Thursday, February 28, 2013

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

If you were reading this at the very moment I posted it, you would have roughly three hours before its last show in the Boston area. Sorry, all; I honestly thought I was going to get through the SF/38 stuff faster. Worth the trip to Kendall Square if you are reading it on Thursday, 28 February, before 9pm or so, though.

I had initially played with the idea of seeing it after the sci-fi marathon, but let's be honest - even though pretty much any movie would have put me out that afternoon, a leisurely documentary narrated by Werner Herzog would have done the job immediately. Sometimes he sounds creepy, but this would have been a soothing bedtime story from Uncle Werner.

Not much else to say that's not in the review, although I kind of wish I'd snuck a photograph of one of the credit screens, as I'm not sure how often you'll ever see Werner Herzog and Timur Bekmambetov credited two lines apart (both are executive producers)?

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2013 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, 2K digital)

Werner Herzog is the name that will (and should) draw people to Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, although it's likely that the other credited director, Dmitry Vasyukov, actually spent more time in Siberia gathering footage. However the labor is divided, the documentary still has Herzog's voice - both literally and in terms of being an exploration of a far-off place for the curious.

That far-off place is the village of Bakhta, Russia, situated on the Yenisei River in the middle of the Siberian taiga (a relatively barren, mostly coniferous forest), itself larger than the United States and frozen for most of the year. It is so remote that it can only be reached by helicopter or boat (and the latter only during the summer), and is primarily supported by fur-trapping. Though the actual trapping mainly takes place during the winter, the preparation is a year-round process.

Our main guide is Gennady, who has been working his territory of over a hundred square kilometers since 1970 and favors the traditional koolyomka, a deadfall trap that has the advantage of not leaving bloodstains on a sable's pelt. He is in many ways the ideal subject for the filmmakers, with a weathered face and a crusty pragmatism that goes well beyond no-nonsense, although not so far as hostility to the filmmakers or audience. He's a good teacher, and the personality that comes out when the camera crew offers him an unusual respite from his winter solitude both makes him more human and shows him as well-suited to this life.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Boston Sci-Fi Film Fest 2013 Day 8-9: The Marathon

As much as I will often claim that it's not really that hard to keep a bunch of different movies straight during a film festival - and it's really not - something like the Marathon is a different beast altogether; there's enough drifting in and out of consciousness (and not always at the times you'd expect), audience participation that becomes intertwined with the movie in one's mind, and potential sameness among the movies that it all sort of blurs together.

I began keeping a diary early on, both as something to put on the blog and just because the activity of writing helps to keep me awake. I certainly don't miss big chunks of movies any more, although I may want to come up with a new gimmick sometime soon.

Anyway, as usual this year, I arrived not long before the start of the marathon, hot chocolate in hand. I've heard that most of the festival passes actually go to people who want early entry into the theater on 'Thon day, but I need that morning sleep (not that I got much this year, having hit the midnight show of Lost in Thailand on Saturday. I took a fairly familiar seat, in the center of the back row of the front of the balcony, and settled in. A short was already playing...

11:35am - "I filed my plans at the patent office; the clerk was a dullard." (punches Einstein) OK, I may have to hunt this "Dr. Fang" short down later, even if that's the only really good moment in it.

11:53am - Somehow, I managed to lose my Atomic Fireball between the door and my seat. I don't actually mind; those things are awful.

12:02pm - Announcement time - Motivational Growth will be taking the place of The Hands of Orlac (which itself was a replacement for Woman in the Moon) in the 4am slot. I'm mildly annoyed, because I just saw it at the festival. There is no ironic cheering or dread that I can see.

12:05pm - "Duck Dodgers, in the Twenty-Fourth and a Half Century!" You can't argue with tradition, I guess

12:13pm - John Carter of Mars

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, DCP)

Full review on EFC.

12:18pm - After five minutes introducing the villains, we're given a prelude set in 1881 New York City.

12:24pm - After six minutes of Daryl Sbarra as Edgar Rice Burroughs, we start the main flashback to 1868 Arizona.

12:30pm - So, why does Carter save the officer while seeming content to let the enlisted guys die? Is it some weird 19th-century class thing?

12:32pm - At last, John Carter's on Mars!

12:38pm - Lily Collins is dropping a whole lot of exposition here, although I'm kind of surprised that they can get away with just this much.

12:51pm - A translation miracle! It's always funny to see just how much effort writers will put into saying "screw it!" when this obvious problem comes up.

1:00pm - Dejah Thoris is pretty awesome, and Collins is pretty great in the role. If they'd called this "A Princess of Mars" and put her more front and center, I think the movie would have done a lot better.

1:15pm - See? "A Princess of Mars", right in the dialogue!

1:42pm - Good dog/monster/thing!

2:06pm - Morteverybul. Writing in a darkened theater is hard! I suspect that I was suggesting they end the movie then, and maybe forgo the "Carter being an idiot" necessary to set up a cliffhanger that sets up a second movie that will likely never happen.

2:15pm - Roll credits.

Seeing it for a second time, I definitely feel like this got a pretty raw deal last year. I'm not demanding a sequel or anything, and I think shaving the ends off would have done this film a lot of good, but this is a fun, entertaining movie. I also think I liked it better in 2D from a little further away, versus my close-to-the-front IMAX viewing last year.

2:27pm - "In Memorium"

2:32pm - Okay, that's enough.

2:37pm - Call me heartless, but that was kind of awful, especially since it often took on the feel of a guessing game ("what person who died to these clips have in common?"), and the honoree occasionally didn't even appear in the trailer used.

2:49pm Reptilicus

* * (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, 35mm)

2:56pm - I'm not sure why the paleontologist in this film works in an aquarium, but it sounds awesome in Danish. Say it with me - "Akvarium"!

3:01pm - "Ya, he will be busy." - INNUENDO! isn't quite as much fun when it's so obvious, but I think it's the best part of the old, not-so-good movies.

3:06pm - Ha, you thought the amazingly stupid-looking redneck was going to be the one to screw things up, but the movie zigged when it could have zagged!

3:08pm - "Brigadier General Mark--" Oh, hell.

3:08:02pm - "MARK!" Ah, my least favorite Marathon tradition. It's only funny for Planet of the Vampires, people (and really not then)!

3:16pm - Amusing inevitability when the idiot handyman and the electric eel are on screen, although the response of "something happened!" when the alarm goes off is among the most absurdly obvious lines of dialogue ever written.

3:17pm - It's not the movie suddenly taking a side trip into American General Mark & scientist's daughter Connie doing a little Copenhagen travelogue that strikes me weird as much as it is that Mark does most of the narration.

3:30pm - Rubber Monster time!

3:34pm - Wait, was that bit of FX done with obvious paper cutouts... Yes, yes it was. wow.

3:41pm - INNUENDO!: "I'll stay with you!" ... "I'm firm!" Really, it seemed vaguely dirty at the time.

3:54pm - You suck, soldier manning the drawbridge. You suck more than any incompetent soldier who has ever appeared in a monster movie before or since. Really, you're just the worst.

4:10pm - May have zonked out a bit for the end there, because I've got no memory of how they got from Denmark's worst soldier dooming a bunch of civilians to bombing the hell out of the monster.

As these things go, Reptilicus is okay. I don't really enjoy the "laugh at the crappy B-movie" section of the Marathon (or any SF event) as much as others; I didn't grow up with drive-ins or creature double features on TV and watching something just to mock its incompetence strikes me as little but mean-spirited. It's the sincere and unexpectedly good parts of these movies I respond to, and for this one, that's kind of rare.

4:27pm - The Ghastly Love of Johnny X

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, DCP)

Write-up here.

Oh, it's in "GhastlyScope"! I love GhastlyScope!

4:35pm - Say this much - De Anna Joy Brooks, the actress playing Bliss, can vamp it up with the best of 'em.

4:37pm - Aaaand it's a musical. Somehow I'd missed that.

4:58pm - Puppets, too. OK...

5:18pm - I may have rolled my eyes a bit at the singing earlier, but the talking is terrible. The monologues and expositional conversations that don't have to be set to music are kind of brutal.

5:36pm - Hey, it's Paul Williams! That's kind of cool!

6:00pm - Credits roll, and I learn that the cute girl in the second half is Kate Maberly. She's worth keeping an eye on (and, apparently, starred in a much-loved version of The Secret Garden twenty years ago).

I'll probably give this a a more thorough review when everything else is caught up. It's kind of cute, with some fun songs and surprisingly decent performances. The script is a mess, though, and it's a real shame that a movie that prides itself on using the last of Kodak's Super-X black & white film stock to shoot had to be shown on video.

6:13pm - War of the Worlds: Goliath

* * (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, screener DVD)

Full write-up here.

Well, that's actually when Garen got up on stage and made the announcement that they would be running the movie off the screener DVD again, trying to make it sound like this was a special treat. It sort of solidified my decision to head across the street for some supper, though.

First, though, it was time for the trivia contest, and this year it went from a piece of paper you handed in to shouting out questions and calling on raised hands, a final surrender to the reality that everyone at a sci-fi film festival is going to have a smartphone and can check IMDB before turning it in.

6:37pm - I got seated quickly at Boston Burger Company because I was by myself while the folks in front of me were told there was a half-hour or so wait for their groups of four and six. So, uh, yay for coming to events alone?

I had myself a King (bacon, fried bananas, peanut butter) burger. It was, as always, delicious, although I must admit to being terrified of trying to replicate it at home.

7:30pm - Did I make it back in time for the movie's good part?

7:34pm - Oh yeah, Teddy Roosevelt is killin' Martians.

7:39pm - Man, I really hadn't noticed just how phallic come of the Martian tripods' guns were. Positioned right between the two front legs and pointed somewhat upwards!

7:54pm - Garen gives the movie a Gort for "Best Animated Feature". Note: It is the only animated feature.

I'd seen it the night before, so I didn't mind skipping out on this one. I've seen much worse, but also much better.

7:59pm - "Asternauts"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, Blu-ray)

Starting early, I see. It's unusual for an event like this to run ahead!

8:00pm - Hey, is that Matt Frewer... No, it's not. But it could have been.

That was a quick, 10-minute short, but a pretty good one. I liked that it could have easily been something that made fun of rural folks but mostly backed away from that. Also had fun with the sexy girls swarming on the asteroid crash site being surreal, but not exploitative.

8:16pm - Batoru Rowaiaru (Battle Royale)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, Blu-ray)

Previous write-up here (smaller one here).

8:18pm - The opening minute of this movie is great, just encapsulating the whole idea without making the rest redundant.

8:47pm - This thing just flies; no chance to really put down thoughts.

8:48pm - Kitano eating Shuya's cookies is just great casual bastardy.

9:14pm - I've heard that Chiaki Kuriyama was, for a while, more well-known in the US for Kill Bill than she was in Japan. Crazy, considering what an impression she makes in a relatively small role here.

9:24pm - As great as this movie is, it's got its weak moments, like characters saying "I can't tell you until later", which is cheating.

9:38pm - The lighthouse sequence is amazing - exaggerated but true-to-life for teenagers. Shows what BS The Hunger Games was.

9:52pm - Mitsuko's flashback is just f---ed up, even if it is almost conventionally twisted.

10:02pm - Kitano winks at the audience here. That's awesome.

I love this movie. It's harsh, but smart, and never loses sight of its central idea of how kids should distrust authority, even as there's a certain amount of understanding of why the grown-ups are clamping down on the kids so hard.

10:28pm - The Alien Mating Cry is, always has been, and always shall be lame. Gotta wonder if the crowd would have been kinder later if they realized that the MC directed Motivational Growth

10:32pm - Safety Not Guaranteed

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, DCP)

Full review here.

10:34pm - I swear I heard the basic set-up for the movie (a classified ad looking for a second for time travel) years ago, as the premise of an old sci-fi novel, way before this movie or the real-life ad that inspired it came out. Searching for it online just gets me a lot of information on this movie, though.

10:47pm - Obligatory question of why Mark Duplass has not been cast as a relative of Nathan Fillion's character on Castle or something else.

10:55pm - You know, I'd forgotten just how funny this movie was.

11:21pm - "This is f---ing intense!" / "This is 15 miles an hour." As I said, funny.

11:37pm - The crowd did not expect Kristin Bell.

11:51pm - That "time machine" is beautiful.

11:53pm - Great moment when the movie sort of shifts into less reality. You can feel it change, but not too much.

11:54pm - And the audience loves it.

It's funny, I gave this a really high star rating the first time I saw it, and second-guessed it almost immediately - I enjoyed it, but it's kind of slight, isn't it? A second time through, yeah, it's not Big and Dramatic, but it's very funny and well-done, and I feel like I got it right the first time.

12:07am - The Twilight Zone: "Time Enough at Last"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, video)

12:08am - The jackass in front of me is starting to lean back and stretch into my personal space a lot. In related news, it's probably my bedtime and I'm getting a bit cranky.

12:30am - Some guy down in the orchestra section just yelled "break the glasses already!" Ass. I hope the folks nearby pounded him into unconsciousness.

Despite crowd issues, I enjoyed this quite a bit, and really should start going through that 24-disc set of the series on Blu-ray sometime. That guy toward the end does represent what I hate most about 'Thon callbacks, though - why not just experience the movie, as opposed to trying to make yourself the entertainment?

12:34am - The Incredible Shrinking Man

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, video)

Full(er) write-up here.

12:40am - INNUENDO! - "People don't just get smaller!" / "We'll go back to the doctor, surely he's got a pill for it." Maybe it wasn't innuendo back then, but it's funny now.

1:06am - Bad kitty!

1:51am - Expected nap confirmed!

Fortunately, I saw this back during the Universal series at the Brattle, and pretty much retain the same opinion: It's pretty darn good, maybe not in an absolute sense, but in terms of clearly having more ambition than other science fiction movies of its time and not letting the B-movie aspect undercut that.

2:00am - "Death of a Shadow"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, DVD)

Full write-up here.

I wrote "time to see if this is less nonsensical than I remember" here, and... Yeah, still not a big fan. I really do think it's the kind of fantasy that makes the audience feel like they've seen something special but doesn't really have much to it.

2:18am - Phase IV

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, 35mm)

Full review at EFC.

Darn right a Saul Bass movie starts with striking imagery.

2:29am - Up to now, all ants, and it's creepy.

2:40am - Oh, yeah, piss off the ants - great idea!

3:11am - A shrieking noise makes the audience stir.

3:26am - Phase III begins. I'd say it gets weird, but let's face it - this whole movie has just been downright strange.

3:41am - Aw, bring on the weird trippy ending!

Seriously, get that weird ending on a special edition Blu-ray. I want to see it.

3:47am - It strikes me that the villains over the past few hours have gone from Martians in big tripods, to kids, to a cat, to a spider, to ants. Next up: Mold.

3:50am - Motivational Growth

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, video)

Full write-up here.

3:56am - The audience is audibly grossed out by the disgusting bathroom and the Adrian DiGiovanni's Ian folivor dropping trou to take a crap.

3:59am - I check to see that The Mold does, in fact, have a mouth shape even before Ian's head trauma.

... and soon after that, I head to the restroom myself, though it's been a while coming. I sort of hang out in the lobby for a while after that, talking with a few folks who walked out, some of whom actually walked out during its Friday night screening. Kind of funny; I didn't notice anyone disliking it then, but I think both then and during this screening, the loudest voices got heard the most.

5:06am - Man, this movie is vomit-intense.

5:25am - The audience really hates this movie, and it seems to have poisoned them to how great Jeffrey Combs's last monologue is.

Can't much blame them; it's got issues. But I can't really hate it; it's at least got a little ambition, and I think I'd rather see something like this than mock Reptilicus.

5:30am - V for Vendetta

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, B34-ray)

The title cards for this have fake film scratches, which seems weird; I don't immediately remember it as having that sort of style.

6:14am - Well, that can't have been a long nap; Natalie Portman still has hair.

6:28am - I never read the comics; was Stephen Fry's character basically Stephen Fry in them?

6:37am - At the time, I wondered if this was shot in HD, because even for Blu-ray, it looks video-y to me, like the production values are sub-par. It's the same sort of "this doesn't feel right" vibe I got off the HFR version of The Hobbit. Later, projectionist Dave Kornfeld would tell me that it's just projecting Blu-ray which doesn't have the ability to reproduce the movie's dark blacks.

7:43am - Wow, we're running like a half-hour ahead of schedule as the movie ends!

Had the same feeling as when I first saw it; fairly well-done, but heavy-handed and a little too concerned with symbols, though not as intellectual about it as Alan Moore tends to be in his original works.

8:00am - Well, we're running 15 minutes ahead.

8:07am - "La Luna"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, 35mm)

Full write-up here.

Yeah, this Pixar Short is still pretty great.

8:10am - Escape from L.A.

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, 35mm)

8:13am - "2013: Now" title on the screen. Movies set in the current year but made when it was the future should be a regular part of the marathon, I think.

But, wow, that mid-1990s CGI!

8:25am - Speaking of, they certainly 90s up Snake's wardrobe a bit, don't they?

8:44am - Obligatory use of that Randy Newman song.

8:46am - Bruce Campbell and the crowd goes crazy!

8:58am - As much as Snake Plissken is meant to be a badass, he's kind of like James Bond in Skyfall here, isn't he? Looking tough and occasionally doing something cool, but more or less failing from one thing to another.

More or less just watched the movie after that. It's fun and goofy, and while it's full of things that make a mess, I do kind of get the vibe that it's some of the most sheer fun John Carpenter and Kurt Russell have had making a movie.

9:50am - Final announcement time, which includes making excuses for Motivational Growth that the audience wasn't buying and saying that the movie was getting a Gort Award as much because director Don Thacker showed up and it would hopefully encourage more visiting filmmakers. I don't think it really works that way, myself.

10:02am - The Fifth Element

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, 35mm)

Full(er) write-up here.

10:10am - That spaceship is so Moebius.

10:24am - For some reason, Dallas's cat watching TV cracks me up.

10:36am - The picture looks OK to me, but I see Dave running into the booth to ahead of a splice just to make sure.

10:44am - Ever seen film actually melt in the projector? The folks near me (where we were close enough to smell it) hadn't. Someone made snarky remarks about film versus digital. Lucky Dave was too busy darting up from his seat to hear them.

11:11am - Why, exactly, is the tag on Dallas's door moved? It seems random but useful.

11:19am - Well, this crowd likes Ruby Rhod!

11:29am - Milla Jovovich just has a great expressive face that I don't think anybody has really made great use of since.

11:40am - Luc Besson loves his cross-cutting and does it well.

11:45am - Two melts. Dave did warn us that it was a crappy print on the festival message board.

11:58am - All the money spent on this movie, and the detonator in the climactic scene is a combination lock.

12:10pm - Time to roll credits, go home, take a shower, and try and stay up the rest of the day.

Pretty darn good movie still (though it's not a particular surprise that my opinion hasn't changed much in a couple of months). A pretty excellent note to leave on, too.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Boston Sci-Fi Film Fest 2013 Day 7: The History of Future Folk & War of the Worlds: Goliath

And let's wrap the festival part of the fest coverage up now, before I make the same mistake of resting my laptop on my chair's armrest and watching it fall that cost me my last charger and the use of my laptop for much of the weekend.

I was able to spend much of the day writing, as I was up late-ish the night before and didn't have any need to re-watch the movies showing that afternoon - The Final Shift and Love & Teleportation. And to be completely honest, I was tempted at points to blow more off, as my original read on The History of Future Folk was that it was a genuine documentary on "filk", a sort of fannish-folk singing that goes on at conventions, and I needed none of that. Instead, it turned out to be a fun little movie built around a New York novelty act that turns out to be a lot funnier than I would have expected.

That was followed with War of the Worlds: Goliath, and the temptation was to head home and sleep up before the Marathon, since it was already announced as running as part of that event, but since I was already planning on hitting an 11:50pm movie, there didn't seem to be much point in stopping at home anyway. Not the brightest of ideas, that, but it's the hand I dealt myself. Besides, the original plan was for Goliath to screen in 3D, although from the fact that we were in theater #2 for the first movie and the way the showtimes overlapped, it didn't seem likely we'd be in #5 at 9pm.

And we weren't. The story from the sales agent who served as the guest for the night was that Chinese New Year kept the hard drives with the DCP from getting out of Malaysia in time, which I guess is plausible enough, although that's cutting it awful close. Still, the story about him flying from Berlin to Los Angeles to Boston just to bring a DVD screener with a persistent watermark? Seems fishy. If you're going to do that, at least come back with a clear Blu-ray.

Also, it wouldn't hurt anybody to get your credits up on IMDB in a fairly timely manner. I hate doing this:

WOTWG credits. photo IMAG0307_zps05f0ea40.jpg

... in order to find names for a review.

The History of Future Folk

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Fest, video)

It's odd but true: These days, an act like Future Folk can be both a local secret and have a national (or international) cult following. Even if both cases are true, a movie centered around such a band has a potentially limited audience, unless it's as whimsical a fantasy as this "history".

In a Brooklyn bar, Bill (Nils d'Aulaire) plays the banjo, singing songs in character as spaceman General Trius. At home, Trius is in the bedtime stories he tells his daughter Wren (Onata Aprile) - where Trius was sent from doomed planet Hondo to find a suitable new home for his people, using a virus to deal with any indigenous life. That plan went out the window when he heard Earth music, though. It's a cute story - except that another Hondo soldier, Kevin (Jay Klaitz), has just landed, looking to get things back on track.

I'm somewhat curious how this came together, as neither writer John Mitchell nor his co-director Jeremy Kipp Walker is in the band (or at least, not on-stage). Things actually wind up meshing fairly well - there's plenty of bluegrass music with quirky lyrics - and I don't think the filmmakers ever annoy the fans by cutting a song short - but not so much that the goofy sci-fi adventure in between feels like a strained, obligatory way to connect those numbers. The story's got other problems - I'm inclined toward forgiving how the scale of interplanetary distances is a matter of convenience, but not a certain bit of "character deliberately does something stupid even for him" plotting - but it's impressive that the movie seems like it would work equally well for fans of the music and folks looking for a sci-fi comedy and okay with there being songs.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

War of the Worlds: Goliath

* * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Fest, screener DVD)
(Partly) Seen 17 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, screener DVD)

There's a lot of reasons to recommend staying away from War of the Worlds: Goliath: Inconsistent animation, a weak script, bland voice acting, etc. On the other hand, it's got Teddy Roosevelt killing Martians, and while that doesn't exactly make up for the other 60-75 minutes, I cannot in good conscience tell someone to avoid that. I just wish that was the sort of thing the rest of the movie emphasized.

Fifteen years ago, during the Martian Invasion of 1899, Eric Wells saw his parents cut down by a tripod's heat ray just before its extraterrestrial operator succumbed to the flu. In 1914, Eric (voice of Peter Wingfield) serves in planetary defense organization ARES, commanding a tripod built from Nikola Tesla's reverse-engineering Martian technology. But with no sign of the Martians' return for fifteen years, the global alliance is weakening - war could soon break out in Europe and the IRA would like to obtain ARES weapons to use against the British. Of course, as U.S. Secretary of War Roosevelt (voice of Jim Byrnes) knows, they shouldn't lose sight of the main threat.

The idea behind Goliath is certainly a lot of fun - steampunk armies against alien invaders in an alternate but still familiar history. And when director Joe Pearson and screenwriter David Abramowitz focus on that stuff, it's a bit of a blast. The Red Baron is on team ARES along with Tesla and Roosevelt, and when the Martians corner T.R. in New York, leading him to hop in a mech and deal with aliens personally, the movie manages a loopy level of high-concept fun that makes a body wonder why the whole thing hasn't been Roosevelt with a heck of a lot more Nikola Tesla and maybe Manfred von Richtofen actually doing stuff.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Boston Sci-Fi Film Fest 2013 Day 6: Space Milkshake & Motivational Growth

Well. Got a bit to say here, starting with a comment about how star-ratings systems can suck, especially when they're not particularly granular. A quick perusal of my page at EFC will show these two movies as being roughly equivalent, quality-wise, although the reviews have rather different tenors: I'm fairly positive toward Space Milkshake, while Motivational Growth has issues, with the good parts almost balancing out the weaknesses. That's why you've got to read the actual text.

It's a bit telling, I think, that of all the cast with genre connections in Space Milkshake, it was George Takei as the voice of the duck that the festival folks chose to emphasize. Not Billy Boyd (Lord of the Rings), Kristin Kreuk (Smallville), Robin Dunne (Sanctuary), or Amanda Tapping (Stargate), but the guy who was on something 45 years ago. The festival and the folks who run it can fall victim to good-old-days-ism and not really pay that much attention to what's contemporary.

One thing about Space Milkshake that hit me a few days after seeing it was that even if it wasn't a particularly great movie, it would make a pretty decent TV show. Not just because that's where much of the cast's experience is, but because it has a sort of Red Dwarf vibe; I could really see it going from "trying to stay sane in an empty and uncaring universe" to "adventures of people really not qualified to be space adventurers" as need be. Or it could just play as a sitcom with a science-fictional setting; it seems flexible enough to do a lot of little things with even if a full-size sequel would be overkill.

(And if it did become a series, you'd have to get Brent Spiner in as an officious visiting administrator, right? Especially for the in-joke of the crew hiding that one of their members is now a robot!)

As to Motivational Growth... Wow, I almost feel like I have to discuss it because folks went berserk hating it at the Marathon 2.5 days later, with a "debate"/hating thread on the message board afterward. The thing is, I can't really get too worked up about it. I enjoyed it the first time through, but could see it had problems. And I kind of don't like that I felt like I had to include information from the Q&A in the review; that strikes me as cheating. But, it's stuff I know now, and you don't get that without a good Q&A.

 photo IMAG0305_zps576dc643.jpg

That's star Adrian DiGiovanni and writer/director Don Thacker; DiGiovanni was called up after Thacker had already been talking for a half-hour or so. They handed out stuffed toys like those that appear in the movie before things started, and talked a lot about stories from filming and things that showed up on screen. I actually cursed them for it at one point, as I had been planning to hit the late show of Lost in Thailand afterward and the long Q&A bumped it to the next night.

There were still a few things he didn't quite reveal; he mentioned that he didn't consider the ending ambiguous, but how can you not? There's three different final scenes, or so it seems. But he genuinely seemed to enjoy being there, hanging around to MC the alien mating cry contest at the marathon and sticking around for the whole thing, even when things turned decidedly ugly during the presentation of his movie at 4am.

That was... regrettable, I guess? As much as calling back to the screen is a 'thon tradition, it's uncomfortable when the filmmaker is in the room and has spent the weekend professing his excitement for the event, and so on. Organizer Garen Daley got defensive about it when talking to the crowd later, and there was talk about it playing at a bad time, and while I enjoyed it well enough on Friday, I did take the opportunity to hit the restroom after I'd checked to see whether The Mold had a sort-of-face before the main character hit his head. I hung around in the lobby for a while after that, with some folks who had actually walked out Friday night, and that did sort of point out that you mainly hear the loudest voices - the folks who liked the movie were loud Friday night, those who hated it loud Monday morning, and I'm not sure what the actual consensus is. I wouldn't be shocked if it averaged out to what I say in the review, of it being nice and shaky in equal measure, with Combs pretty great.

Space Milkshake

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Fest, video)

As of this writing, Space Milkshake hasn't actually been purchased by SyFy (or its Canadian equivalent Space) to run as a Saturday night original movie, but that's what it is: A low-budget sci-fi movie just long enough that commercials will pad it to fill a two-hour timeslot, with a cast of people perhaps most noteworthy for the other genre productions they've appeared in. At least this one wants to make jokes, rather than content itself with being one.

A couple of shuttles are heading to an orbiting debris-removal space station as the movie opens - one absconding from an Antarctic research base and one carrying Jimmy (Robin Dunne), the new technician reporting for duty. He's not exactly welcomed with open arms; Anton (Billy Boyd), the captain, is generally cranky, in part because his second in command Valentina (Amanda Tapping) has dumped him. The other person on the station, the eminently crush-worthy Tilda (Kristin Kreuk), basically ignores him. It's not the exciting life in space he'd dreamed about - at least, not until they salvage the wreckage of the first ship and things get really strange.

Even as a threat to all life on all Earths rears its head and Valentina's rubber duck starts talking with the voice of George Takei, this is less an action/adventure movie than a "hell is other people" comedy. Anton, Valentina, and Tilda have been cooped up in this box long enough that they mainly irritate each other, and Jimmy's enthusiasm is just going to annoy them further. It's a somewhat mean-spirited form of comedy, but since none of them are really bright enough to plot against the others, it never really gets off-puttingly dark.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Motivational Growth

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Fest, video)
(Partly) Seen 18 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, video)

Motivational Growth ran twice at the festival, with overlapping crowds but different results: Once as a spotlight presentation with the director doing Q&A that was reasonably well received, and once as the 4am leg of a noon-to-noon marathon that produced a lot of angry cursing at the screen. To a certain extent, the opposite reactions are reflective of the people who yelled the loudest, but they both reflect the quality of the work.

Things are pretty off-putting right away; Ian Folivor (Adrian DiGiovanni) hasn't left his apartment in a year and a half, and both he and the unit look roughly as bad as one might expect. When his television breaks down, he decides to end it all, but instead slips, bashes his head on the bathtub, and when he comes to, the mold that has built up in a corner of the bathroom is giving him advice (with the voice of Jeffrey Combs).

Director Don Thacker ladles the quirk on pretty thick, even beyond a talking lump of fungus having a co-starring role. Ian addresses the camera directly, for instance, and the other characters in the movie are one pretty well-exaggerated note each. The movie is set in 1991 (per the post-screening Q&A), but not so obviously that the odd bits that grow from that - the soundtrack composed on a Commodore 64's SID chip, the tacky-looking programming that runs when Ian's console TV is working, and the sequence animated like a video game from that time - feel like part of the setting rather than gags around it. Each of these is okay on their own, but they're a lot taken together.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 22 February - 28 February 2013

Before getting to what's playing this week, here's something I hope will be playing next month: I've requested a screening of Back to 1942 on Monday, March 25th; it's the latest film directed by Feng, who also made Big Shot's Funeral, The Banquet, Assembly, and Aftershock, and looks to be along the lines of the latter two, a dramatic recreation of a real-life tragedy with a noteworthy cast, this time including Americans Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins. It needs to be "tipped" by March 11th, so let's try and make it happen!

Speaking of things to make happen, there's a week left on The Brattle's Kickstarter; they're about $50k short of the money they need to both upgrade their HVAC system and add DCP projection capabilities. There's roughly two weeks left on that of the Boston Underground Film Festival. They are a great festival and have a nice looking line-up planned, including I Declare War, Big-Ass Spider, and Sion Sono's Guilty of Romance. Best way to reserve tickets or a pass and get some swag, too.

That's a way in the future. Meanwhile, this week is pretty quiet, as no studio appears to want to upstage the Oscars.

  • Hey, it's that time of year, when Crash Arts brings the Alloy Orchestra to the Somerville Theatre on a Saturday night. This weekend at 8pm on the 23rd), it's a set of Buster Keaton shorts, including his first ("The Butcher Boy"), another one with Fatty Arbuckle ("Good Night, Nurse!"), and one of his own ("The Play House"). It's digital projection, but awesomely analog audio - and Buster friggin' Keaton!
  • With the Academy Awards on Sunday night, the studios figure it's not the best time to release the top-tier pictures. So, the most promising-looking wide release is Snitch, featuring Dwayne Johnson as a driver going undercover to secure a plea-bargain for his son. The Rock's usually better than his material, and he's got a nice supporting cast (Barry Pepper, Susan Sarandon, more), and a writer/director in Ric Roman Waugh who came up doing stunts so likely knows his action. It plays Boston Common, Fenway, and Fresh Pond. Boston Common and Fenway also get Dark Skies, featuring Keri Russell as the mother of a family marked for alien abduction or the like, and J.K. Simmons as the expert on such things. She's great in The Americans and he's a fine character actor, but this is getting vicious reviews.

    But, hey, it's getting out there, at least; Stand Off (aka Whole Lotta Sole) is only playing 5pm shows at Showcase Cinemas in Revere. It's directed by Terry George and features Brendan Fraser and Colm Meaney in the middle of a hostage crisis after a young crook robs a fish market. You wonder why they even bothered.
  • Kendall Square, which relies even more on prestige pictures than the multiplexes, has one movie opening, John Dies at the End, an enjoyably loopy sci-fi comedy adapted by cult auteur Don Coscarelli, starring Chase Williamson & Rob Mayes, featuring fun appearances with Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, and the like. I quite enjoyed it when I saw it at BUFF last year.
  • The Brattle has their annual Oscar Party on Sunday evening, and good stuff on either side. Friday and Saturday night, they highlight one of the awards' biggest oversights, that of not nominating Matthew McConaughey for anything. Friday night, that means Magic Mike, while Saturday is a double feature of the less-seen Bernie and Killer Joe. Those afternoons finish up school vacation with more Bugs Bunny Film Festival screenings, a different group from what was playing the rest of the week called "The Looney Tunes Review".

    After the Oscars, they put their focus on Park Chan-wook, the second great Korean genre director to make his English-language debut this year. The first three nights are his famous "Vengeance Trilogy": Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance on Monday, Lady Vengeance on Tuesday, and Oldboy on Wednesday. Thursday night, they've got a sneak preview of Stoker, which looks fantastic. They play late-ish, with documentaries earlier in the evening: Monday night is a DocYard presentation of Call Me Kuchu, which follows Uganda's first openly-gay man as he attempts to prevent legislation that would make homosexuality illegal; director Malika Zouhali-Worrall does Q&A afterward. Tuesday night, Alex Shear presents his Kokoyaku: High School Baseball, which follows a pair of Japanese teams as they prepare for koshinen, the high-school baseball tournament that is like the NCAA tournament and and then some. And on Wednesday, All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert delves into the life and work of the artist, with Rembert and filmmaker Vivian Ducat.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre makes a bet on the Oscars by bringing The Impossible back for 9:20pm shows on screen #2, which bumps Amour the the screening room for its last show of the day. 56 Up has the screening room for the rest of the day, bumping the animated and live-action shorts to the Mini-Max.

    In special screenings, they finish Blaxploitation History Month with two chances to see Isaac Hayes as a badass bounty hunter in Truck Turner (Friday & Saturday at midnight), with the extra fun of Nichelle Nichols as one of the folks gunning for him. On Sunday morning, there's a Goethe-Institut screening of The Foster Boy, which builds its story around a longtime Swiss policy of placing orphaned children on farms as a form of slavery. Monday night is the rescheduled Science on Screen presentation of Edward Scissorhands with biological anthropologist Jeremy DeSilva from Halloween; it's sold out but there will be a rush line starting at 6pm.
  • The Harvard Film Archive continues its two retrospectives - the Raoul Walsh series wraps around, with White Heat and Me and My Gal on Friday, The Roaring Twenties Sunday afternoon, and Colorado Territory Monday evening. In between, French filmmaker Leos Carax will be introducing two movies in person - Holy Motors on Saturday evening and Bad Blood on Sunday.
  • The MFA finishes up the complete Stanley Kubrick filmography with The Shining (Friday & Saturday), Full Metal Jacket (Saturday), Eyes Wide Shut (Sunday), and the delayed-due-to-snow Barry Lyndon (also Sunday); all, I believe, are 35mm. They also begin a run of documentary How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire on Wednesday; it continues into next week. There's also a single run of Delhi in a Day, a comedy set in an upper-class Hindu household, on Thursday evening.
  • ArtsEmerson finishes up their "The Next Thing" film program with experimental picture Your Brother, Remember? Friday evening, Argentine play El Pasado Es un Animal Grotesco Saturday night, and Spike Lee's Passing Strange on Saturday afternoon; there are also reruns of Transition (Friday night) and The Shipment (Saturday evening).
  • AMC's Best Picture Showcase has its second half on Saturday the 23rd, starting at 10am and running all day with Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi (in 3D), Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty
  • The ICA has another chance for last-minute Oscar catch-up with the nominated short films: Animation (Saturday at 7pm and Sunday at 11am), Live Action (Sunday at 2pm), and the second group of documentaries (Sunday at 5pm).
  • iMovieCafe has two new movies opening: Kai Po Che! is in Hindi with English subtitles, in which three friends open a cricket academy. It shares the screen with Jabardasth, a Telugu-language romantic comedy.

My plans? Alloy Orchestra, Magic Mike, Kokoyaku, getting around to Die Hard, maybe Amour pre-Oscars, and I really, really want to get to the preview of Stoker; maybe someone who doesn't work in a horrible suburb can save me a seat.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Boston Sci-Fi Film Fest 2013 Day 5: Love & Teleportation and 95ers: Echoes

Where did I spend Valentine's Day?

Boston Sci-Fi Sign photo IMAG0302_zpsd91baf10.jpg

Appropriately enough, the 5pm show was Earthbound, which I'd seen on Sunday; from what I gather, they showed the screener DVD again. It made for a full slate of romance-related pictures. Earthbound was probably the best, but I was pleasantly surprised by just how capable 95ers: Echoes was. Its trailer wasn't particularly impressive and it flails a bit toward the beginning, but it builds, and by the end, it's done well enough for about half its length that I realized, hey, I actually care how this ends. Beats the heck out of Love & Teleportation, which anyone not asleep has probably figured out from the start.

I do somewhat wonder about 95ers's franchise ambitions. That title does, as I point out in the review, have a colon in it, and though it's sold in a few asian markets and will probably, when all is said and done, make back its sub-$1M budget, what does it need to do to make a sequel viable, especially one that expands its world? I wouldn't be shocked if it wound up doing OK; that title will be bounced up do the top of alphabetical menus when it hits video on demand. That apparently counts for more than you might expect; several movies have been renamed after being picked up for distribution to take advantage of how much scrolling with a remote control sucks (personal favorite: "Think of Me" becoming "About Sunny").

Love & Teleportation

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Fest, video)

There are times when I watch movies and it's not the obviously bad science itself that bothers me so much as the ignorance about the people and processes involved. It's not the only discipline filmmakers seem to not bother researching, or even the one I know best and can thus most easily call B.S. on, but it feels egregiously abused here, and I don't get why. this is a thoroughly mediocre romance without the science fiction, so why not use those details to make it more interesting rather than silly?

Things start with Brian Owens (Jan Van Sickle), a former professor of quantum mechanics at an Ivy League university who has been reduced to teaching entry-level physics course at a community college. A somewhat nosy but well-meaning old lady (Adair Jameson) has just moved in next door. It's not all bad; the school's art teacher, Shelly (Robin DeMarco), seems interested in him. Initially, though, both are distractions from his goal of finishing a teleportation machine, and he's borrowed a lot of money from a loan shark to fund its development.

I'll accept a teleportation device; Lord knows I've accepted it in other sci-fi movies just because it's convenient. I might even believe that the prototype will run off the power grid in a residential neighborhood. I've got a little more trouble believing that Brian's prior employer wouldn't have retained the rights to the work he's done there, but who knows; that university may act differently than every modern institute where research is done. And maybe someone, somewhere, will see a demonstration of even half-baked teleportation and not be impressed. This goes double for Brian himself; science is a series of incremental steps, and a veteran researcher like Brian despairing when everything doesn't go perfect the first time is a major wrong note hit early, one that persists through the rest of the movie.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

95ers: Echoes

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Fest, video)

Considering the colon in its title and the way that certain bits of the movie's fantastical elements are not given a whole lot of explanation, I had 95ers: Echoes pegged as part of a larger franchise, maybe a transmedia thing with online videos or comics or the like. Right now, though, it seems to be just this, which still isn't bad at all.

Ever since she was a kid, Sally (Alesandra Durham) has had a unique ability; she can relive the last few seconds of her life. Perhaps ironically, the man who would later become her husband, Horatio Biggs (Joel Bishop), studied wormholes and other sorts of theoretical physics, but had no idea of her ability. Today, she's an FBI agent and a widow, probably overdue to go on maternity leave as Christmas approaches, but she can't help but be drawn in by a series of strange events that have been happening up and down Interstate 95 since her husband's death, especially since she's started seeing glimpses of him. "Meanwhile", in the future, a group monitors the way probability changes around her, considering when and if to intervene.

The credits for 95ers: Echoes contain the name "Durham" a lot - Alesandra Durham stars; James Durham co-writes, composes the music, and handles the sound; Thomas Gomez Durham co-writes, directs, shoots, edits, and works on the visual effects; many other (presumed) family members produce and otherwise work on the movie in one capacity or another, as do several other people. On the one hand, it's actually quite impressive how such a small group can put together a film with the kind of ambitions and relative polish that this one has; on the other, there are times when it maybe could have used an outside voice saying this could be clearer or that scene should be cut. At times, it feels like the world could do with a lot more explaining to those of us who aren't a part of the group while character-building could use less exposition and more example.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Lost in Thailand

I'm sure that I will discover later today that going to a movie that starts at roughly midnight twelve hours before a noon-to-noon sci-fi marathon is not, in general, the brightest of ideas, but the blizzard knocked out my chance to see it at a reasonable hour on last weekend, it was hard to find a space around the (rescheduled) sci-fi festival, and the Q&A on Friday night went long enough that getting from Somerville to Boston Common to see that midnight show just wasn't happening.

So, I guess I'm pretty lucky that Lost in Thailand stuck around for a second weekend; I don't know whether AMC did it because it did well at late-night shows all week - or did well because the folks in Chinatown were among the only ones able to easily walk to the theater last Sunday - or to make up for all the shows cancelled due to the snow. One thing I find a bit interesting is that this isn't part of their (expired?) deal with China Lion - AMC apparently cut out the middleman and booked this movie in their theaters directly from the Chinese studio. Not with a huge amount of publicity - I think I saw a poster in an odd corner a couple weeks ago - but then again, I don't know how they advertise these things in Chinatown. I'm also curious as to whether this is something the chain is going to do more of as a rule, or this is just a test or weird situation whose behind-the-scenes circumstances are unlikely to repeat. Hopefully they at least plan to book Tai Chi Hero when Well Go decides on a new release date (January 2013 apparently being just a tease).

Attendance was not impressive - I think I counted four of us in the theater - but it was an 11:50pm screening of a niche movie in its second week. No walkouts, with folks in fact actually staying through the credits! Granted, the bloopers being run alongside the credits were apparently pretty amusing to the ladies behind me who could speak Mandarin. It's also worth noting that they, being members of the target audience, seemed to find it funnier than I did, so that bodes well for it.

One thing that amused me: There was a roped-off section of the hallway near the screen, which I initially thought was strange - what sort of preview screening would they be doing Saturday at midnight? Then I looked down the hall and saw the sign for Rocky Horror, looked the other way and figured, yeah, that makes sense. Maybe it's just me, but it seems to be less of a thing than it was at Harvard Square; I remember a lot more costumes and a much longer line at that location, as well as folks bringing stuff to throw. Still, it's apparently rowdy enough that the theater doesn't just put ushers on, but folks whose shirts say "SECURITY", so maybe I just noticed a snow-related slow week.

Ren zai jiong tu zhi tai jiong (Lost in Thailand)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2013 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, 2K digital)

Comedies are tough imports; wordplay gets lost in translation and different cultures find different things odd enough to be considered funny. So, it's the big, unmistakable gags that cross borders best, but they're not usually in the best movies. Thus, something like Lost in Thailand occasionally pokes into multiplexes; it's not a particularly great Chinese comedy, but it's broad enough that Americans will at least be able to recognize the jokes.

These often come at the expense of Xu Lang (Xu Zheng), an R&D leader in a Beijing corporation whose team has developed a way to stretch petroleum much further. He needs the authority to push the program forward, which resides with company officer Zhou Yang, currently in a Thailand monastery. His rival Gao Bo (Huang Bo) also seeks this power of attorney and follows Xu to Thailand to track Zhou down. Meanwhile, Xu's wife An An (Tao Hong) is insisting he sign divorce papers within the next two days, and circumstances stick him with Wang Bao (Wang Baoqiang), an annoying, uncouth, stupid, and possibly insane tourist.

In addition to starring, Xu Zheng also produces and directs. Last seen on these shores in Pang Ho-Cheung's Love in the Buff, he's probably best known for Hao Ning's Crazy Stone and Crazy Racer, and it's the latter's style tends toward, supplying broad characters who more often than not cause their own problems and finding new ways to crank up the insanity and slapstick as the movie goes on. And while he's rather rough at times - his attempts to cut between two set-ups and make them reinforce each other don't work that well - he and co-writers Ding Ding and Shu Huan do manage to come up with some good situations, either getting a laugh from the very idea of the set-up or capping it off with a decent gag. There are a couple bantering moments toward the beginning that the subtitles capture well enough that I'm willing to bet some of the more verbal bits work fairly well if one understands Mandarin or can combine vocal delivery with written information easily.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Boston Sci-Fi Film Fest 2013 Day 4: S.I.N. Theory

Short day, although it really shouldn't have been. The theme for the day was "sci-fi mysteries/thrillers", and unfortunately S.I.N. Theory was not the greatest example of the genre. Frustratingly, Eternity played at 5pm, and while some of the folks who saw it seemed to like it (although they weren't throwing out superlatives or anything), there was no way that I was getting there on time; I would have had to leave work at 3:30pm or so, and that's not happening. I should have been able to see it on Sunday, but the blizzard-related shuffling pushed it off that schedule.

The 9pm show was scheduled to be something called Double Happiness Uranium, but apparently the filmmakers did not actually send a disc or DCP, but instead sent a link to a DVD image so that the fest could burn their own, only nobody apparently realized this until too late. Made for a frustrating day for festival honcho Garen Daley and projectionist Dave Kornfeld, who mentioned that it was on top of having the main theater booked for some sort of fly-fishing movie double feature, and so having some outdoorsy guy come into his booth and give him instructions. Yes, apparently they make fly-fishing movies, akin to the surf and ski and other extreme sports movies that have a lot of crazy action to be followed and slowed down and shown from multiple angles. Fly-fishing? Well, I suppose there might be some pretty cinematography, but an hour of it... twice?

On top of that, apparently everyone in the theater was drinking cheap beer, because the odor hit me like a wave as I left to hit the comic shop earlier than expected. I suppose I could have stayed for War of the Worlds: The True Story, but I saw that on Sunday and a second run-through was not needed, thankyouverymuch. I get the impression that this is one Garen really likes - he seemed quite surprised when he asked for response to it last night and the entire audience sort of went "eh". I kind of wish they'd re-run Eternity, but I suppose many of the folks in the theater were there for the 5pm show, because they don't work out in the suburban wastelands.

S.I.N. Theory

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Fest, video)

If the initials in "S.I.N. Theory" stand for anything specific, I don't believe it is revealed in the movie, which is too bad. They imply material that's more salacious and exciting than what's on screen, and the movie could have used a dash of sleaze to distract from its silly, dull attempt at a sci-fi thriller story.

Dr. Michael Leimann (Jeremy Larter), we're told, is a brilliant mathematician. He teaches at a Toronto university where top students David (Farid Yazdani) and Evelyn (Allison Dawn Doiron) seem fond of him, but his real passion is a side project: An algorithm that can, with sufficient input, predict the actions of an individual, given enough input. Working on that got him fired, but with Evelyn's help, he completes it in his spare time - not only putting him on the to-do list of a hitman (Stephen Jacob Hogan), but also alerting him that Evelyn will die in two days.

Can we make it a rule that, before doing a film or other story that involves mathematically predicting the future in this way, the people involved should read Isaac Asimov's original Foundation trilogy? It's admittedly a big splash of cold water on the plot device, but sixty-odd years later, the idea that you can't apply the Seldon Plan to a single human being only fits what we know about math and human behavior better. Even if writer/director Richie Mitchell doesn't actually reference Asimov's "psychohistory" anywhere, he still seems to have some knowledge of the general principles, as they make their way into the dialogue, even though Michael's prediction algorithm works in opposition to them.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Boston Sci-Fi Film Fest 2013 Day 3 (Science Fiction from the Americas): Juan in a Million and El Xendra

When you've got a festival as small as this, theme days make a certain amount of sense; thus "Americas" day on Tuesday, when two movies from Central and South America screened. Combine that with a movie from Jordan the previous night, and this is probably the most international version of the Fest yet, which I appreciate. Not because I'm a snob who prefers foreign films to American (really not the case), but because of the relative ambition displayed. A lot of the North American films that have played this festival in the past have been the spoofy, backward-looking stuff, because that's a way to keep the budget down and pander to a certain audience. The foreign ones, meanwhile, seem to be trying to make the best movie they can, squeezing every single cent out of the budget so that they can put something in local cinemas that they can be proud of, that says that a small industry can compete with Hollywood on quality, if not budget.

Neither of these films are great, but they're pretty decent. And, hey, you've got to respect a guy who travels from Honduras to Boston to present his movie:

Juan Carlos Fanconi photo IMAG0301_zpsbfb609e2.jpg

(Pardon the horrible photography; every other shot I took had bright red/yellow eyes, and when those show up in a post about a genre film festival, folks think you mean something by it!)

That would be El Xendra director Juan Caros Fanconi, who (along with some of the crew) managed to make it by the end of the movie. It was nearly 11pm by then, so there wasn't time for a big Q&A, although that's where the mention of El Xendra being the first of a planned trilogy with the second likely to start filming in June came from.

He mentioned that the movie played in various Central American markets already, and I kind of wondered how it travels. How tiered is the Spanish-language cinema market around the world? This is a pretty spiffy movie for Honduras and El Salvador (where parts took place and were shot), but how does it look next to the domestic product in Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Spain? Does it seem "too Central American" to those other markets?

I'll probably expand on the idea in a later entry, but it's been impressive to see what a small group is capable of making these days over the course of the festival, but being able to make something that looks pretty good doesn't seem to be helping indie guys compete with the big boys; the big boys can just do even more. So, is the new technology creating more opportunities to hit it big, or just more strata?

Juan in a Million

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Fest, video)

"Alone in the world" movies offer the independent science fiction filmmaker a fair amount of bang for their buck - you can get by with a very small cast, some unusually still establishing shots taken at the right time, and the sense of unease that comes from empty space where there should be crowds. You've got to do a bit more in the way of world-building, though, something Juan in a Million puts off until it may be too late.

As the movie starts, Juan Pablo (Sergio Allard) is recording a video message as part of his application for graduate school at Harvard. He sends it off and hits the sack for a quick nap before going to a friend's party, but when he finally awakens and goes, the music is playing but the place is empty. Upon further examination, the entire city of Algarrobo, Chile is empty, and while the utilities are running, there's only static on the TV and radio and nothing new posted on the internet. Juan is alone, with only a Maradona bobblehead and strange dreams of his ex-girlfriend Camila (Florencia Astrorga) for company.

There are a number of directions that one can go with this - there's a mystery to solve, a struggle for a life-long city dweller to survive, and the possibility of going insane without genuine human contact - and ideally, the filmmaker would be pursuing all three at once. What makes this movie frustrating for a considerable chunk of its length is that Allard (who, in addition to playing Juan, also writes, directs, produces, and edits) doesn't seriously pursue any of these avenues until fairly late in the game - and even then, his on-screen alter ego seems to fall into it.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

El Xendra

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Fest, video)

El Xendra is impressively ambitious for a Honduran science fiction movie, and it actually does a better job of delivering on those ambitions than a lot of movies whose reviews start that way. It's not necessarily going to stand toe-to-toe with its equivalents from larger film industries, but it manages well enough that I hope filmmaker Juan Carlos Fanconi can do a little more next time.

Four Central American scientists - Carlos (Juan Pablo Olyslager), Diego (Fabian Sales), Marcela (Rocio Carranza), and Roberto "Doc" Hernandez (Boris Barraza) - who had previously worked together on the start of a project called "Time of No Time" in the United States - wake up in the middle of a clearing with no idea how they got there. Is it related to the mysterious event that somehow blacked out much of North America the previous month? Or something older - the legendary ciudad blanca of the Maya?

The main portion of the action takes place in January 2013, so, yes, the strange event would have taken place right around the supposed end of the Mayan calendar that got so much play last year. Its mythology is far more focused on science-fictional things than ancient gods as such (an opening title claims it is "inspired by real messages from extraterrestrial beings"), and eventually includes a little bit of everything, although seldom in gaudy fashion. Fanconi doles it out over the course of the movie and leaves plenty of room for further exploration, with two more movies planned (and production on the second scheduled for this summer), though this story ends in a fairly satisfying way.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Boston Sci-Fi Film Fest 2013 Day 2: When Time Becomes a Woman

The second day had a repeat from the first at 7pm (Found in Time), so I took the opportunity to bank an extra half-hour at work, do some grocery shopping, and relax a little bit before heading back up the Red Line for this one. Under certain circumstances, I might have bailed, but, hey, I paid money, I don't recall ever seeing a movie from Jordan, and this one had actually amassed some positive reviews.

And it's all right, for what it is - one of those art-house films that is all dialogue and striking imagery, though it doesn't really integrate them exceptionally well or use many of the other tools in the filmmaker's toolbox. My sense was that the audience was grumbly and somewhat dissatisfied after, perhaps hoping for a more active picture.

When Time Becomes a Woman

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Fest, video)

I'm guessing that there's not a whole lot of money for science fiction filmmaking in Jordan, which is why When Time Becomes a Woman not only feels less like a movie than a one-act play, but also has everybody in the cast and crew pulling triple- or quadruple-duty behind the scenes. So, adjust expectations accordingly, perhaps - odds are it won't blow your mind but it may be an interestingly different experience.

A man (Zaid Baqaeen) and a woman (Najwan Baqaeen) meet in a thin strip of land between the mountains and the water, with the man saying he has searched for her for three years, and he needs for her to return with him or the world will end. She's skeptical, wanting more information, especially once he claims to be Zad, a great revolutionary that she has read much about.

Now, if these two were sensible people who answered reasonable questions when asked rather than offering up a question of their own in philosophical opposition to the other's supposed meaning, this might be a ten or fifteen minute movie, rather than one that runs seventy-three (including leisurely credit roll). After all, Zad wants something, she wants a reason why she should, so communicate some information, already. Have a spirited debate on the ethics of the situation! These games may superficially make the movie sound intellectual, but at times the circles they run in can get frustrating.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 14 February - 21 February 2013

Happy Valentine's Day! And President's Day! I love movies and long weekends, even if I do now have to take the end of this one as a vacation day to gorge on movies.

  • That gorge will be done at the The Boston Sci-Fi Film Fest. The "festival" part continues through Saturday, with the Marathon running from Sunday at noon until roughly the same time Monday in the big room at the Somerville Theatre (Friday and Saturday nights are on smaller screens).

    Before then, the Somerville Theatre has two special programs on Valentine's Day - Harold Lloyd's Girl Shy on the main screen with a short and accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis, and Faith Soloway adding music and comedy to Claire of the Moon in a "Lesbian Cinema Schlock Treatment" show. Two days later, they'll also be hosting the All Things Horror screening of Mon Ami, an entertaining black comedy I enjoyed at Fantasia last year. And with one screen left empty after the sci-fi festival ends, they'll welcome the Banff Mountain Film Festival from Tuesday to Thursday with a touring show of short films centered on nature, sport, and the environment. Looking a little further out, they will also welcome the Alloy Orchestra on the 23rd with new scores for a selection of Buster Keaton shorts.
  • The big studios bring out some big guns a day early to catch Valentine's Day moviegoers. The most obviously Valentine-y movie is Safe Haven, the latest adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, this one featuring Julianne hough and Josh Duhamel as good-looking people who need to see past their tragedies to find love again, with Lasse Hallström in the director's chair. It plays Fenway, Boston Common, and Fresh Pond. The same theaters also have Beautiful Creatures, a Southern Gothic but modern adaptation of a young-adult fantasy novel with Alice Englert and Alden Ehrenreich as the star-crossed lovers, since she's a witch who will be claimed by good or evil on her birthday. The supporting cast is temptingly excellent, with Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Margo Martindale, Kyle Gallner, Viola Davis, and more.

    For those more in the mood for male bonding, A Good Day to Die Hard also opens on Valentine's Day, with Bruce Willis back as John McClane, this time (hopefully) in over his head in Moscow where he finds out his son is a spy hunting down terrorists. Hopefully a bit of a bounce-back after #4, as opposed to just Fox realizing that a Bruce Willis action movie will make twice as much if it has the words "Die Hard" in the title, even if it's not nearly so great as the original. It plays the Arlington Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common (including the Imax screen), Fenway (including the RPX screen), and the Jordan's Furniture IMAX screens, Another action choice this weekend is the 3D re-release of Top Gun, which moves over to Fenway on Friday after having played the Imax screen at Boston Common for a week.

    It's also school vacation week, so kids younger than the target audience for Beautiful Creatures get Escape from Planet Earth, an animated film with Brendan Fraser and Rob Corddry as alien astronauts brothers trapped in Area 51 and looking to bust out. Fun voice cast, but the animation doesn't look great (what falls to The Weinstein Company seldom does), and even the trailer had obnoxious product placement. It has 2D and 3D showings at the Arlington Capitol, Fresh Pond, and Fenway; 3D-only at Boston Common.
  • The Brattle has their big Valentine's screening of Casablanca tonight, and there may still be tickets available. After that, it's school vacation time with The Bugs Bunny Film Festival running Friday to next Saturday, including three programs: The "All Bugs Revue" plays on Friday, Sunday, Tuesday (noon only), and Thursday; "That Fantastic Friz" celebrates Friz Freling's centennial on Saturday, Monday, and Wednesday; and a special "Looney Tunes Revue" plays matinees next Friday and Saturday (the 22nd & 23rd). The gap on Tuesday is for a Balagan presentation of "Breakwater", an hour's worth of short films (mostly) on 16mm capturing imagery of water.
  • Kendall Square tends to have a low turnover during Oscar season, and this year (and week) is no exception, with Stand Up Guys leaving and Happy People: A Year in the Taiga opening. The trailers play it up as a Werner Herzog film, but he seems to mostly lend a hand (and his distinctive voice) to Dmitry Vasyukov, who spent a year documenting fur trappers in a Siberian village. Timur Bekmambetov is also on board as a producer, so that's an interesting group.
  • the Coolidge Corner Theatre presents Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca as their Valentine's Day show tonight, a romantic mystery that was also his first American film. Tomorrow, they open Tabu in the screening room, which is also a romance that is split into two halves, one in contemporary Lisbon and one in colonial Africa.

    They also continue midnight Blaxploitation History Month screenings on Friday and Saturday with modern spoof Black Dynamite, a pretty darn great send-up of the genre which demonstrates that Michael Jai White really should do more comedy, because he's hilarious. Lore screens Sunday morning, delayed from last week because of blizzard-related travel issues, and Fargo plays on the big screen Monday as part of "Big Screen Classics".
  • Leos Carax will be visiting the Harvard Film Archive next weekend, but they start their retrospective of his films on Friday so that folks can get up to speed. Boy Meets Girl plays Friday at 7pm, Pola X that night at 9:15pm, Tokyo! Saturday at 9pm, and The Lovers on the Bridge Sunday at 4pm. They're also continuing the Raoul Walsh retrospective ("Action! Action! Action!") with a rescheduled The Revolt of Mamie Stover at 5pm Saturday, followed by Wild Girl 7pm, and They Died with Their Boots On Sunday 7pm. They'll also look at another filmmaker on Monday with The Poetic Semiotics of Peter Rose, with the filmmaker present to introduce a series of his short films and videos.
  • The MFA continues with The Films of Stanley Kubrick, offering up unconventional Valentine's Day options with Lolita and Dr. Strangelove (also running Saturday the 16th), then moving on to Paths of Glory (Friday the 15th), 2001 (Friday & Sunday), A Clockwork Orange (Saturday and Sunday), and Barry Lyndon (Thursday the 21st). Lolita, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange are digital; the rest are on 35mm.
  • ArtsEmerson's The Next Thing Festival begins in earnest this weekend with "American Utopias" on the main stage, and the film portion is a mix of new and influential pictures: Transition is a musical performance piece Friday evening, with Spaulding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia (as filmed by Jonathan Demme) Friday night. Saturday offers Time Bandits in the afternoon, a presentation of Young Jean Lee's play The Shipment at 6pm, and Aaron Landsman's live-streamed participatory theater event City Council Meeting at 9pm. It's Spaulding Gray again Sunday afternoon, with Steven Soderbergh's film And Everything Is Going Fine at 1pm, including specially appearances by Gray's wife Kathleen Russo, son Forrest Gray, and fellow monologuist Mike Daisey.
  • School vacation means sing-along shows at the Regent Theatre, and apparently Grease! is the word for February. 7pm Shows all week from Monday the 17th to Friday the 22nd, with 2pm matinees on Tuesday and Thursday and a 9:30pm late show on Friday. There will be goody bags, and coming in costume is strongly encouraged.
  • It's been a while since the New England Aquarium shuffled their IMAX shows, and they add a new one looking at marine life and environments on Friday with The Last Reef. Truth be told, looking at undersea environments in IMAX 3D never gets old, and it also plays on the 2D-but-curved OMNIMAX screen at the Museum of Science.
  • AMC's Best Picture Showcase is split into two parts to handle the nine nominees this year; the first part runs on Saturday the 16th starting at 10am and includes Amour, Les Miserables, Argo, and Django Unchained for $30 (the other five will run next week) at Boston Common. Boston Common also will be keeping Lost in Thailand around for late shows, either because it did well or because the blizzard killed any chance for folks to see it.
  • Speaking of Oscar catch-up, the ICA starts screening the Oscar-nominated short films off and on starting on Sunday; they'll be showing animation, live action, and three of the documentary shorts on Sunday, and animation on Thursday.

My plans? Sci-fi fest until Monday, sneaking Lost in Thailand in there somewhere, and maybe catching Die Hard 5 and Happy People later in the week. Probably won't go for the latter on Monday afternoon, because I can see Werner Herzog's voice lulling me to sleep after the 'thon. I'm half-tempted to see Lore Sunday morning and show up a bit late for said marathon, but do I really need to make 24 hours of movies straight into 26?

This Week In Tickets: 4 February 2013 - 10 February 2013

So, how was your weekend? Nice weather?

This Week in Tickets

I managed to keep busy for the start of the week, trying to get stuff in before the festival, which became trying to get stuff in before the storm. The storm itself played a little havoc with my plans, naturally - I'd hoped to see the Oscar nominated documentary shorts on Thursday (instead, I made a grocery run) and Lost in Thailand sometime over the weekend (no getting out of the house to AMC Boston Common for the first two days, Sunday at the fest starting earlier). It could have been even busier - I opted to only see half of two double features, seeing Reservoir Dogs without Pulp Fiction, and Oslo, August 1938 without The Day He Arrives.

I between, I did a separate-admission double feature of The Oscar-Nominated Shorts (Animation & Live Action), which was kind of funny because I used the last of my Landmark discount tickets for the first, and they were out of ticket books to sell me for the second, so I wound up paying (gasp!) full price. The funny bit is that every time I've gone to Kendall Square for the last two months, they've tried to sell me another ticket book, but, noooo, I could wait until the next one ran out.

Finally, after the snow, I got to The Sci-Fi Festival. I actually tried to get there on Saturday, since there had been no announcement about cancellations, but when I got there at 5:10 for a 5pm show (a short program, so I figured being late wouldn't be terrible), I was told that it had been cancelled, so the first show would be at 7pm. So, I hung around Davis Square for a while, which wasn't as much fun as it sounds - the places where I might have bought a hot chocolate were shut down (yes, even Dunkin Donuts), and while the bars were open, I don't drink. I was also too full from a late mid-day meal eaten when I thought I'd be in a theater for six hours to plop down in a restaurant. I wound up killing a little time in CVS, looking for replacement laces for my boots and other supplies. I kid you not, the big display in the middle of the floor post-blizzard was for sunblock. In Boston, in February.

The notice that the rest of the day's screenings were cancelled came at around 6:15, so I headed back home with a stop in Finale. It was at least good to learn that it takes me roughly an hour to walk from my house to Davis in the snow for Sunday, as I got to the first show (only one there!) before the T started running. After that, the screening schedule got weird, to the point where those of us in the theater considered holding up signs with what we'd like Dave to play next because it seemed so random. Afterward, though, the Red Line was running, and things seemed to get back to normal very quickly.

Reservoir Dogs

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 February 2013 in Capitol Theatre #1 (Capitol Classics, digital)

Somehow, despite eventually becoming a fan of Quentin Tarantino, I avoided seeing Reservoir Dogs for a long time. It wasn't deliberate; I've got a DVD on the shelf that I meant to watch but just never got around to, and it always seemed to play on the big screen at bad times for me. It worked out pretty nicely for me that I saw it soon after The Killing, as I think Kubrick's film, with its fractured timeline and black comedy, is a sort of ancestor to Dogs - the point where a certain style of crime thriller branched off and started to evolve into its own thing.

As a result, I wasn't quite so gob-smacked as I might have been had I seen it when it first came out during my college years, although it may be to my benefit to have waited so long. My tastes were just starting to evolve back then, as evidenced that I wasn't particularly fond of Pulp Fiction the first time through. I've seen how Tarantino has grown, how he has harnessed his distinctive dialogue to bolder, more exciting action, learned how to write salty without using the f-word as a crutch or dipping so much into casual racism, and otherwise just become a better filmmaker. There's a point where I would have absolutely loved this, but I'm not quite sure when it would have been.

It's still a pretty darn good movie - Tarantino really excels at getting a few people in a room and examining how they play off each other, especially as he plays with different combinations and circumstances. Harvey Keitel was the most solidly-established actor in the main ensemble, and he winds up being pretty generous, starting out as the focus of the picture and eventually ceding the limelight to the rest of the cast. It's kind of a shame that Tim Roth seemed to age out of roles like this fairly quickly, as he makes a fantastic Mr. Orange, and this seems to be where Steve Buscemi really started to break out.

For all the potential and raw talent Tarantino shows here, I think it's still sort of an immature movie, using a lot of shock tactics and scenes which looked good in his head but seem more singular than part of the story. But a lot of directors probably wish they could start out with something this good, and it sure as heck made a solid foundation for Pulp Fiction and what came after.

Reservoir Dogs
Oscar Nominated Shorts - Animation
Oscar Nominated Shorts - Live Action
Oslo, August 31st
Boston Sci-Fi Film Fest Day 1