards at 8pm - but if you're going, you've probably already RSVPed. Monday is a screening of Dirty Old Town presented by Karmaloop; it's about a New York storekeeper trying to keep his shop open. On Tuesday, Balagan presents "Highlights of the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival" with Q&A from curator Calmin Borel. Wednesday is a special "Leap Day" double feature of two movies chosen by popular vote, Network and Empire Records. And Thursday is the local premiere of "unromantic comedy" Party Like It's a Verb, with cast and crew in attendance for Q&A afterward.

  • If you're not into the whole Oscars thing, the Harvard Film Archive is actually scheduling a screening opposite it, with a special guest no less. Whit Stillman will be there all weekend to introduce his films, including his new one, Damsels In Distress on Saturday. He'll also be presenting Metropolitan on Friday and The Last Days of Disco on Sunday, all at 7pm, with a Whit-less screening of Barcelona on Sunday at 5pm. After Mr. Stillman leaves, there will be a Monday evening screening of To the Starry Island to finish off the Park Kwang-su retrospective, and a free VES screening of Rear Window on Wednesday.

  • ArtsEmerson combines their Gotta Dance series with the anniversary of the original opening of their Paramount Theater on 25 February 1932 with Torch Singer (a Paramount musical from 1933; they did 1932 a year or two ago and intend to keep moving forward each year) and Moonlight and Pretzels, which is from Universal but not available on DVD. They're a double feature on Friday and Saturday, with Moonlight and Pretzels also having a matinee screening on Sunday. Saturday's matinee is, once again, a new print of Stand by Me.

  • The MFA continues a pair of series, with The Films of Dervis Zaim running through Sunday with scattered showings of Shadows and Faces, Dot, Waiting for Heaven, Mud, Elephants and Grass, and Somersault in a Coffin. The week's "Exiled in Hollywood" entry is Destination Tokyo, with Cary Grant and company on a secret WWII mission in Japanese waters.

    The February schedule ends on Wednesday the 29th with a preview screening of Free Men, a French film set in WWII about a black-marketer blackmailed into spying on a Paris mosque. Director Ismaël Ferroukhi will be present afterward for a Q&A. The March schedule starts the next day, with the first days of brief runs of both a new 35mm print of Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert and Paddy Considine's much-lauded Tyrannosaur.

  • The Bollywood opening at Fresh Pond is Jodi Breakers, a romantic comedy featuring Bipasha Basu and R. Madhavan as a pair who break engaged couples up for money. Looks like Heartbreaker, whose producers threatened legal action. Make sure to check times on iMovieCafe site if you go, as it's sharing its screen with unsubtitled Tamil and Telegu films.

  • In addition to the new films opening there, the Arlington Capitol gets a couple of second-run shows - Hugo re-opens in 3D and Chronicle moves over from Somerville.

My plans? Well, I'll try and hit the Whit Stillman shows, and maybe (finally) get to The Phantom Menaces, Arietty, and the Oscar-nominated shorts. And, of course, weak live-tweeting of the Oscars.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival Daily, 2012.08 (17 February): Sol and "Steampunk'd"

Shall we say, not my favorite night of the festival. There were worse, but this was a one-two punch of a thing I'd hoped to be good that turned out to be terrible and a thing I wasn't really jazzed for that was about what I expected, leaving me to wonder if I was subconsciously seeing mediocrity so that I could be right. I hope not.

Still, Sol was really bad. A fellow sitting next to me actually got up and walked around the lobby a couple of times to escape the stupid, and I probably had a bruise from the number of times my hand hit my head at how what the characters were doing and the world in general just made no sense. Garen said afterward that he didn't hear much complaining during the movie (this fest is about the only place where I hear complaints about there not being enough talking in the theater), only to be answered by somebody saying that eye-rolling doesn't make a sound.

As for the Steampunk'd shots, steampunk was announced early as a theme of the festival, which strikes me as kind of a mistake - themes should emerge from the material you can get, not be determined ahead of time and lead to awkward attempts to fit things in. The shorts were mostly OK, if you like that sort of thing, although one clearly benefited from "awww, aren't the kids making a movie like real actors so cuuuute?"

Granted, I'm not a big fan of the style in general. I suspect that there are very real reasons why things didn't get steampunky in real life, probably material and fuel related (maybe a world with less abundant petroleum would be a more steampunkish world - everything's coal-fired, there's few plastics or synthetic fabrics, although you'd need a substitute lubricant for all the mechanical things). Or maybe the precision machinery necessary to make all those cool-looking devices means that more compact, functional ones are possible.


* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2012 in Somerville Theatre Micro-cinema (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, video)

Sol has a sci-fi-on-a-budget premise and filmmakers who look like they know how to stretch it, and while that's encouraging at the start, it quickly becomes clear that the things independent films often use to make up for it - clever writing and strong acting - are in perilously short supply. It's one thing to be marooned on a strange planet without food or water; being there without a sensible script is even more dangerous.

The teens in this movie are on this planet for the "Sol Invictus" tournament, where cadets from various academies are sent to a strange world, with the first team to locate Earth's sun in the night sky winning top placements. Something has gone very wrong with the portal, and while one team has arrived more or less intact, the rest are represented by single members. The captain of the main team, Lee (Jake Brown), tells the rest they can follow him or see how they do on their own, an attitude which quickly wears on some of the singletons. They include Kit (Spenser Pollard), the "chronicler" carrying a camera around; Adrian (Aaron Kuban), who has competed and won before but was disqualified; and Eli (Caleb Courtney) & Tyl (Jake White), once close friends representing rival schools. After the party is attacked by the native life, the survivors meet up with a couple others - Lex (Sky King), an engineer from the infamously ruthless Scorpius Academy, and Howard (Tyler Thomas), a cook from Terra Prime.

The structure of Sol - rivals dropped into a situation where they must either work together or perish - is so basic that it would seem resistant to being screwed up, but writer/director Benjamin Carland seems to actively resist doing anything that seems like a logical action for the characters. He knows the basic path this story should follow, but uses a drunkard's walk to follow it: Characters will be able to get along and work together without apparent antipathy in one scene and then completely turn on each other in the next (or even within the same shot!), which inevitably leads to the character who has been banished from the tribe being needed three scenes later. They lie and keep life-threatening secrets for no good reason other than the plot's need for conflict. As a result, the conflict seldom seems natural - and in fact, sometimes the lack of conflict doesn't feel natural, like the filmmakers forgot that a character was a jerk and would likely be a jerk in this spot.

Full review at EFC.


Seen 17 February 2012 in Somerville Theatre Micro-cinema (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, video)

Pretty packed, although no costume contest. Which is bull; what's the point of doing steampunk anything if there's not a costume contest?

The short films themselves were OK, or at least the audience responded to them (I half suspect that the place was packed with people out to support "Steam Driven" and thus much more down for this than the audience for the rest of the fest). Steampunk isn't really my thing - I like my science fiction forward looking rather than fashion-driven - but some were on the fun-ish side.

"War of the Worlds: Goliath" - A sizzle reel for a forthcoming animated movie, filled with plenty of explosions and airships and the like. The animation is sort of interesting, somewhat anime-style although also looking like Flash. As a demo reel, it's kind of hard to get a read on it - it's pretty much all action scenes, without even the rudimentary storytelling of a conventional trailer Might be worth checking out, though.

"The Schlonburger Certainty Postulator" - A not-really-steampunkish-at-all (aside from some improvised tech and goggles) goof on what happens when a time machine/duplicator is misused. Kind of amusing premise, although it vacillates between overly dry and one character being played quite broadly indeed.

"Molly and the Masked Storm" - On the one hand, this is too long and cutesy and doesn't get quite the mileage it thinks it does from its self-referentiality. On the other, the cast is junior high-school kids, which makes the not-inconsiderable number of things they do well even more impressive.

"Doctor Glamour" - A busy, busy thing that starts out with alt-Victorian restraint (to the point of being told without dialogue) to become a loud glam-rocky thing. A big chunk of the audience loved it, though it didn't do much for me - the first half struck me as dull, the second as tacky.

"Steam Driven" - A short big enough to be called a "featurette", running about 45 minutes, shot in New England and with some really snazzy locations, costumes, props, etc. The acting was pretty good, too, although I suspect you can get away with a lot if you shoot something silent, as this was (it's very forgiving of both over- and under-acting). Very slick, decent story...

... but it's got problems, too. It's too long, for one thing, opening with a title card that says "Monday", soon referring to a dance coming up on Saturday, and not really having enough story to get from one to the other . The style of silent movie-making is weird, too - like Time of the Robots on Wednesday, there were sound effects and incidental noise, but not speech, as in "someone drops a hammer and you hear the thud of it hitting the floor but not the yelp of pain because it hit his foot first" (just an example; that didn't actually happen). That's weird, right? If all you've got's the score, maybe with effects implied, that's a style; this is a weird world where people move their mouths without sound but apparently communicate because they are all able to read lips.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival Daily, 2012.07 (16 February): The Golden Age of Science Fiction

This Week in Tickets is going to be rolled into next week's, I think. There's one thing on it (SF/37), and I don't need to write about each movie twice.

The Golden Age of Science Fiction director Eric Solstein

We were in theater #2 for this one, and I'm not sure why that was the only day we were out of the screening room; on both weeks, the Somerville Theatre was only showing four movies, and only a few days had live shows and special presentations in the big room; Friday, in particular, had two short programs with local filmmakers, with the second one at least over capacity.

The night's feature was pretty good, although there were bits that I would have liked to see expanded upon somewhat. John Campbell's personal life is almost completely left out, and there was some odd stuff there. There was more interesting information on that in the introductions to stories in The Worlds of George O. (Smith, that is); that's where I first heard about Campbell's early interest in dianetics, how authors felt it was sending Astounding off the rails, and how it was a contributing factor to Campbell and his first wife divorcing (and her taking up with Smith). Maybe that sort of soap opera wasn't what Solstein was looking for anyway, but knowing those holes are there makes me wonder why more wasn't done along those lines, or at least acknowledging that there were issues, not just in his personal life, but in how the magazine ran as a result.

I'd put an Amazon link to the book, but it's out of print. Not expected for a paperback from 1982 (and I have no idea what used bookstore I picked it up in and why I went for that one), but I was kind of surprised that the edition of Campbell's The Black Star Passes I bought a year or two ago wasn't available either. For a guy who is as important as Campbell - Analog is in many ways still his magazine, 45 years later - his own work and those of his collaborators are awfully hard to find, unless they've fallen into the public domain and can thus be found on the Kindle.

The Golden Age of Science Fiction

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2012 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, video)

Though it may seem odd to some that this movie should focus on one man when title references a period of roughly fifteen years when many great authors wrote their classic works, science fiction fans probably won't have too much of an issue with it. Seventy-five years after becoming editor of Astounding, John W. Campbell Jr. is likely still the most important figure in the genre, even if his own personal great works were few.

Campbell, we learn, had a science background but never actually worked in the field, taking other jobs and writing stories (including "Who Goes There?", later adapted as The Thing) before being tapped as the new editor of Astounding in 1937. He worked alongside the previous editor for several months, but in 1938 the first issues under his sole stewardship came out, and his stamp was immediately clear: More emphasis on quality writing while still insisting on a good understanding of science, editorials meant to challenge and stimulate the readership, and a tendency to feed writers ideas and help them shape stories early, rather than make changes later. He would frequently claim to have read more lousy sf than anybody, because he personally went through every submission that came in. He made Astounding the premiere magazine for science fiction, but the properties that made him excellent at his job would cripple him in other areas, and eventually hurt his work.

Director Eric Solstein didn't set out to make a movie about Campbell per se; he started out by interviewing the surviving writers from that era in the late 1990s and early 2000s for a project called "The Possible Future", mainly aimed at academic institutions. "The Editor" was a topic included in many of these conversations, generating enough material without repetition to make up a documentary of its own. Working mainly with this footage, he constructs what is essentially an oral history: Nearly the entire film is his interview footage, and the exceptions don't stray too far from that.

Full review at EFC.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival Daily, 2012.63 (15 February): Time of the Robots

Let's get straight to the Terrible Photography:

Time of the Robots director Erik Hammen and Garen Daly.

Not a whole lot to say about this movie that I didn't say in my review, and let's face it, I'm kind of surprised at how much I had to say there, considering that some of the things I'd usually include (such as acting, design, etc.) were kind of irrelevant, given how the movie is a mash-up.

I think I've got a slightly higher opinion of the movie's and Hammen's ambitions now than I did immediately after seeing it. In his Q&A, he mentioned that every character but the robots had some sort of physical transformation on-screen, but the way he talked about it, this theme sounded like something he put in there but which didn't have a particular meaning or purpose. In writing the review, I wonder if it's a sort of reflexive thing - just as the characters change over the course of the movie, he's reshaping art into something else. The robots just do what they're programmed to do, and maybe that's Hollywood, mechanically cranking out empty blockbuster after empty blockbuster...

Sure, maybe Hammen had that in mind all along... But in some ways, it seems more likely that I'm just making connections after the fact. Not that it matters; if I get that out of the movie, it doesn't much matter whether he put it in deliberately or not.

Time of the Robots

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2012 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, video)

My first reaction to Erik Hammen's Time of the Robots is that it's a bit like the story of the talking dog, where the important thing is not that the dog speaks eruditely, but that it talks at all. I think that gives this project too much credit, though - yes, Hammen has mashed various public domain feature films and serials together into a new silent movie, and that's impressive, but unless the whole is better than the sum of its parts, what's the point?

As the movie opens, aliens from the Phantom Planet have visited Earth, who send Fritz Fausten (Buster Crabbe) to serve as ambassador, along with his girlfriend Marta Gerhadt (Carol Hughes). A jealous princess, though, sends Fritz home bereaved, and his replacement, Doktor Mercury (Bela Lugosi) eventually returns home with the technology to build robots. But when these robots start going haywire, and Mercury refuses to co-operate with police, Fausten must called back into action. But what has really happened to Marta?

Hammen pulls together footage from over a dozen sources, most notably Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, Radar Men from the Moon, The Phantom Creeps, and Tarzan the Fearless, and relies on public domain music as well, though he composes some of his own and of course writes the new dialogue himself. This is, by and large, decent source material - few of these movies are exactly award winners, but they're entertaining serial and B-movie fare that are fun to watch on their own. And even the ones that aren't good as wholes have a few gems within them to be excavated, and a movie made up of the various good bits has something going for it.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival Daily, 2012.05 (14 February): Whatever Happened to Pete Blaggitt? and Zero One

What's this... A festival report where I don't have to use the "crap" tag? It's a little miracle!


Sorry about the Terrible Photography; even with the new phone, there's just so much you can do when the light doesn't co-operate. Anyway, that's Kareem Gray, a genial filmmaker out of Texas who wrote and directed Zero One, and did a pretty good job of it, considering that he likely didn't have much of a budget and he had some ambitions. He and festival director Garen Daly had a few tales to tell about some of the truly strange things that can go wrong in making a movie independently. Stuff that usually gets kept quiet, actually, but I can imagine it's the sort of frustration that's hard to muzzle.

I liked the guy, though. He still seems genuinely enthusiastic about making movies in general and this one in particular, even with these particular challenges. He was still talking about dreams and art in a way that sounded a little grandiose, but I've seen other filmmakers broken from the frustration, and this is better.

Whatever Happened to Pete Blaggitt?

* * (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2012 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, video)

There's the potential in Whatever Happened to Pete Blaggit? for a movie which one can feel strongly about. It may be a black comedy, an earnest melodrama, or a twisty, off-kilter bit of science fiction. Unfortunately, writer/director Mark Jeavons doesn't seem to know which one of them he wants to make, so he tries to stick pieces of all of them in, but they don't fit together well. The most memorable bits, unfortunately, tend to be the least well-handled.

Peter Blagmore (Rob Leethem) inherited his father's wedding-video business, but from what the audience sees of him at work, he really shouldn't be part of a day people will remember forever. His brother Eugene (Andy Pandini) and their co-worker Clive (Adam Rickitt) are not a lot of help, and his behavior finally leads to his ex-wife Tracy (Gabrielle Amies) kicking him out of the house after they've been divorced for six years. It looks like Pete's hitting rock bottom, at least until a series encounters with gangsters, alien abductions, and dimensional portals in refrigerators make things take a turn for the weird.

Many of the elements in Pete Blaggit aren't bad, but it's difficult to overstate how much trouble Jeavons has combining them. The comedy is frequently on the sillly side, with Pete's hair, wardrobe, and video equipment a couple decades out of date, most characters played in the broadest way possible, and the special effects for the sci-fi elements meant to be deliberately campy. The filmmaker wants the characters to nuanced and tragic, though, so there will be frequent moments when the movie slows down, some color drains from the image, and voice-over narration will comment on the flashbacks to how these characters got to this place in their lives. Jeavons doesn't have the killer instinct to make it work, though - the revelations aren't blindsiding, suddenly making the audience reconsider what they think of the characters, and the flashbacks and narration are played too straight to work as self-aware satire of attempts to build up the characters in this sort of comedy. Some movies can work these contradictions to make the audience unsure what they should feel; this one makes it hard to feel anything.

Full review at EFC.

Zero One

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2012 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, video)

Nerds are, like most of the rest of humanity, kind of hypocrites. This movie's main character probably tells anybody who ask him for computer advice not to open attachments from an unknown source, but you know what happens if this guy who knows better acts that sensibly? Three-minute movie, that's what happens.

The "attachment" in this case is a large file that network engineer Devon Owens (Jordan Spradley) found while poking around the internet. It unpacks an artificial intelligence whose alphanumeric designation is quickly abbreviated "Zero One". Devon and friend/co-worker Kyle Manning (Jeff Hoferer) put it on an isolated server and attempt to control what information it is fed as it attempts to learn, but AIs have a way of getting around firewalls. And when Devon meets Ingrid (Monica Peña) after having quit his job in part to spend more time working with 01... Well, just like AIs figure their way around firewalls, they tend to have trouble understanding human relationships.

As much as "two guys set up a computer program and talk to it" does not exactly sound like the most engrossing set-up for a movie, the first half or so of Zero One actually bounces along pretty well. In fact, it's not very long at all before one may forget that the film opened with a flash-forward that suggests the stakes will eventually get much higher than some overtaxed routers and awkward man-machine conversations. It turns out that the getting from one situation to the other is a bit clumsy, with danger suddenly appearing out of nowhere despite some awkward foreshadowing, a somewhat-forced lull, and then something else which finally brings to movie full-circle.

Full review at EFC.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 17 February 2012 - 23 February 2012

Curse you, movie scheduling people, for stacking so much stuff I want to see on top of each other like this. Did you book all the good stuff for this week after I'd purchased by SF/37 pass and just laugh and laugh?

  • SF/37, aka the 37th Annual Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival wraps up this weekend with two more days of new science fiction films in the Somerville Theatre on Friday and Saturday, and then the big Marathon that starts at noon on Sunday and lets out twenty-four hours later. The festival films have been uneven, but there's been some good stuff, and a lot of appealing things in the 'thon too. Only bummer: My company's new ownership doesn't consider President's Day a holiday, so I have to dip into vacation time.

  • Look, I think we all know that I'd rather see stuff on 35mm film than digital, but if theaters are going to be switching over to digital projection, shouldn't that mean they can show a little flexibility in exhibiting things like The Secret World of Arrietty? I don't doubt that Disney has given it a very nice English-language soundtrack (even if the UK one looks nicer), but why not show the 9pm screenings in Japanese with English subtitles? Anyway, Hayao Miyazaki co-wrote the screenplay and Hiromasa Yonebayashi directs in his feature debut. It plays Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, and Boston Common.

    Kendall Square's one-week booking opening this week is Declaration of War, a dramatic film written by and starring Jérémie Elkaïm & Valérie Donzelli (with Donzelli directing) that is based upon their own struggles dealing with the diagnosis of their very young son with a brain tumor. Looks great, but be warned - it's not only expected in town for one week, but it's sharing a screen with The Iron Lady and will thus only be playing at 4:10pm and 9:25pm. Plan accordingly! They also open up Rampart, in which woody Harrelson reunites with The Messenger director Oren Moverman, this time playing a corrupt cop in one of Los Angeles's more infamous precincts.

  • The more conventional multiplexes open up a couple of action-oriented pictures. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance has Nicolas Cage returning as Johnny Blaze, this time with the directors of Crank at the helm and no Eva Mendes or Sam Elliott; here's hoping that some of the off-kilter charm of the first movie survived (it wasn't exactly good, but Cage doesn't often do boring). It plays the Arlington Capitol, Fresh Pond, Fenway, and Boston Common in both flat and 3D shows (3D only at the Capitol); check times for which plays when.

    Best buddies who are also international spies compete for the affections of the same girl in This Means War. Sadly, the reviews are poisonous, which is a shame, because I was hoping for good things from McG, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, and Reese Witherspoon. It plays the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Harvard Square, Boston Common, and Fenway.

    And if you're looking to do some Oscar catch-up, AMC's Boston Common theater has a four-film marathon starting at 11am - War Horse, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, and The Descendants. The other five films will play on the 25th.

  • The Coolidge cleans house this weekend, and in addition to picking up Arietty, will also be running The Artist, with the 7:20pm showing on Tuesday the 21st being an "Off the Couch" screening with post-film discussion by members of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society. They will also be adding two more sets of Oscar-Nominated Shorts to the digital rooms, as programs with 5 live-action shorts and 9 animated ones join the 4 documentaries already playing.

    At midnight on Friday and Saturday, they'll be showing the newest Troma flick, Father's Day, with the Z-movie studio's godfather, Lloyd Kaufman, on hand to introduce Friday's show and face interrogation afterward. Saturday night features prettier guests, with the Betsi Feathers Valentine Special burlesque show upstairs.

    Sunday morning, on the other hand, is the Goethe-Institut presentation of If Not Us, Who?, about rebellious youth in 1960s Germany. Monday night, there's a Science On Screen presentation of Crimes and Misdemeanors, with Northeastern University psychology professor David DeSteno on hand afterward to break the thinking of the characters in Woody Allen's movie down.

  • It's school vacation week so the Brattle is having their annual Bugs Bunny Film Festival, with 90 minutes of classic Looney Tunes projected from film. The "All Bugs Revue" plays Friday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, with "Chuck Jones Goes Looney" playing Saturday, Monday, and Wednesday.

    For those looking for a different form of absurdity, the DocYard presents Campaign on Monday evening; it presents an inside look at the city council campaign of a man running for city council under the Liberal Democratic Party banner, despite apparently having no qualifications for the job other than the machine's support.

  • The Harvard Film Archive and Korean Institute of Harvard welcome Park Kwang-su to their screening room. Park is a noteworthy member of the wave of Korean filmmakers that pushed against the country's censorship in the late eighties and early nineties to tell more political stories, and he'll be present for three screenings of his films - A Single Spark on Friday, Chilsu and Mansu on Saturday, and The Uprising on Sunday - and already on his way back home when Black Republic plays on Monday evening. In between, there will also be a screening of Robert Bresson's The Devil Probably on Sunday afternoon, closing out his retrospective.

  • ArtsEmerson has two guests this weekend, with Robert Todd presenting a selection of 16mm shorts on Friday at 6pm and Robert Drew presenting two documentary featurettes on JFK during crucial moments ("Primary" and "Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment") on Saturday at 7pm. There will also be two screenings of The Merry Widow, an Ernst Lubitsch-directed musical with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald that is not available on DVD (Friday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm), and a new print of Stand By Me on Saturday at 2pm.

  • The Studio Ghibli series at the MFA wraps up this weekend with screenings of Pom Poko, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Porco Rosso, and My Neighbors the Yamadas. They also continue the "Exiled in Hollywood" series with Friday and Saturday screenings of Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair, featuring Marlene Dietrick, Jean Arthur, and John Lund, and will start a new series, The Films of Derviş Zaim, on Thursday the 23rd with the Turkish director's recent Shadows and Faces.

  • The Regent Theatre in Arlington is actually showing a bunch of film this week: The second and final screening of RE: Generation Music Project is Friday at 10:30pm, and looks spiffy. They premiere a new sing-along feature, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, from Friday to Sunday. And the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour runs Monday through Wednesday, with three different programs featuring mountain and adventure sports.

My plans? Finishing up SF/37, naturally, and then likely crashing Monday before trying to catch up with Arietty, Star Wars, Declaration of War, and maybe some Oscar Shorts later in the week.

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival Daily, 2012.04 (13 February): The Book and The Last Push

All things considered, this was probably the best day of the festival so far - the bad movie was at least bad in a fascinating way, and the good one is almost certainly the best of the festival.

The Book is bad, in many different ways, but it's bad in a way that's at least sort of charming and authentic. One thing I didn't get to in my review is the music, which, like everything else, is the work of writer/director/etc. Richard Weiss. The tracks listed in the credits have (C)(P) 1979-1981 on them, meaning that they were apparently written during the time period where much of this movie's inspiration comes from.

They're terrible, of course, and as they played out during the end credits, someone walked to the next room, The Museum of Bad Art, and the people looking at the... things... in there were whispering as they discussed what was on the wall. The guy who'd been in The Book said you don't have to whisper in there, to which the others responded "but ...the music!" Yes, the soundtrack from The Book can be mistaken for background music ideally suited for the MOBA.

I did also have to appreciate the way the cast's names were spoken in the main titles, as opposed to appearing on screen. Fit the movie's message.

It was followed by The Last Push, which, yes, is a movie made just for me, as I love interplanetary-era stuff. Aside from being a good, well-made story, I appreciate that the folks involved seemed to sweat some details. I bet that if you measure the rotation period on the Life One and figure out its size, it would in fact be what is necessary to simulate Earth-normal gravity, because FX guys tend to be the sort of people who do that just from pride in their work when they can.

(And, hey, seeing people use good science for good storytelling is a fine antidote to all those English majors who tell me that I shouldn't be bothered by every establishing shot in Another Earth!)

The Book: They Came from Inner Space

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2012 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, video)

As remarkably inept as The Book is, I was still willing to give it a recommendation of the "guilty pleasure" variety, almost entirely for its commitment to its retro-bizarre style. A man can only take so much, though, and writer/director/everything Richard Weiss eventually pushed his movie from funky kitsch to frustrating inanity. And yet,it's still kind of fascinating in its awfulness, a terrible movie that's more fun to talk about than many masterpieces.

200 years ago, in 2284, a book was written with the assistance of alien creatures from "inner space" that was unlike any other: Once someone started reading it, they could not stop until it was finished, and the words would purge all negative emotions from the reader - and, some would argue, free will. Tonight, as the eight planets align, a clandestine group meets underneath a utopian city to pass along the true story of The Book - how science-fiction author Alex Paris (Stan Weston), his wife Cleo (Marlene Ryan), and daughter Julie (Pamela Wycliffe) had a strange and horrifying encounter with these allegedly peaceful aliens.

The first thing a person notices about this movie is just how garish the production is - it's cheap-looking, the colors are blinding, the fashion is weird, every ordinary thing has been hand-made or modified in a strange fashion to appear futuristic, with nonsensical names and slang dropped into every line that makes the most straightforward conversations sound bizarre. And it is glorious! Say what you will about societies where a person's caste can be quickly deduced from how large and ornate their hat is, but the device gets the point across quickly. A lot of the design is just batty - if not for a gratuitous morphing effect toward the end, I would suspect that The Book was a lost relic of the 1970s, because why else would Alex write using a "futuristic" typewriter whose keys are unmarked blinking lights? It makes no sense, but a colorful future that has evolved in random ways is just fun to look at, and if Weiss was going for a 70s-sci-fi pastiche, he hit the bulls-eye.

Full review at EFC.

The Last Push

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2012 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, video)

The Last Push is a movie by space nuts but for a larger audience, and I very much hope that it will find one on the festival circuit. The filmmakers give themselves the opportunity to do a lot with a little, and then impress with a smooth, and occasionally exemplary, job on the follow-through.

Photographs from unmanned probes have discovered life underneath the ice of Jupiter's moon Europa, and NASA plans more robot missions, Walter Moffitt (Lance Henriksen) has opted to spend a large chunk of his personal fortune to send a manned mission to observe these whale-like creatures. the Life One has a two-person crew - cheerful Nathan Miller (James Madio) and taciturn Michael Forrest (Khary Payton) - who are expected to spend much of the fifteen-year mission in suspended animation. The ship is hit with a micrometeorite in interplanetary space, leaving Nathan dead, the capsule where the astronauts had been in suspended animation uninhabitable, and Michael with a lot of time on his hands.

The "one astronaut alone" set-up is a common one in independent science fiction (see Love and Moon for other recent examples), and for good reason: It lets the filmmakers keep a lid on the budget and gives an actor some potentially meaty material. The Last Push is more committed to this paradigm than most; filmmaker Eric Hayden doesn't use fantasies or flashbacks to get Michael out of the habitation module or to put anybody else inside it with him. It's a well-designed set, too, and not just because Hayden and cinematographer A.J. Raitano can get good shots despite the closeness of all four walls - it's clean, functional, and cramped enough that the prospect of three years in it is unappealing but large enough to give Khary Payton room to work.

Full review at EFC.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

This Week In Tickets: 6 February 2012 - 12 February 2012

Festivals. They're at war with the weekly grind.

This Week In Tickets!

I was hoping to fit one or two more things in there, but work. The good news is that, at least when the MBTA eliminates the bus that connects Cambridge to Burlington this summer, it will be much easier for me to get to stuff that starts at 6:30pm after working from home.

(And if they do it in July, well, what will the company care if I'm remote from Cambridge or Montreal?)

Not a lot of variety this week even with a fair amount of volume - although I wasn't exactly trying to warm up for a week spent watching sci-fi films with a superhero flick and an anime classic with floating cities and sky pirates; it just happened that way. I may have to gorge on very grounded indies to counteract this next week.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2012 in the Somerville Theatre #2 (first-run, 35mm)

Still, if you're going to go the superhero route, it may as well be with Chronicle. I'm not sure why I had low expectations before starting to hear good things; I suspect it's mostly a matter of becoming numb to found-footage marketing. The films are often a bunch of fun, but the people selling them seem to feel the need to not "break character" and acknowledge that these aren't documentaries - except we know this, and thus it feels like I'm being lied to...

Whatever the reason for my reticence might have been, the end result is pretty darn great. Sure, it starts from some very basic pieces - a cool kid/aloof kid/troubled kid trio, a plot device that's almost ridiculously vague and unexplained, and one kid getting hit with two parental nightmares (one loving and dying, the other an angry alcoholic) - and there's not really a single step in the story that can't be predicted from the set-up. It's often the case that execution is more important than set-up, and the execution here is quite good - Dane De Haan, Michael B. Jordan, and Alex Russell hit these characters pretty much dead-center, and the filmmakers (director Josh Trank and scripter Max Landis) recognize the strength of the basic stories and don't mess them up.

Plus, they use the assembled-footage technique very well. At first, it's a way to center things around Dane DeHaan's Andrew and say something about his character, with the implication being that the special effects will be lo-fi and things will remain character-focused, but it eventually becomes clear that this isn't Paranormal Activity, but Cloverfield, except that Trank and his effects guys pay the promise of bigger things off even better: Seeing these flying scenes is the same sort of experience audiences at Richard Donner's Superman had 30-odd years ago: It's something that's been done before, but never this well. And the big action scene is fantastic: It's clear when the format would seem to give the director free reign to be confusing, and cut together in a really exceptional way.

Some have complained about the way Trank seems to abandon the faux-doc aesthetic in the last act, or "forgave" him because the end result is just a fantastic action sequence, but I think he and Landis should be getting more credit for it: They recognized a limit of the form, created onscreen ways to circumvent it: A fair amount of time is spent establishing that manipulating cameras almost instinctively was something Andrew did, and whatever in-story filmmaker is piecing footage together after the fact was established as having access to multiple video sources early on. That's smart and inventive, and I hope to see more like that from these guys' future projects.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky
Pig & The Millennium Bug
In The Renaissance & Folklore
Green Card, Please & Neander-Jin

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival Daily, 2012.03 (12 February): "Green Card, Please" and Neander-Jin

Today's lesson: Crossing the street, ordering a burger at Boston Burger Company, having it cook, and eating it will not fill the entire two and a half hours between the end of one movie and the start of the next one you haven't seen, which is not a great situation when it's Really Cold Out and greater Boston shuts down early on Sunday.

And then, your reward for sticking around? Neander-Jin. Ugh.

(Saving grace: Ranch Burger at BBC. So, so good!)

"Green Card, Please"

Seen 12 February 2012 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, video)

This turned out to be an interesting selection of shorts; none that I'd call out-and-out great, but each one managed to have something noteworthy:

"Geners" - This one, for instance, had some pretty darn impressive cinematography and choreography of the fight scenes. That's good, since fight scenes were pretty close to the entirety of the thing after a bit of exposition. Maybe a bit hollow, but very sharply done.

"Mistaken" - An interesting enough premise (rock star thinks the entire world is a simulation) with some nice execution by the two lead actors, but it's a little light in the plotting department: The ending turn seemed kind of obligatory, and there seemed to be a bit of a jump in the story where the characters start to accept things that I feel like I missed.

"Return" - This one got substituted for another in the program (I think to accomodate the director, who was apparently present but didn't make himself known), and it pretty much knocked me out. Nice to look at, but a lot of static imagery.

"Mobius" - Easily the most energetic of the shorts in this package, made by Pullitzer Prize-winning photographer Vincent LaForet as part of a Canon shorts program. Looks nice, moves well, and doesn't drag things out once the audience has figured out what is going on.

"Breakaway/Backdown" - A. Lot. Of. Talking. It's a little bit frustrating to watch a short film which is almost entirely descriptions of amazing things the audience doesn't get to see. The story's good, the ideas are good, even the acting is good, but at a certain point, I felt like I'd been filled in on the picture's world, and was ready to see the characters do something in it. The director was present, and talked about how the story had also been done as an audio play and on stage, and it seems like it might be much more suited for them.

Neander-Jin: The Return of the Neanderthal Man

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 February 2012 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, video)

It's one thing to watch a comedy that fails. It happens a lot, and for a number of reasons. This movie is something special, though - it's the sort of movie that makes one suspect that the people making it had heard of the ideas of comedy and storytelling, but had never seen them in effect. I'm sure that's not the case, but Neander-Jin is an object lesson in this funny movie stuff being a lot harder than it looks.

The name "Neanderthal Man" comes from the place where specimens were first found, the Neander valley near Dusseldorf in Germany. Fifty thousand years ago, one (Jon Chardiet) mystically disappeared, only to reappear in present-day Germany, where's he discovered by public-works employee Martin Arnold (Rick Zieff)... And political activist Barbara van Schmerling (Sarah Muehlhause)... And scheming would-be TV producer Marc Armagnac (Milton Welsh)...

Oh, never mind. It's not like the filmmakers care about the story, after all. The movie jumps from here to there to a third place without much in the way of rhyme or reason, often feeling like the script is being warped by some sort of gravitational time vortex that causes some characters to experience weeks in their subplot while others are doing something in a matter of hours. There's mention of some sort of global reality-TV contest, but director Florian Steinbiss and his co-writer Jeff Hixon don't spend any time on it; they've got a mind to say "reality TV is bad!" but can't be bothered to show it.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival Daily, 2012.02 (11 February): In the Renaissance and Folklore

Saturday was Japanese class, T, two movies in Somerville. You know, wouldn't think it takes quite this long to get from Kenmore to Davis on the T, even with the transferring and having to take a shuttle bus north from Harvard. Makes for a bit of a long day, but it beats working.

Both filmmakers were on hand, but In the Renaissance's Damien Ober didn't stick around for questions afterward, even though there was a bit of time with Folklore scheduled to start a little late because the director's train was delayed. Probably for the best - there was polite applause at the end, but it was applauding the fact that the movie had ended, rather than the work done on it. Most of the comments I heard were rather less friendly than mine.

Eventually, Mr. Chenn showed up, and we got Folklore.

(Justin Calen Chenn and Garen Daly)

Most shocking thing about the Q&A: Answering the inevitable "how much did this cost" with an actual number! I suppose he might as well, as the micro-budget picture was funded via Kickstarter and people can look it up, but, man, you just get used to hearing "I probably shouldn't say because we're still looking to get distribution".

It was a friendly enough Q&A, with Chenn mentioning that a lot of both the cast and crew were people working on big studio films in lesser roles - soundtrack composer Sunna Wehrmeijer, for instance, has done technical work on the soundtracks of Prometheus and other movies multiple orders of magnitude more expensive than this. It got a little odd when we started talking about how to get more people to see this movie, with the audience offering a lot of answers of the "I don't really know but want to be helpful" variety.

Still, it's a pretty good movie; I wouldn't be shocked to see it turn up at Fantasia later this year (it has the "Sunday afternoon in de Seve" feel to it).

In the Renaissance

* (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2012 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, video)

I must admit, it was kind of a relief to discover that I'd nodded off and so couldn't, in good conscience, give In the Renaissance a full review. It's pretty terrible, right across the board, but it's the sort of "locally made by earnest young amateurs" terrible where putting it in the eFilmCritic database next to big studio releases and devoting six paragraphs to telling people who will never encounter it why seems like the equivalent of picking on little kids.

Still, if Damien Ober and his compatriots are going to continue making movies, I hope they opt to start telling stories with a real beginning, middle, and end. Don't just include weird things for weirdness's sake. And please, don't draw things out with long establishing shots to try and get to feature length. You're not yet technically astute enough to pull that off, and the result is a real drag to sit through.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2012 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, video)

Folklore is the sort of comedy that will, over the course fo the film, tell the audience about a hundred jokes in the hope that enough hit to make the whole thing worth it. It's got a hit rate of around 50%, which is pretty good, all things considered. The really good news is that the bits which might grate become funnier as the movie goes on, rather than the other way around.

Collins Jahn (Brad Roller) has been working for the Quartz Agency for a few months, and today he has a busy day ahead of him: Quartz's purpose is to monitor the various mystical, extraterrestrial, and scientifically augmented intelligences on Earth, and it's census time. Today's schedule of biennial interviews includes an android (Paris Benjamin), alien sisters (Sherill Turner and Rachel Rath), a vampire (Ruth Connell), a time traveler (Napoleon Ryan), a shape-shifter (Tracy A. Bjelland), a banshee (Elizabeth Knowelden), a Chinese god (Roy Ying), a werewolf (Larry Purtell), a were-unicorn (Maria Olsen), and angel (Angela Hay), an Icelandic troll (Garrett Liggett), and a water nymph (Paulie Rojas). Collins does have the assistance of camera tech Merle Eppis (Laura Waddell), but to be completely honest, she's probably the weirdest of them all.

Writer/director Justin Calen Chenn isn't going for anything very complicated in terms of plotting or mythology here; the dozen interviews are, by and large, individual sketches that stand on their own instead of adding up to a larger plot or even character arc for Jahn (although the impression he makes on the ladies is a recurring theme). Chenn does break the longer ones up and bounce back and forth over the course of the movie, and that's a pretty good idea: Not every bit is going to strike gold for everyone, and having the the interview with the alien Ipsitt sisters play out in its entirety early on could certainly burn out the goodwill of some in the audience, even if they're inclined to like the other segments.

Full review at EFC.

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival Daily, 2012.01 (10 February): Pig and The Millennium Bug

So, where have I been for the past few days?


Not at Cruel Intentions, I'll tell you that.

I want the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival to be great, but I get the sense that it's going to be a long climb to that. In terms of accommodations, we've spent the weekend in the micro-cinema after spending most of last year in theater #2 (the odd-numbered theaters in Somerville aren't great, but they're a step up). I also tend to think festival director Garen Daly is a little too forgiving in his choices. It's not just that the programming of this and the marathon shows a fondness for schlock and an excess of nostalgia that I don't share, but he's spent a great deal of his discussions at the festival as of this writing (after 3 days) praising the acting in various pictures. And, sure, stuff like the ineptitude in The Millennium Bug certainly demonstrates that even the decent work in Pig isn't as easy as it looks, but the latter is still not something to be amazed at. Sure, if you expect it to be terrible, it's an improvement, but I believe that the basic competence we're seeing in some of these should be the minimum we expect. As I've said before, today's audience was not raised on drive-ins and creature double features; I'd hope for higher standards.

That said, the festival still is fun, and the fact that I'm missing short programs and a couple of features this year because it's hard to fit everything on a nine-day schedule is a really good sign.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2012 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, Blu-ray)

Pig could probably do with a name change before leaving the festival circuit. That won't make it a better movie, of course, but it deserves to sink or swim for the reasonably well-done (if not exactly remarkable) sci-fi mystery that it is rather than as something else.

The opening credits show us a man making some sort of recording, but the movie proper starts with that man (Rudolf Martin) hooded and with his hands bound in the Arizona desert. He's found by Isabel (Heather Ankeny), a young widow and single mother who lives far enough from town that she has to use a satellite phone to call the doctor (Steve Tom), who pronounces the man healthy despite his apparent total amnesia. The one clue to his identity is a slip of paper in his pocket that says "Manny Elder", and the nearest person with that name is in Los Angeles. So it's road trip time, but encounters with people claiming to be his old landlord (Keith Diamond) and a former girlfriend (Ines Dali) tell very different stories.

It may, perhaps, border on being a spoiler to say that Pig is a movie that has a gimmick in its narrative structure, although that might also fall under the category of "fair warning". As much as this set-up has potential for an interesting story told in an interesting way, writer/director Henry Barrial never quite seems to get a strong hold on it. A mystery needs to parcel out its clues and red herrings very carefully, for maximum impact, and there are long stretches in this movie where the audience may not feel that they are getting enough. Similarly, the fracturing of the narrative is under-used, not doing as much as it could to add intrigue to the situation.

Full review at EFC.

The Millennium Bug

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2012 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, video)

Certain audience members will cheer big when the "No CGI Films" logo comes up at the start of The Millennium Bug, and there's no denying that it's thoroughly old-school in its production (you sort of have to be old-school to do a "millennium bug" story eleven years after the fact). As much as the filmmakers do some decent work with their practical effects at times, the rest of the movie is terrible - and the bug's not that great, either.

It's the last day of 1999, and the Haskin family - father Byron (Jon Briddell), daughter Clarissa (Christine Haeberman), and new stepmother Joany (Jessica Simons) - is heading to a California ghost town to ride out the expected chaos to be caused by the Y2K bug. Of course, they don't expect their campsite to be set upon by Billa Crawford (John Charles Meyer) and other members of his inbred redneck clan, and neither group figures on the thing that cryptozoologist Roger Patterson (Ken MacFarlane) is investigating in the woods.

People often talk about how CGI looks less real than model work, but I suspect that much of that is confirmation bias. The practical work in movies like The Millennium Bug looks fake, too, just in different ways: Though the matte work is better than drive-in monster movies of which this film is a direct descendant, there's still the sense that the person screaming in the foreground isn't in the same reality as the giant insect behind her. Items may have weight but they are limited by the flexibility of human puppeteers. Everything is shot on a soundstage, and the way dark and fog are used to attempt to hide this is itself something a savvy viewer picks up on. The result is certainly capable-looking, with the gore and other make-up effects done fairly well too, but not quite to the level where the crew surprises the audience with what they can do.

Full review at EFC.