Sunday, March 02, 2014

Boston Sci-fi Film Festival Day 10-11: The Marathon

Well, that took longer than expected. Not the marathon - that was the standard twenty-four hours, by definition - but writing it up. I didn't necessarily intend to write a full review of every movie that kept me awake where I hadn't done one before, but that's how it turned out, which speaks fairly well of this year's line-up - they weren't all good movies, but they were for the most part interesting. That is sort of the best thing you can expect of this event - there is a noteworthy chunk of the audience that wants cheese and a staff willing to supply it, so all one can do is hope that there's something worth seeing for reasons beyond laughing at its ineptitude.

Attendance was pretty good this year, enough so that when I made my usual somewhat late arrival at quarter of twelve (I had just gotten this posted a half-hour earlier), the usual swag-bags were gone. I did the now-customary routine, if two years counts as a custom, of accepting the Atomic Fireball, putting it in a pocket, climbing up to the balcony and finding a spot roughly in the center of the lower section, and then not being able to find the fireball when "Duck Dodgers" started up. Somehow it turned up again later, after the pants had gone through the laundry. No big deal, as I am not terribly fond of the things anyway.

Somewhere in there, our hosts got up on stage, with Garen exaggerating the quality of the movies that played the festival and Major Tom laying out the rules. And, honestly, I think it's time for Tom to stop even mentioning that there are callbacks and such tolerated and encouraged, because when you do that and then start with a movie like First Men in the Moon, you're just asking for trouble. In this case, it was people deciding that every open door for the next twenty-four hours must be accompanied by yelling "door!", no matter whether the current film was a clunker or a movie that people were trying to just watch and enjoy for its own sake.

One of the guys behind me was, really, just the absolute worst; he wasn't in his seat for half the time, but when he was, he was talking to no-one, and not particularly creative. I eventually had to ask if it was even possible for him to try and watch something good without making wiseass comments.

Nicholas Brendon, way down on the stage

Check it out, it's Coherence co-star Nicholas Brendon on stage way below me on the stage, finally doing a Q&A after a little snow kept him from appearing at either Thursday's or Saturday's screenings. He's also demonstrating the limits of my camera and my skills in using it - someday I'll figure out how to get a picture that's neither blurry nor dark, rather than just choosing one. It's worth mentioning that the red curtain and the fact that I was way the heck up in the balcony didn't do the picture any favors.

Mr. Brendon is a funny guy, as those who are familiar with his work are likely not shocked to discover. It was certainly an entertaining Q&A as well as fairly informative, with Brendon very generous to those who didn't come, mentioning that while the film was mostly improvised, the two best lines were fed to him.

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Dave Kornfeld's tip jar. That dollar on top is mine, because you know Dave would genuinely rather be doing changeovers every reel than setting a DCP up and letting it run.

I'm slowly becoming a convert to the "eat relatively little" school of how to get through the marathon; I had a breakfast sandwich from the nearby Au Bon Pain just before things started, some ice cream at seven-ish (I didn't feel like like dealing with the line for pizza), and some Twizzlers at 1am. I think the only really noteworthy nap I had was during The Visitor (still boring!), although there were some missing minutes during Children of Men and Flash Gordon at the end, but I was surprisingly alert even without keeping notes. I finished up by getting some doughnuts at Verna's, and was kind of a zombie all afternoon. Strangely, I was able to get a second wind for the Gathr preview series at the Regent that night and did pretty well at work on Tuesday. Kind of unusual, but I'll take it.

I must admit, the increased level of people not shutting up bugged me this year; I spent a lot of the event wondering if this was the year that I finally said that seeing a bunch of things I might not otherwise catch wasn't worth the expense, dealing with an audience full of talkers and containers of smelly food, etc. The back end of The World, the Flesh and the Devil, Grabbers, Children of Men, and, yeah, Flash Gordon makes up for a lot of it, so I'm probably down for one more year. Neither the festival nor the marathon is an ideal event, but it's the one we've got, and this year's was a pretty good time.

First Men in the Moon

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2014 in Somerville Theartre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, 35mm)

I suspect that, had I been around 50 years ago, I would have become fairly agitated watching First Men in the Moon, because there was amazing actual science and engineering going on where that subject was concerned and a bunch of H.G. Wells fantasy was just going to set people up for disappointment. Now, though, it's so much a product of its time(s) that it's easy enough to look at it as just a big Ray Harryhausen adventure and enjoy it on those terms.

Of course, being released in 1964, it has to make a nod to the actual space race, and so it shows a UN mission landing on the Moon, quite perplexed when they find a Union Jack and a document claiming the satellite for Queen Victoria. Running that down eventually leads to Arnold Bedford, an old man who tells of how, in his youth, he (Edward Judd) invested in the crazy anti-gravity experiments of his neighbor Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries). By a sequence of events too crazy to believe, that led to the men flying to the Moon with Arnold's American fiancee Kate Callender (Martha Hyer) along for the ride. They would find that while the surface of the Moon is just a dead field of rock, danger lurked under the surface.

Almost the entire text of that description seems almost comically quaint today, and that's not including little details like how the diving apparatus Cavor uses as spacesuits lack things like gloves. To a certain extent, though, "quaint" is probably a big part of what writers Nigel Kneale & Jan Read and director Nathan Juran are going for - something that will entertain the kids who were the film's main audience while also capturing a certain rural English character. It's silly, and it wouldn't be surprising if a great many of the people involved knew better, but there's something to be said for capturing a specific tone. And when the film does get away from things being charmingly bucolic, there's an argument to be made that it actually stumbles on a pre-punk form of steampunk.

Full review at EFC

Westworld

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2014 in Somerville Theartre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, 35mm)

Nowadays, it's hard not to think of Michael Crichton's Westworld as a rough draft of Jurassic Park, and to wish that it included a Pirate World, if only so that a certain Jeff Goldblum line would be even funnier. In some ways, that's an unfair way to judge the movie, but in others, it's rather fitting - even without considering that later multimedia blockbuster, there are a lot of ways that this one falls short of its potential.

We're initially treated to an infomercial-like bit hinting at how the Delos resort is sold to potential tourists in its world, but soon we meet two friends headed there for an expensive but elaborate bit of role-playing: John Blane (James Brolin), who has been there before, and Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin), who had just been through an ugly divorce. They will be staying in "Western World", while others on the Delos hovercraft are heading to Medieval World and Roman World, all of which are populated by androids of every variety. At the saloon, Peyer has a shootout with a gunslinger (Yul Brynner) as John eggs him on. They treat themselves to a night at the cathouse, unaware that in the underground service areas, the technicians are noticing an increasing number of catastrophic failures.

There's a peculiar frankness about just how much of the place's appeal is the chance to shoot people and have it feel real; debates about violence in video games were far in the future on 1973. Sex, on the other hand, gets a bit more of a winking treatment, although Crichton doesn't hide it behind too much innuendo. It is kind of a shame, though, that he does very little to directly engage the idea; for all that one may argue that the robots going haywire is a sort of symbolic payback for how the people who come to Delos not only embrace their bloodlust but have created people (of a sort) whose sole reason for existence is to be raped and murdered, that layer of the plot is buried deep. There's never a sense of purpose to all this beyond a glitch bit of self-replicating code, and there's no thematic weight to the confrontations, either.

Full review at EFC

Coherence

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2014 in Somerville Theartre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, DCP)

Coherence is one of the talkiest, most actor-centric sci-fi films you're ever likely to see, but this is a case where that's a pretty good thing. Sure, something this odd and improv-heavy can invite disaster when a neat idea isn't able to thrive, but this is a case where things go far more right than wrong.

The initial bit of strangeness doesn't seem like a big deal - Emily (Emily Foxler) is talking to her friend Laurie (Lauren Maher) while driving over for a dinner party when her screen suddenly shatters for no reason, but then it is an iPhone and those things crack when you look at them too intently. She gets to Laurie's house okay, and the women and Laurie's actor husband Mike (Nicholas Brendon) are soon joined by Emily's boyfriend Kevin (Maury Sterling) and two other couples - Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) & Beth (Elizabeth Gracen), who brings some suspect botanicals, and Amir (Alex Manugian) & Lee (Lorene Scafaria), who also happens to be Kevin's ex-girlfriend. There's a comet passing fairly close to Earth that night, and soon the power and mobile phone service go out. One house down the street still has the lights on, but when a couple of the guys go over to see if they have a landline, things quickly get strange.

And then they get stranger; while much of the dialog may be improvised, director James Ward Byrkit (who created the scenario with co-star Alex Manugian) puts his cast into situations that have the potential to make a viewer's head hurt a little more with each bit of elaboration - that the passage of this comet has somehow warped space and time in the area around this house quickly becomes an insufficient explanation. Fortunately, he doesn't overburden the audience with explanations - a few references to thought experiments that have familiar names but may not be strictly applicable is enough, especially since it wouldn't necessarily do to have the audience understand things well enough that they get exasperated with the characters.

Full review at EFC

The Power

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2014 in Somerville Theartre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, 35mm)

You could probably re-adapt The Power today without changing a whole heck of a lot - a little more gender and ethnic diversity among the academics who serve as suspects/victims, perhaps, and maybe some sort of having-related subplot to explain why certain information is not available. Fear of a mutant developing strange mental powers doesn't seem to get old, which means this sci-fi thriller from 1968 is far less creaky than many of its contemporaries.

It starts with Dr. Norman Van Zandt (Richard Carlson) being assigned as the government liaison for a University program that measures human endurance, and his first staff meeting is eventful: Professor Henry Hallson (Arthur O'Connell) claims that the results of an anonymous questionnaire circulated among the staff indicates that someone has off-the-charts brainpower, and while committee chair Jim Tanner (George Hamilton) dismisses the idea as pseudoscientific quackery, indications are that there something to it -- especially when Tanner and colleague/lover Prof. Margery Lansing (Suzanne Pleshette) discover Hallson's murdered body. Jim is framed for the crime, and goes on the lam to find the mysterious "Adam Harte" named in Hallson's notes, even if the man does seem to be a ghost, having left scant record of his existence behind; there's not even a consistent physical description!

The Power is built as a murder mystery, although the constraints of the time hurt it to a certain extent: Aside from Margery, the whole suspect/victim pool is rather similar middle-aged white men with similar backgrounds (with Jim not that much younger) and a motivation that is more or less a given. To a certain extent, that makes the movie a sort of proto-slasher, except that the anonymous people getting dispatched in progressively more bizarre ways are a little older. There's also a inescapable sense that because every murder that brings the numbers of suspects closer to one by literal process of elimination, it's not a very good plan, although the last few scenes do provide a bit of an explanation.

Full review at EFC

Europa Report

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2014 in Somerville Theartre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, Blu-ray)

Europa Report is one of a number of fairly good spaceship-set movies coming from independent producers in the past few years, and this pleases me; it's enormously satisfying to see that the sort of stories that leap to mind when someone says "science fiction" don't necessarily need to be the territory of large studios that will strangle any creativity from them as a matter of course. Sure, this is the "highly-distributed international co- production" sort of independent film as opposed to the "guys doing something with whatever resources they can dig up locally" type, but you do need that middle ground.

I still like it quote a bit on a second viewing; in fact, I think I'm a little more inclined to look at its tendency to jump around in time a little more favorably. I still think it's a bit of an odd choice for the sort of future documentary it is presenting itself as, but it's not like I haven't seen this style in real life. The ending seems a little more inevitable, though. One of the nifty things about the movie is that it engages in just enough sleight-of-hand throughout that the actual finale could come as a surprise even though the viewer knows that something big and climactic will happen because it's a movie, but the strings are much more visible on a second run through.

It's still a pretty impressive flick, though and If certainly like to see more like it, both in terms of general attitude and polish.

Full review at EFC

Silent Running

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2014 in Somerville Theartre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, DCP)

I don't wholly agree with those who would frame the 1970s as a golden age of cinema for mature adults tragically destroyed by the coming off the sci-fi blockbuster, although that's in part because I can't bring myself to hate big, broadly-entertaining movies. I do occasionally find myself wondering about an alternate history of the movies where there were more movies like Silent Running that combined 1970s edge with beautiful, meticulous special effects.

It follows Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), part of a four-person crew on a space cargo ship and the only one who has any interest in tending to the domes containing some of the last trees from a dead Earth. Certain that the company president will announce plans to return home and reestablish the forests, he is crushed when the announcement instead is to eject the domes and destroy them with nuclear bombs. Unable to convince his crew-mates (Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin & Jesse Vint) that this is a horrible idea, he takes matters into his own hands. He saves the yes, but is all alone aside from robot drones Huey, Dewey, and Louie.

Douglas Trumbull directs, the first of his only two features, but his impact is felt just as strongly (if not more so) in his other jobs, heading up the visual effects department and creating the surprisingly expressive done units. Even without considering the time and the pre-digital tools he's working with, the right world he creates is something amazing, distinctive while seldom looking like functionality was compromised in order to make things look cool. The inside of the ship has an intriguing contrast of vastness for cargo with right spaces for the crew that quietly demonstrates the corporation's priorities (and shows how it's probably a miracle that the not-obviously-profitable nature preserve lasted this long), and is decorated with the sort of product placement that lends an earnestly cynical air. The outside is a thing of beauty, detailed but not shiny and busy like a modern digital creation might be, and while the signature feature of the three domes may not be strictly accurate scientifically, they certainly make this ship something that viewers will remember.

Full review at EFC

The Truman Show

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2014 in Somerville Theartre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, 35mm)

After The Truman Show screened during this 24-hour movie marathon (from a gorgeous 35mm show print), I tweeted somewhat hyperbolically that it was the best work everybody involved has ever done. There was some disagreement about specific people, but I think it's telling that people responded with exceptions rather than wholesale disagreement with the premise. Truman is excellent from top to bottom, a somewhat overlooked classic.

15 years on, its premise is still somewhat audacious: Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) has been raised on a soundstage the size of a small seaside town for his entire life, unaware that everybody in that life - his mother (Holland Taylor), his best friend (Noah Emmerich), even his wife (Laura Linney) - are actors improvising around his actions and nudging him in the direction dictated by the show's creator Christof (Ed Harris). Today, though, a crack appears in this perfect artifice when a stage light falls from the sky, and he's still haunted by the true love (Natacha McElhone) that the products whisked away before she could reveal the truth.

There are some people who will look at that description, invoke the words "reality TV", and comment that Andrew Niccol's screenplay was prophetic. I think they are rather far off-base, though - while many television programs today are technically unscripted but heavily guided down a certain path, the stars are all willing, active participants, and this style has become popular because it's cheap enough to produce that it can turn a profit in a world whose tastes are incredibly fragmented. The Truman Show's concept of everyone the world over watching an elaborate, expensive program whose star is not taking his personal brand into account is the opposite of prescient, and that's fine. It's better than fine, really; it's the reason why the movie endures.

Full review at EFC

Electric Dreams

* * (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2014 in Somerville Theartre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, 35mm)

Electric Dreams is, even by the standards of being a movie about a dangerous home computer from a time when such consumer machines were just starting to come with more than 64K of memory, communicated with online bulletin boards via 1200 baud modems, and could maybe run a crappy ELIZA program to laughably simulate artificial intelligence, is a pretty stupid movie. Despite that, it's not a bad thing for a theater to throw into its midnight rotation, as it demonstrates just how far you can go on an upbeat soundtrack, a co-star with potential, and a little more effort than attempts to cash in on a trend usually get.

Things start with Miles Harding (Lenny von Dohling), an architect at the bottom of a California firm, always being late and disorganized, so he splurges on one of those new personal computers to help him get his stuff together. He goes all-out, getting an X-10 home control system and everything - and then accidentally spills coffee on the box. Rather than just making it a useless brick with a voided warranty, it makes the system hyper-intelligent, and it not only develops the ability to speak (with the voice of Bud Cort), but soon starts to share Miles's crush on Madeline (Virginia Madsen), the pretty musician who just moved in upstairs.

1984 wasn't completely the stone age for personal computers, but some pretty hard-core suspension of disbelief is necessary to buy into what Edgar (a name that appears on the poster, but isn't awkwardly inserted into the film until the end) is capable of. This doesn't really matter in a certain sense, as it's not as though the filmmakers are actually linking any sort of suspense to a false assumption rather than presenting a then-new variation on the Cyrano de Bergerac story, albeit one where Cyrano is something of an unwanted interloper. Rusty Lemonade's script is still kind of silly in how Miles disconnecting Edgar's power or deciding that telling Madeline about his bizarrely sentient computer would help make him seen interesting would solve 90% of his problems right away, but the basic fantasy mostly works, and the filmmakers do get some points for not seeing new technology as an unadulterated evil.

Full review at EFC

The Visitor

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2014 in Somerville Theartre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, DCP)

If the various people who talk at length about cult movies could stop trying to make The Visitor happen, I'd really appreciate it. I say that like it hasn't already happened, but there's really not much denying it; the Brattle had it back for encores, it's been given the Drafthouse vertically-integrated-entity deal of approval, and even if it got "what?" responses and a mild "that sucked!" chant as the credits rolled, I suspect the guys pushing the film will take that add a badge of honor.

And while I admit that it's not quite boring in the same way I thought it was when I saw it last October - there really isn't a point where it's not peculiar, even though I initially characterized it as trippy-dull-dull-dull-trippy - but maybe it's worse that it's consistently weird but never actually interesting. It's a movie filled with half-ideas and characters that run counter to expectations without ever generating curiosity about how they got in their current situation or where they will wind up afterward.

And the finale is still striking but stupid, all the more so for how obvious the terrible doubling is. Lovers of weird movies deserve better.

What I thought in November

The World, the Flesh and the Devil

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2014 in Somerville Theartre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, DVD)

End-of-the-world movies looking to be thoughtful tend to reflect on what could cause such a cataclysm, often making the cynical argument that humanity just won't learn from its mistakes, with the survivors repeating them. There's merit to that, but the approach taken by The World, the Flesh and the Devil - using its blank slate to create a tight focus on other parts of society - is just as interesting, with the execution fantastic enough that the movie draws the audience in week before getting to the meat of it.

It starts with miner Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte) inspecting an excavation in Pennsylvania for safety, and being trapped inside by a cave-in. After being seemingly abandoned, he did himself out to find that this event actually protected him from something apocalyptic, and there are no signs of other survivors. He heads to New York City, thinking there are more likely to be other people there, but finds himself alone... At least until Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens) shows up.

Even though the opening credits suggest that this movie will not be a one-man show, Belafonte gives writer/director Ranald MacDougall such a great performance during the first section of the movie that the audience can be forgiven if they forget. MacDougall himself deserves plenty of credit for what he's putting into place: He's set it up so that the practical issues of how Ralph sets himself up to live in some comfort and how he starts to crack from the quiet and loneliness are each interesting on their own but also feed on each other. It's done so well that when he finally introduces Sarah, it may not quite be surprising, but it's exhilarating and even shocking, upending everything the viewers have settled in for. That it's a damn well-executed entrance, going from the camera peeking around the corner to putting Stevens on screen to having the characters meet at just the right pace to maximize the emotion of every step - is a bonus.

Full review at EFC

Grabbers

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2014 in Somerville Theartre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, DCP)

I think that I recommended Grabbers as a fun for the festival and/or marathon more or less immediately after I saw it at Fantasia a couple years ago, so I'm going to take credit for the good time everybody still awake (or just waking up) at 6am Monday morning had. Seems reasonable, right?

Honestly, though, I'm not sure why this well-made movie in the Tremors mold about folks on a picturesque Irish island fighting off blood-ducking alien sea monsters that can't handle alcohol didn't play Boston in the first place. Is fun and funny and you'd think if it would play anywhere, it would play here. Yet another reason why I should have my own theater to show independent and imported genre movies!

Full review at EFC

Children of Men

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2014 in Somerville Theartre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, DCP)

There's not necessarily a lot in Alfonso Cuarón's early filmography to indicate just how great he would be at large-scale science fiction and fantasy, but there's a strong argument to be made based upon his last three films that he's the best thing going in that corner of the movie business. Of those three, Children of Men best exemplifies why; it's a dark, detailed ride that always manages to pull viewers further in when it should be seemingly be pushing them away.

Why is that? I think it's because Cuarón does not fall for the trap of thinking that darkness, itself, makes a work sophisticated. Instead, it's something that gives a storyteller opportunities, and because he is willing to have the worst happen at seemingly random times or use P.D. James's novel to build a world that may be unfair but is meticulously constructed, Children of Men always has interesting new paths to follow, and some of them can run counter top what the viewer might expect. Indeed, seeing this movie for the first time in a few years, I was actually surprised at just how bleak it was; the rare uplifting moments shine so brightly in my memory that I forgot just what sort of awful things happened immediately afterward. The tenor of the movie makes both powerful, and that's because Cuarón has made sure that the audience believes anything can go wrong, but hasn't made it predictable.

Granted, most of the time this predictability manifests itself as disaster occurring in a way that hurts more than the audience has any way to expect, with the pain coming because he, his co-writers, cast, and presumably James have infused every character with a battered but beating heart. Take Julianne Moore as the outlaw activist who recruits her ex-husband into helping out her cause; there's a way to portray this character so that she's harsh and running on little but anger and inertia, and Moore certainly gives us a fine version of that old standby, but it's the moment when it's clear that she not only still loves Theo, but still likes him and has plenty of humanity to show that solidifies why she can be so central. Michael Caine supplies comic relief and wisdom the way his character supplies cannabis, and his sincere belief that there are still things that make life worth living and love for those around him makes things much sadder than if he were simply deluding himself. The way they and certain others come off forces the cynicism of other characters into sharper relief, which really helps Clare-Hope Ashitey solidify Keep so that the young woman pregnant with the first baby to be born in seventeen years can be more than a plot device.

Full review at EFC

Flash Gordon

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2014 in Somerville Theartre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, DCP)

I'm not really find of the idea of a movie being called a "guilty pleasure" or so bad it's good", and movies like Flash Gordon serve as an example of why: The things people like about it are legitimately entertaining, and if you like them enough to sit through the parts that are frankly terrible, there's no reason to be ashamed. It's not a very good movie, but it's got some impressive parts, and there's nothing wrong with just saying that.

Among the less impressive parts is the story, taken from a newspaper strip that started in the 1920s: That Ming the Merciless (Max Vin Dydow), absolute monarch of planet Mongo, is playing Earth with natural disasters, crashing the plans carrying college football star "Flash" Gordon (Sam Jones) and reporter Sale Arden (Melody Anderson). But they're soon on a ticket built by brilliant-but-eccentric scientist Dr. Zarkov (Topol), where they find that Ming is far from the only potential enemy or ally on Mongo - there Prince Vultan of the Hawkmen (Brian Blessed), Prince Barin of Arboria (Timothy Dalton), Ming's daughter Aura (Ornella Muti), and plenty more.

The plot is a silly thing, thin and complicated and full of reversals because it needed a surprise or cliffhanger every day, and both writers Michael Allin & Lorenzo Semple Jr. and director Mike Hodges opt to keep the kitsch that results when you take that and age it for fifty years in. It's a reasonably defensible decision, because even though bits of this movie are elaborately and impressively constructed, George Lucas had just raised the bar for everyone, and even if this films producers were looking to get some of that Star Wars box office, they could only get so far matching it on screen. And to give credit where it is due, my favorite line is the result of the filmmakers' tongues being firmly in their cheeks, and some moments like a fight scene turning into a football game are admirably peculiar.

Full review at EFC

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