Thursday, February 14, 2013

Boston Sci-Fi Film Fest Day 1 (or 3): The Final Shift, War of the Worlds: The Untold Story, Found in Time, Earthbound, and Mars et Avril

The best way to describe the Sunday I spent in Somerville Theatre's screen 2 - or at least, the kindest - is to say that the future is unpredictable. With the previous two days of programming wiped out by the most serious pure snowstorm to hit the Northeast in years (Sandy being something else again), and Sunday initially looking like it might be canceled as the Boston area continued to dig out, the festival organizers scrambled to try and get things on the schedule. Technically, I don't think anything played according to the original schedule; even Found in Time, one of the two screenings that matched the scheudle posted online, was in a slot originally slated for Escape from Tomorrow, which disappeared from the festival without any sort of notice or explanation.

That lack of notice/explanation was a constant part of the day; the schedule on Sunday morning read The Final Shift, Mars et Avril, Found in Time, Eternity, and Shorts Program #2. I was the only person to make it in for The Final Shift at 1:15pm, as the MBTA didn't start running the subway until 2pm and fairly few of us were in a position to make the hike (and, since it took me about an hour to get there from my house, I probably shouldn't have!). I could still hear Dave Kornfeld laying down the law for someone in the projection booth as he tried to get it framed right and looking good, because Dave is a friggin' professional.

Others joined me at 3pm, and we were all kind of surprised and a little disappointed to see War of the Worlds: The Untold Story start instead of Mars et Avril, the one that at least three of us were most looking forward to, without any sort of notice or update on the website, Facebook page, etc. With no way to know what was going to play next beyond the quick tests Dave ran between movies, we joked about holding up signs to request one thing or another next. Fortunately, we did get that movie as the last show.

We didn't get Eternity, which might not be a great movie, but the revised schedule had it only playing a mid-week 5pm show, which meant I wasn't getting to see it. In its place, we got Earthbound, only it played from a screener disc rather than the DCP they had sent (the keycodes were wrong, in another example of copy protection doing more to annoy legitimate users rather than deter unauthorized ones). That meant not just lower resolution, but "Property of Ripple World / Paper Dreams" showing up right in the middle of the screen every ten minutes or so, in a screening people paid for. Not cool.

I'm not hugely upset, because Earthbound was pretty entertaining and that made for one of the more pleasant things that can happen at a festival, a day of movies which get better as the day went along. It meant starting fairly low (The Final Shift was awful), but by the time we left at 10:30pm, the T was running, the snow was looking pretty well under-control, and my mood had been getting better all day. All in all, not a bad way to finish up a mess of a weekend.

The Final Shift

* (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Fest, video)

The Final Shift is one of those movies that it's almost unsporting to review; it doesn't do anything well and likely only got a spot on this festival's schedule because it was made locally, but by the same token, nobody else is going to see it, so what's the point of thrashing it publicly? In an earlier age, the people involved would have been able to pretend it didn't exist after doing three or four better movies, but now IMDB and sites like this will unfortunately connect them to this thing forever. Sorry about that.

The plot is standard D-movie stuff - there's a secret army program to make physically enhanced soldiers, but so far the only successes, if you can call them that, are with the daughters of program head Col. Maslow (Robert Miano), half-sisters code-named Delta (Vanessa Leigh) and Alpha (Diana Porter). When a hitman (John Depew) makes his way in to steal the formula, he also winds up taking Delta with him. Six years later, they're working as a team (with Delta now going by "Margot"), and when they're latest job gives them a lead on the spoils of a bank robbery, they wind up in the middle of a standoff in a diner.

That's all very unimaginative and all, but it's served as the skeleton for a good action movie before, but when the action is lousy, what's the point? And the action here is pretty bad; there's not a punch or other blow that actually seems to connect, and writer/director Depew tends to crank the score up during fight scenes so that the audience can't even be fooled by a well mixed/edited sound of impact. Gunplay is accomplished with cheap-looking CGI. It's all so fake-looking that it's hard for audiences to get caught up in the excitement of the action; it just becomes a clockwork removal of characters from the scene.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

The War of the Worlds: The Untold Story

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Fest, video)

Around the time Stephen Spielberg's version of The War of the Worlds came out, Timothy Hines and Pendragon Pictures did their own, a three-hour period piece (which David Cornelius gives a thorough evisceration/appreciation on EFC. I haven't seen it, so I can't say whether "The Untold Story" is that footage thoroughly recut, the same cast and crew giving themselves a do-over, or some combination of the two. It doesn't really matter, though, because the end result is not very good.

The story is a classic of science fiction from before the genre had the name, with Martians leaving their dying planet to invade Earth. This version takes place at around the turn of the twentieth century, with canisters falling to Earth in England and disgorging steam-era tripods with heat rays, and Bertie Wells (Anthony Piana), who was among the first on the scene at the initial crash, going on an Odyssey across the ruined landscape during the very one-sided war.

The hook to this version is that it is presented as a 1964 interview with Wells (now played by Floyd Reichman), the last survivor of the invasion, which also incorporates previously unseen footage from 1900, kept classified by the British government for decades. The cynical among you might argue that, as the previous version was an attempt to cash in on a big-budget studio tentpole, this one aims to simultaneously cash in on found-footage horror and renewed interest in this period (Sherlock Holmes, Downton Abbey, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, etc.). And, to be honest, that's not the most horrible idea in the world, especially since Hines is loyal to the source material to a fault (I suspect all that of the elder Bertie's lines are narration from H.G. Wells's original novel).

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Found in Time

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Fest, video)

A tricky thing for a science fiction story to do is to build its world and story without spending any time explaining it to the characters who, living in it, don't need the explanation. Add a changing timeline to the mix, and you're really asking for trouble. As a result, it's very impressive that Found in Time works as well as it does, though it's still often on the confusing side.

Things start out with Chris (MacLeod Andrews), a "collector" whose psi abilities generally allow him to find things that people he meets later will want. His consciousness jumping forward and backward in time is a side-effect, and his meds are starting to be ineffective. His girlfriend Jina (Kelly Sullivan) recommends he see one of her therapist colleagues (Eric Martin Brown), while one of her patients, a "weaver" named Ayana (Mina Vesper Gokal) winds up working the same corner when Chris sells the things he finds and his friend RJ (Derek Morgan) sells unusually-infused coffee.

Writer/director Arthur Vincie has created an interesting alternate or near-future world without tarting it up in a lot of obvious trappings; it mostly seems different from ours at the edges, where abilities like Chris, Ayana, and RJ have are known but not mainstream. None of these abilities are the sort you need to spend any money to depict most of the time, and that works for this movie; while "The Mine" that the psi-cops threaten the vendors with looks slapped together, it looks like the alternate world's government went cheap, not the filmmakers.

Full review on eFilmCritic.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Fest, screener)

You wouldn't think a genre as hyphenated as the indie-sci-fi-romantic-comedy would have enough entries to have staples, but "boy thinks he's alien/time traveler/robot, making the girl who thinks he's otherwise sweet uncomfortable" pops up a fair amount. It lives and dies by the performances, which means that writer/director Alan Brennan is pretty fortunate to have Rafe Spall and Jenn Murray in his movie.

Joe Norman (Spall) thinks he's an alien, since that's what his father (David Morrissey) told him when he died: That they had escaped a coup by a vicious cult on their homeworld, and a beacon would be lit in the middle of a certain constellation when it was safe to return. That was fifteen years ago, and now Joe's in his mid-twenties, working in a comic shop when Maria (Murray) comes in to sell some of her childhood toys so she can make rent. Joe's scanner (or watch) says she's 94% biologically compatible, and they turn out to be a good match beyond that - at least, until Joe feels like he should tell her the truth about himself.

There's been a fair amount of talk over the last few years about how geek culture has become mainstream culture, and Earthbound embraces that in a way that a lot of similar movies don't. Joe and Maria are a good-looking pair who like sci-fi, and roughly three seconds is spent on a pretty girl liking Battlestar Galactica being considered odd - and speaking of Galactica, Brennan figures the audience has probably watched enough of that show and the other science fiction works he references to see what he's building without spelling things out or pandering. And while Joe is an oddball who makes a fair amount of social missteps, he's not a stunted weirdo.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Mars et Avril

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2013 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Fest, Blu-ray)

As much as I'm glad the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival is getting a better class of movies, I kind of wish that the timing of Mars et Avril hitting the festival circuit and then having its regular release in Quebec was such that I could have seen it at Montreal's Fantasia Festival, because that would have been a hoot. It's elaborately oddball, and its quirk is distinctly French-Canadian, so while it's generally fun, I have to imagine that crowd would be especially into it.

Jacob Obus (Jacques Languirand) is the toast of late-twenty-first-century Montreal, a 75-year-old jazz musician famous for the instruments he plays inspired by the female form. Those instruments are designed by Arthur Spaak (Paul Ahmarani) and built by Arthur's father Eugene (Robert Lepagee), and Jacob makes it a rule never to speak to the models. Avril (Caroline Dhavernas) has different ideas; the beautiful young photographer seduces both Jacob and Arthur. Not Eugene, though - he's gone virtual and spends his spare time trying to convince scientists that Mars is imaginary, willed into existence by the collective consciousness, which may present issues for the three "marsonautes" en route.

If nothing else, Mars et Avril is a blast to look at - co-writer/director Martin Villeneuve adapts his own graphic novel (which I believe is more fumetti than hand-drawn), and seems determined to fit every entertaining visual in that he can, no matter how absurd or unnecessary it is. So Eugene's head is a hologram, Jacob has amazing facial hair, and the club where he plays is made of glass and underwater. The setting is full of transformed and exaggerated landmarks, such as the pile of blocks built to house athletes during the 1976 Olympics now approaching skyscraper dimensions. The instruments seem like something out of a Jodorowsky/Moebius graphic novel. It's gaudy, bright eye candy more akin to The Fifth Element than any other sci-fi film.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

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