Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Merchants of Doubt

Only a couple days left for this one in Boston, and I'm not totally sure I want to recommend it. It's a pretty good movie, sure, and I learned some things and had other details clarified as I watched it, but the question then becomes whether that's enough reason to spend a little money. Who reads this and isn't aware that so many of the people acting like certain topics are controversial are shills more speed in getting a sound bite out than the topic they are supposedly discussing?

Then again, maybe reinforcement is important. That seems to be the tack that those whom this film means to expose follow, after all, and it seems to be depressingly effective: People seem to get more intransigent on these subjects, and you'd think that absent this sort of buttressing, natural human curiosity and experience would eventually draw people toward the things that can be demonstrated, but then, to use one of the film's first examples, people keep on smoking.

Not as much as they used to, though, so apparently progress can be made. Hopefully it can be made fast enough that I can get away with not considering elevation above sea level when choosing my next place to live.

Apropos of nothing: One of the first lines of the movie is magician Jamy Ian Swiss saying that he is "an honest liar", the title of last week's documentary on The Amazing Randi. I think Swiss might even have spared in that one, too, and is kind of funny that despite likely being much more of a working magician than Randi at this point, Swiss and the director seemed to have little issue revealing how a trick worked.

It is amazing to me, though, how avidly magicians spend their time debunking this sort of material. The title isn't really close to appropriate any more, with most of the famous ones, from Houdini through Randi and Penn & Teller to younger guys like Swiss really being on the front lines of explaining things rationally, and that what they do is a matter of skill. For all that this is a profession built around secrecy and mimicking the occult, there sure seem to be a lot deeply invested in making their audiences less gullible.

Merchants of Doubt

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 March 2015 in Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run, DCP)

The most impressive thing about Merchants of Doubt may be the apparent lack of resignation on the part of its makers. It is, after all, a documentary that is well-researched, clear in its message, and attractively presented, but which ultimately seems to conclude that being all of those things may not matter. Director Robert Kenner must have known this going in, but makes the effort anyway, trying to dismantle the apparatus built to repel the point he would probably rather be making.

It's a solidly-built and well-honed defense mechanism, a system of living, anticipating challenges, and outright lying/fraud that not only served the tobacco industry well, but which in doing so created the template (and trained the personnel) for a number of other battles against causes where the merits often seem quite clear. The film starts by looking at how the tobacco industry and its offshoot, flame-retardant materials, worked to manipulate public opinion, a proving ground for today's bitter fight to minimize the acceptance of climate change.

Kenner and his colleagues do not spend a whole lot of time establishing the worthiness of fighting against tobacco or climate change, although the mountains of evidence are referenced in order to establish a certain sort of scale. Instead, the techniques used for sowing doubt are laid out, with examples given and some effort made to explain why these techniques work. Interestingly, this is perhaps best communicated by James Shermer (publisher of the magazine Skeptic) and former Republican Congressperson Bob Inglis, both clearly more politically conservative than many of the others interviewed, who can bring a less accusatory tone when talking about the frustrations of the "us vs. them" mentality that drives much of today's American politics.

Full review on EFC.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Boston Underground Film Festival 2015 Day 01: "Moped Knights" & The Editor

Film festivals are crazy events, logistically. I can't even begin to fathom what goes o on behind the scenes, although it seems that way from the outside, too. Consider that the average theater is built to move things along - tickets and snacks purchased and delivered quickly, go to the proper screen, which is ready to seat when the majority of viewers arrive, walk away when the credits roll, and then go home. Festivals muck that up, especially on the first day, when people are getting in line to pick up the passes that will let them get in line to pick up tickets that will let them get into line to get into the theater. After that, people hang around after one show to chat and/or make a loop back. BUFF and the Brattle handle this as well as anybody, especially with the theater's tiny lobby, but it can be a fairly confusing situation, especially when folks arrive just after the announcements have been made.

Fortunately, I'm pretty well used to this fairly particular brand of chaos by now, and got seated with relative ease. It wasn't long before this group was on stage:

Left to right, that is the festival's Bryan McKay (in the darkness), The Editor producer Jerry Wasserman, writer/director/producer/star/visual effects guy/editor Adam Brooks, and the festival's Kevin Monaghan and Nicole McContraversy. Kevin mentioned that they were committed to getting all of Astron-6 to come to the festival, even if it was one at a time (other members of the filmmaking collective came for Manborg a couple years ago). I'm pretty sure that this is a subset of the folks who were in Austin six months ago, although it was still a fairly lively Q&A, with Brooks talking about how their response to having an order of magnitude more money to work with was to blow through it quickly and then wind up spring on a shoestring anyway, how Udo Kier is a great but eccentric guy to have on your set, and the like.

This first night did illustrate a theme that would recur for me through much of the festival: It is much easier to see a movie at 7:30pm than midnight. That's why there's a full review here, rather than back when I saw it at Fantastic Fest; not falling asleep mid-film helps with that immensely.

Speaking of things I'd already seen at midnight, I bailed on Gone With the Pope and hit the comic shop instead. It may have been the only thing playing the festival on 35mm, and re-reading my review actually makes me a little more curious about it, but I remember it as very much a "once is enough and then some" movie.

"Moped Knights"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2015 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

Directors Mike Pecci & Tony Fernandez described "Moped Knights" as a sort of pilot presentation for Adult Swim, which may have skewed how I saw it, making me wonder just how it would work as a week-to-week thing as opposed to just a one-off. I don't know if I'd like this goofy-but-gross thing more if it were presented that way, but it's interesting to ponder.

As pastiches go, it's fun, even if it's the sort of thing that is entirely built out of other movies, from the credits that use John Carpenter's favorite font to the action that seems quite reminiscent of The Warriors to an ending that doubles down on the absurdity of the gang running around on mopeds rather than more masculine motorcycles. It's an amusing imitation, but it would have been nice if there was something more its own to it.

The Editor

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2015 in the Brattle Theatre (Boston Underground Film Festival, digital)

During the post-film Q&A, the director jokingly (I think) suggested it was better to make straight horror films rather than horror-comedies like The Editor, if only for the relative difficulty in securing distribution. That's not quite the reaction I've had to it and the other movies I've seen by Canadian filmmaking team Astron-6, but I have wondered what they would accomplish if they stopped making spoofs. They clearly know what made these movies work, and they might make the leap from impressive to great, even if they tweak cult movies with love rather than malice.

The genre in this case is giallo, with much of the action actually taking place on the set of one of of those lurid Italian thrillers. Someone is killing the cast, with the latest discovery leaving lead actress Margarit (Sheila Campbell) with hysterical blindness, which has her husband, Inspector Peter Porfiry (Matthew Kennedy), freaked out. Suspicion naturally falling upon editor Rey Ciso (Adam Brooks), as the fingers of the corpses are severed, just like the ones he lost trying to cut a film that put him in a mental hospital; he is also torn between sweet assistant editor Bella (Samantha Hill) and his shrewish, former scream-queen wife Josephine (Paz de la Huerta). There's also co-star Cal Konitz (Conor Sweeney), who sees a chance for his role to be beefed up.

That's not a bad mystery if directors Adam Brooks & Matthew Kennedy (and co-writer Conor Sweeney) were to play it straight, but that's clearly not the case. You can expect a lot of broad Italian accents, sometimes not quite synced with the soundtrack, and some odd turns of phrase. The frequently gratuitous nudity, violence, and other crassness is given the slight extra push it needs to be absurd, and while it's often funny, it's a rather targeted humor. A running gag or two are kind of repulsive out of context, and while the group by and large does a decent job of using the genre's tropes to give their weird characters things to do, there are certainly moments when what they are doing is far less satire than mimicry.

They are gifted mimics, at least, and for the first time they are working with the sort of modest budget that let's them build some sizable sets and fill every corner. The movie looks and sounds great, authentically shabby in some ways but detailed and thought out a as opposed to just throwing what 1970s & 1980s props that they could find around. The soundtrack is just as good as the visuals, and when the time comes for the movie to get trippy, the team potshots themselves, creating surreal world's and intrusions that impress whether one knows the budget or the sources of inspiration. One of the things that impressed me about their previous feature Manborg was that where many people making this sort of movie just home in on the things that can be exaggerated for a laugh, these guys spot the elements that, while seeming dated or ripe for parody, can still work when someone commits to them ironically, and there are enough examples of that in the last act to make The Editor genuinely exciting, both in term of suspense and seeing talented people do nifty things.

Many of the same people are both begins and in front of the camera, and they can at least be said to be working to their comedic strengths. Kennedy may have the best part as Porfiry, as he gets to be kind of dumb and ridiculous outside of any responsibility for making the mystery believable, and he does not hold back with it. Brooks does a fair job of not being over-matched when needing to be both legitimately and parodically melodramatic, while Sweeney gets a fair number of laughs despite not having the goody facial hair to help him be funny just standing there. The ladies aren't quite so well-served - Samantha Hill's Bella is ready to like and Paz de la Huerta's Jasmine easy to hate, with Sheila Campbell and the rest more typically getting lost in between. Udo Kier shows up to play the Udo Kier role, and he's pretty good at that.

Everyone involved is pretty good at what they are doing, and though none of it is easy, there is the occasional sense that the filmmakers are using familiarity as a crutch rather than a starting point. They have made a good movie, one that those familiar with its inspirations should especially enjoy, and that's something that can't be said about many who try this sort of joking homage.

(Dead) link to the review on EFC.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Entertaining Documentaries: An Honest Liar & The Wrecking Crew

Half-joking: If you've got the opportunity to watch a lot of movies over the weekend, do so, because the alternative is trying to cram everything in before a festival and then not have the time to tell anybody about them between seeing them and them going away. I'm sorry, An Honest Liar, and while The Wrecking Crew is holding on a little bit, it's just barely doing so.

Oh well; I'm sure many of you are reading this in the future when they're both on video and/or streaming. It was an interesting evening at the movies, at least, a decent sort of "theme night" for a man and a group who were big-time entertainers in previous decades.

An Honest Liar

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2015 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, DCP)

James "The Amazing" Randi has been best-known his efforts on debunking psychics, faith healers and other frauds for so long that many associate him with that alone. Even remembering that it was his qualifications as a magician that led him to become America's most famous skeptic doesn't necessarily imply he was a great escape artist. This movie won't necessarily do much more than remind a viewer of that fact but it will fill that person in on a couple things he or she might find pretty interesting.

At first, it looks like the big secret hinted at early on in the film is that Randi is gay, which seems like a disappointment as far as revelations go; as much as it is something he could not exactly advertise during most of his 86 years, it's probably the least interesting thing about him. He seems to agree, mentioning it matter-of-factly when talking about growing up and recounting how he met longtime partner Jose Alvarez. That soon leads to relating one of his larger-scale attempts to demonstrate to the public how they are being taken in by con artists, "The Carlos Hoax", where Alvarez portrayed a "channeler" who was quickly able to become a sensation in Australia despite how any attempt to check his claims would cause the whole house of cards to come falling down.

Other big operations get a fair amount of time - "Project Alpha", a sting on faith healer Peter Popoff, and what seem like never-ending battles with arch-nemesis Uri Geller. It's material that is often right on the border between hilarious and maddening, depending on how angry charlatans like this make you, although I think that perhaps directors Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein err a bit on how they present it, often content at leaving things at "Randi proved Geller was using simple sleight-of-hand" without actually showing details. It's almost as though they are adhering to some sort of "magician's code" at the expense of making a terribly persuasive case. A bit odd, considering how Randi's career in magic is mostly presented in short clips that are almost casual.

Full review on EFC.

The Wrecking Crew

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 March 2015 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, DCP)

The Wrecking Crew has had a long time on the path to release - it played the festival circuit back in 2008, but it started shooting in 1996, meaning that it took director Denny Tedesco nearly two decades to shoot, edit, and secure the ability to use the music and video necessary to tell the story of Los Angeles studio musicians in the 1960s. As an audience member, it's worth it, but it's a good thing that this was a labor of love on Tedesco's part.

Tedesco comes by this love naturally; his father, who passed away in 1997, was Tommy Tedesco, one of the guitarists in this group of a couple dozen musicians who started getting work in the 1950s when the session players working for the studios considered rock & roll beneath them, often talking about how this next generation was wrecking the business. Tommy is one of four who sat around a table to talk about old times in an interview that serves as the spine of the film, with segments given to all for participants (Tedesco, bass player Carol Kaye, saxophonist Plas Johnson, drummer Hal Blaine), but much time is also spent interviewing other folks, from Dick Clark to Glen Campbell (part of the crew before becoming a successful solo artist), Cher, and Brian Wilson.

The stories are often the expected ones - you hear how big stars didn't want them credited, some comments about how the job is demanding enough to destroy one's family life (although, in other cases, the stability of studio work seems much less taxing than being on the road), and how a change in the industry can suddenly end a run as quickly as it seemed to start. Aside from being familiar, these stories are in many ways much less dramatic than those in similar documentaries like Standing in the Shadows of Motown and 20 Feet from Stardom; as much as Denny Tedesco starts from a position of feeling his father and similar people being overlooked is an injustice, it's not the stunning, crushing ones that those other films related.

Full review on EFC.

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 27 March 2015 - 2 April 2015

Awful nice of BUFF to co-present that movie at the Boston Horror Show a couple months ago, given how this weekend lines up.

  • That's because Boston Underground Film Festival will be continuing at The Brattle through Sunday, making it hard to see anything else if that's your thing. Presentations include I Am a Knife with Legs on Friday, Saturday morning cartoons and We Are Still Here fresh fron SXSW on Saturday, with Der Samurai and Goodnight Mommy to close things out on Sunday. Plus shorts and more; it's a pretty great line-up.

    They don't get a lot of time to sleep it off, though, as the DocYard will be presenting the postponed January screening of Happy Valley, with director Amir Bar-Lev and producer Ken Dornstein there to discuss their documentary on the Penn State scandal, filmed as it became public. There's a free Elements of Cinema screening of Inigmar Bergman's Persona on Tuesday, followed by a separate screening of Three Stooges shorts. Those shorts repeat on Wednesday along with a second collection that you can see as a double feature.
  • The full BUFF schedule may make it tough to get out to the Coolidge for Spring, playing midnight on Friday & Saturday, which would be a shame - that movie (about a young man who meets a mysterious girl while trekking through Italy) is a sublime piece of sci-fi/horror/romance, halfway between Before Sunrise and Upstream Color. Don't miss it, even if it means passing on the other midnight show, a 35mm print of Pedator 2.

    That's not all the special programming at the Coolidge this weekend; there's 10:30am kids' show on Saturday, The Hero of Color City, that only costs a box of crayons to see, with the crayons donated to local Head Start centers on National Crayon Day (Tuesday the 31st). There's also a Big Screen Classics presentation of Blade Runner on Monday; it's "the final cut" and presented on 35mm.

    Oh, they also open Danny Collins (as does the Kendall, West Newton, and Boston Common). That's got Al Pacino as the 1970s rock star of the title, who has been a hard-drinking sell-out for much of his career, only to discover that John Lennon wrote him a letter saying to stay true to his early work 40 years ago, leading him to ditch his Greatest Hits tour, work on new material, and get it touch with his family.
  • Over at the multiplexes It Follows has a pretty nice expansion, with screens at Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Fenway, and Revere joining the Coolidge and Boston Common. It's a pretty great supernatural thriller; along with Spring, one of my favorites from last year's festival circuit. Sadly, it looks like Zombeavers won't be joining them in theaters.

    The larger openings are about folks being out of place. In Get Hard, it's Will Ferrell as a one-percenter being sent to prison and asking his black landscaper to help him prepare, unaware Darnell (Kevin Hart) has never so much as gotten a parking ticket. That's at the Somerville, Apple Fresh Pond, Embassy, Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Row, Revere, and the SuperLux. For the kids, there's Home, in which an accident-prone alien crash-lands on Earth and is befriended by a human girl. It's from DreamWorks, so it's animated in 3D, and plays at the Capitol, Apple Fresh Pond, West Newton (2D only), Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Row, and Revere.

    In smaller mainstream release, Boston Common and Revere open A Girl Like Her, a faux-documentary about a girl whose sophomore years of high school is made miserable by a former friend turning on her. Boston Common also continues Lost and Love, while Fenway and Revere have an encore of The Breakfast Club's 30th anniversary screening on Tuesday.
  • Somewhat surprisingly, given its cast, Kendall Square is the only place on the T opening Serena, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper as a married couple building a logging business in 1920s North Carolina, at least until something from the husband's past rears its head. Similarly, they seem to be the only place getting Woman in Gold on Wednesday, with Ryan Reynolds as a lawyer trying to help Holocaust survivor Helen Mirren recover a painting that was taken from her family during the war.

    The one-week booking is Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, with Rinko Kikuchi as a mentally unstable office lady who believes Fargo to be true and accurate, and sets off to Minnesota to find the buried million dollars despite speaking little English. They also get Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary on concert pianist-turned-teacher Seymour Bernstein, directed by Ethan Hawke.
  • If you want to see Indian movies at Apple Cinemas Fresh Pond/iMovieCafe this week, you'd better speak Telugu - Jill, Rey, and Yevade Subramanyam are all in that langague and unsubtitled. They also give half a screen to Apartment Troubles, co-directed, co-written, and co-starring Jennifer Prediger and Jess Weixler as New York roommates who, about to be evicted, head to Los Angeles. Megan Mullally, Will Forte, and Jeffrey Tambor all show up in this as well.
  • The Somerville Theatre has two special screenings this week: Salad Days plays Friday, and while it's apparently still a bit of a work-in-progress, it shows the 1980s punk music scene in Washington, DC. They also have this year's Boston Cinema Census program at 7pm Thursday.
  • The Harvard Film Archive
    continues their Lav Diaz retrospective with an event for the hardcore on Friday and Saturday - Evolution of a Filipino Family, with the first five hours at 6:30pm Friday and the remain six at 6pm Saturday. If that broke into forty-five-minute chunks, you'd have a respectable television series there.

    After that, they have a second screening of Shirley Clarke's Ornette: Made in America at 5pm Sunday (in 35mm), a far more manageable 77 minutes. Sunday also has directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez in person to present their unusual film Manakamana, in which each reel of film is a complete trip up or down a tramway to a mountaintop temple. Monday also features a guest, experimental filmmaker Ute Aurand, who will be presenting three 16mm films. Wednesday's "Furious Cinema" 35mm presentation is Wanda, a relatively rare example of a movie that a woman (Barbara Loden) wrote, directed, and starred in during that time period.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts continues the 14th Annual Boston Turkish Film Festival this week, with screenings on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday. There's also a Tuesday afternoon screening of John Waters's Hairspray (the original, not the musical).
  • The MFA will be one of the venues for The Boston LGBT Film Festival, but Thursday's opening night is at The Institute of Contemporary Art , where director David Au will be on hand to present Eat with Me, in which a disapproving mother moves in with the gay son she often disapproved of.
  • ArtsEmerson's Paramount Theater Bright Screening room will present the Boston Student Film Fest on Saturday, with a program of nine short films by local students.

    It's also a stuffed week for the Bright Lights at that venue, with twice as many presentations as usual. They will be screening Selma on Monday, with a civil rights panel discussion afterward (that's part of MIT's Women Take the Reel series, which also screens films in Waltham and Chestnut Hill on Tuesday, and I wish I'd seen its schedule earlier). Tuesday is Michel Gondry's Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? An Animated Coversation with Noam Chomsky, with local animators who contributed on-hand afterward. Wednesday and Thursday feature a visit from documentary filmmaker Peter Davis; his Oscar-winning Hearts and Minds playing Wednesday and he will host the "It's All True" documentary showcase on Thursday.
  • It's still hanging on for late shows at Kendall Square, but The Regent Theatre will screen rock-doc The Wrecking Crew at 7:30pm on Monday.
  • Director Matt Creed is this weeks' guest at the UMass Boston Film Series; he'll be presenting Lily, which unusually for the series is not strictly a documentary, but is still based upon the experiences of its star and co-writer, actress and cancer survivor Amy Grantham.

My plans start with BUFF and I'm not sure where they'll continue from there; probably some sample out of Apartment Troubles, Home, Merchants of Doubt, Serena, and The Gunman, but everything is going to be impossible.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2015 Day #09: Shorts, I Was a Teenage Superhero Sidekick, Fade to White & Douglas Trumbull

No day eight for me; when the original schedule was posted, there was a hole at 7pm (not even marked "to be announced") and Wyrmwood at 9pm, so I figured it would be safe to do something else that night - specifically, Isabella Rosselini's "Green Porno" presentation, which was tremendously entertaining. I wound up missing what looked like a decent Spanish horror film, but you make the best plans you can.

But enough about what didn't hit my eyeballs; here's what did:

"One More Day"
"Love and Other Devices"
"As You Were"
"One Day Some Day"
I Was a Teenage Superhero Sidekick
Fade to White

... and then, after that, a presentation by visual-effects legend Douglas Trumbull.

Accommodating that presentation made for a word back-and-forth day. The shorts program was in the Somerville Theatre's "Micro-Cinema", I Was a Teenage Superhero Sidekick back on screen #2 where most of the features ran, but we went back to the Micro for Fade to White so that they could rig everything up for Trumbull's presentation. Since these rooms aren't exactly built for anything but showing movies, it took a while and involved cables snaking up the aisle. I'm not sure whether that was appropriate for someone who made a name for himself when visual effects required being extremely hands-on or ironic for a man pitching the future of theatrical exhibition.

Trumbull is still pretty spry for a man his age, although he did occasionally mention that there are some things in his field that he simply doesn't have time left to learn. He's the best sort of speaker for both film and technical things, at least in term of attitude - justifiably proud of what he has accomplished over the course of his career, but not dismissive of what the younger generation is doing with their CGI and performance capture.

It was a sort of two-part presentation, covering his career past and present, with the first half covering his work in film from 2001 forward, which would later detour into things l like the Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios. It was interesting and informative; Trumbull is not gossipy and not exactly self-deprecating where his accomplishments are concerned but advanced enough from them that he can be casual in describing what was clearly a great deal of engineering at the time, with this occasionally taking the form of tossing off terms that laypeople in the audience like myself might not quite catch.

(A note on the audience: Easily the largest of the festival, it had a bunch of students who certainly had some interest in doing this for a career.)

This segued into what Trumbull is doing now, building a company in the Berkshires that aims to revolutionize theatrical exhibition with a combination of high frame rates, high-resolution digital capture/projection, immersive sound, and massive curved screens. It's called MAGI, and although I'm not sure how serious he was when he invited us all to come see it and his proof-of-concept short "UFOtog" at his studio, I may try and find a way to take him up on it, because it looks like some seriously awesome technology. Again, the presentation could get fairly technical at times, with great detail on why their high frame rate 3D interacted best with the human eye, and it seemed to very much be adapted from a sales pitch, touting how they were able to do everything from engineering to filming to, I believe, creation of the "pods" that would allow them to place a standard, calibrated auditorium anywhere.

I hope he succeeds, because this stuff looks amazing and his ambitions for a MAGI feature must be sky-high. I must admit, though, to generally feeling like he was going to be fighting an uphill battle. Imax has made inroads by diluting their brand, certifying rooms in multiplexes that attempt to create the illusion of a true giant-screen experience, and I don't know how many theaters are going to give a MAGI pod the real estate it needs for what will be at best a handful of movies that can truly take advantage of it (they're compact for what they are, but you're still talking about a 90-foot-wide screen). And while Trumbull emphasizes that his technology will make the movie experience more realistic than ever, getting past the barriers of other attempts, people generally did not seem to like the HFR presentations of the Hobbit movies, and there had been a lot of push-back against 3D as well. I'm not sure that audiences necessarily want movies to be just like looking out a window, even if they don't love grain or black and white the way film critic-types do. Nobody knows that they're waiting for a quantum leap until it's happened, of course, but I often get the impression that a more high-tech movie experience is not really what anyone is after right now, especially if it's linked to more expense.

"One More Day"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (SF/40: Approximate Paroxysms, digital)

One of the first and most amusing things I ever learned during a film festival Q&A was that an independent filmmaker can raise their project's profile and star power immensely by having a good part or two for older actors, because you would apparently be shocked at who responds. John Heard in "One More Day" isn't quite the same as the example I'm thinking of, but he's a definite boost for a low-budget short like this.

He and Adair Jameson play Tom and Chloe, two octogenarians reunited when Chloe enters a senior center in 2084, a time when people are guaranteed eighty years of God health and then are expected to shuffle off the mortal coil graciously. This center is less about providing elder care than helping them let go of life and old connections. Chloe isn't entirely sure about this to start, and seeing an old friend/lover who is trying to quietly buck the system soon has her rebelling too.

I always wonder about how systems like this come into place in sci-fi stories - as much as the Faustian bargain implied is an idea worth pondering, in reality, old people vote and lobby enough that I can't ever imagine it becoming law. Still, it's worth pondering the idea of how callous the young can be toward their elders, and how many still have plenty to contribute. And while much of the film shows the limits of filmmaker Jean Baker's resources - it gets heavy-handed at times - Jameson and Heard make for a very solid emotional center to the story.


N/A (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (SF/40: Approximate Paroxysms, digital)

I'm not going to lie - I remember close to nothing about this one. Don't let a month and a half pass between a festival and a review, folks.

"Love and Other Devices"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (SF/40: Approximate Paroxysms, digital)

Comedy on film is tricky, and you can sort of see filmmaker Elle Stanion struggling to master it in "Love and Other Devices". She's got an amusing premise - a closed-off engineer (Hunter McClamrock) is about to present the artificial intelligence he has developed to investors, only to find that it has developed both a sense of humor and, at the very least, a crush on its inventor, and that is not what the money men are looking for. The cast is game. The special effects are decent and well-deployed. And still, the "hit rate" for the jokes is only pretty good as opposed to great.

Not impossible - Stanion and the cast & crew deliver a fairly steady stream of chuckles, especially if the audience is down for the sort of reference-based humor where half the joke is "I recognize that thing!" It's not all that they've got, but enough for groaning. Fortunately, the jokes come quick enough and are delivered with enough relish by Kate Bowen as the AI's holographic avatar to keep things pretty well-lubricated. It's played a little big, just enough that one may wish they weren't visibly trying so hard, but it's at least only an uneven piece rather than something that feels ill-conceived.

Part of it may be that I'm a bit worried about the underlying message - amazing person who identifies as female needs to bury her personality and just look pretty to be accepted. It is probably not deliberate and portrayed more as an act of love than anything else, but then, hasn't it always been? I'm in no position to lecture Ms. Stanion about this, but it is something that stuck in my mind.

"As You Were"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (SF/40: Approximate Paroxysms, digital)

From the standpoint of 2015, it's a bit hard to make the leap to the "anti-prosthetic prejudice" that the veteran protagonist of Trevin Matcek's "As You Were" faces; the societal pressure to not treat those who served as anything less than heroes is immense. Of course, that's what we see from outside, not being subject to people discounting our abilities. Also, our vets aren't coming back from a war whose weapons include humanoid robots, either, and I imagine that would change the calculus.

Matcek and company are generally able to get past that. In some ways, there isn't a whole lot of science fiction to this movie; replace the futuristic war footage with something out of Afghanistan and you could tell the story with the same sort of shell-shock, not feeling totally human anymore, mood swings updating the wife, and competing curiosity and fear from the kids. That's no bad thing, I suppose, and the cast, particularly Trey Holland as the vet, execute fairly well. It does wind up being a science fiction story without a terribly big idea, and without that, I wonder if it just adds distance to the real-life issues the short is meant to address.

"One Day Some Day"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (SF/40: Approximate Paroxysms, digital)

There's a category of short films like "One Day Some Day" that probably has a proper name that I'm not aware of, one which runs hot and cold for me. They use the length constraints as a way to inflate techniques that might become grating in a full-length feature - semi-cryptic narration, aggressive music, a blur that shouts that there is more to this situation than meets the eye - to make an idea with some grandeur even larger. It hits the spot when it works for a viewer, and if it feels pretentious otherwise, at least it seems to have a good heart behind it.

Filmmaker Arthur Cartwright seems to have more than a good heart here, presenting the idea of a plague of sorts that causes some people to wake up in a new life every day, with a narrator who had been numbed by it, although he was disconnected to begin with. It's actually a tricky balancing act, presenting this man's resignation whole the rest of the presentation is so darn earnest about how this could give humanity, or at least some segment of it, such a wonderful understanding of what it is like to be other people. As much as you know in which direction the film is trying to nudge you, there's no lack of sincerity to it.

Admittedly, I have my quibbles - the premise of some entity jerking souls around seems like something that would be acknowledged more in everyday life rather than the sort of background oddity panted here, for example - but they're relatively minor when looking at the film Cartwright is making. "One Day Some Day" is about getting a certain emotion across, and does so much better than many films of its type.

I Was a Teenage Superhero Sidekick

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #2 (SF/40, digital)

The trick to something like I Was a Teenage Superhero Sidekick is to do at least a little more than just poke fun at comic-book clichés, both because there's no real accomplishment in replacing fun with smugness and because over seventy-five years of growing superhero universes, the various publishers and individual crappies have done every bit of self-examination and mockery there is, and emphasized their point with rampaging robot dinosaurs that an indie comedy can't afford. Filmmaker J. Hanna had better be able to do more than point and laugh, which Fortunately turns out to be the case.

The former sidekick of the title is Larry (Barrett Mitchell), who dropped his "Kid Dynamic" identity some time ago and has been in therapy since. His shrink had just taken a job with the planet's premier super-team, requiring a relocation to their satellite headquarters, but refers him to a new doctor (Milena Mortati), whose methods involve more outdoor yoga than sitting on a couch. She sees trouble ahead with Larry's new girlfriend Susie (Emily Sandifer), an anti-superhero activist, and it will be difficult to hide that part of Larry's life with his ex-teammate Frog King (Andre Antwan) crashing on the couch after a series of ill -advised hookups with his nemesis Croc Queen (Nicol Razon) destroys his confidence.

Because Hanna is working with a tight budget, it's kind of difficult to get any kind of handle on what sort of scale the heroes and villains of this world operate - even the occasional drawn/animated sequence doesn't exactly present them as dealing with regular alien invasions - and that is a bit of a shortcoming. Monsters and mad scientists, somewhat paradoxically, can actually mean the story is more accessible and just being played out on a grand scale, while putting on tights and a mask to fight street crime in a world not unlike our own indicates a more extreme sort of personality. For the most part, Hanna deals with this by making sure that nobody really bats an eye at the heroes most of the time, and it tends to work just well enough for the movie to get by.

Full review at EFC.

Fade to White

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (SF/40, digital)

Fade to White alternates between three science fiction stories taking place in and around New York City's Central Park over the course of 112 years, and while they are in some ways a bit of a mixed bag quality-wise, the overall quality is quite good, with none actually being duds. That's a pretty good showing for a movie that kind of looks like it was made by sneaking a camera into the park when it would be less occupied during the winter hours.

Sneaking in is a bit of an issue in the past set in 2018, when Eileen (Margie Stokley), a middle-aged woman suffering from memory problems being researched by her fiancé David (Arthur Aulisi), has to pass security checkpoints and give her itinerary to get into the supposedly-public space. There, she meets Cal (Jesse Swenson), a younger man who has been traveling and asks her to run away with him. Or at least, that's the way it seems; there is a revelation or two to come. They may not be huge surprises, but they pack a bit of an emotional punch, and their reminiscences are filled with bits that are both hints and natural details. Margie Stokley and Jesse Swenson don't quite have the sort of age difference to make for an inverted May-December romance, but they're an unusual pairing. Fun to watch, though, with good work from both.

The park is even more off-limits in 2070, when a man breaks into the park to retrieve an item that he can trade for help that his ailing wife badly needs, only to be hunted by the cyborg "Seffer" that patrols the park and confronted by another man with a surprise of his own. This is probably the least accessible segment, a puzzle box that requires much more attention be paid to the plot but does not necessarily supply the sort of compelling question or conundrum that keeps the viewer curious as the movie shifts to the other segments. Rick Busser and Ryan Bronz are both doing good work as the men at odds over the object of their dangerous scavenger hunt.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2015 Day #07: The Noah

I'm not sure if the actual details around this screening of The Noah are necessarily quote as good as the story that Garen Daly and the festival spun for the attendees; the institution has earned a little skepticism where the exclusivity of its screenings is concerned. But, "only remaining 35mm print and not shown for decades" means that it goes into the booth that can handle switchovers (presuming that the other booths that can project film are platter systems; they may not be). It made for a sparse crowd - ten or twenty people in a room that holds hundreds.

Pretty good-looking print, as you might expect from it getting relatively little use, although something got a little funky with the sound on one reel, which was a bit strange: It was early enough in a surreal movie that the audience didn't quite know whether this was the sort of effect that the movie would be using.

Writer/director Daniel Bourla was on hand, which was pretty impressive, considering he's got to be about eighty, lives in the Dominican Republic, and flew up to Boston between two blizzards, which I might have done if this was the first opportunity to see my film in a theater in the four decades since its two original screenings, or not. New England was cold, folks.

It was, perhaps, not necessarily the most illuminating Q&A; Mr. Bourla has reached the age where a person sometimes has to build up a head of steam when getting a point across, and he wasn't always given this opportunity. I think it was very much a case of a situation where moderation and/or a prepared interviewer might have really helped; the backstory and life-cycle of this film is strange enough that there must have been some great stories to tell, even if they were far enough back that they needed some coaxing out.

Sort of amusingly, one of the things he wound up doing was asking us about whether we thought some subtitles might have helped in one scene or another (the prevailing opinion seemed to be that it was fine). I half-wonder if every filmmaker wants to ask the audience things like this at this kind of screening, or only those who only have a few to fret over.

After the festival, it was revealed that this won the audience award, and I'm not sure how that works - most festivals I've been to that award such things are polling the audience somehow, which didn't happen here. There was a get-together after this film at a nearby bar/restaurant (which I skipped; work the next day, after all), and maybe it was decided there, before two more days worth of films and with at least two of us who had been at the whole festival to that point absent. Or, more likely, it was just assigned that because everything is going to get some award.

The Noah

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/40, 35mm)

Having an unusual life doesn't actually make a movie like The Noah better, but it undoubtedly makes pulling it out of obscurity a bit more exciting. One might be inclined to dismiss this post-apocalyptic art-house film as not one's thing, but to learn its history is to become a little curious: The director could have made it with Jack Lemmon but baled at both having a big start and shooting in color? It sat on the shelf for roughly eight years before playing two midnight shows and once again disappearing for decades? Even if this were a bad movie - which is not the case - a film fan really should give it a look when it surfaces in his or her area.

It opens in the aftermath of cataclysm, with an American career soldier (Robert Strauss) making landfall at a deserted but fairly well-provisioned Chinese Army base. With no sign of any other human life, he sets up shop and gets into a routine. It is, of course, a lonely one, so it's not surprising that he soon invents companions for himself - and they appear to take on minds of their own.

Despite Noah's invention of other people to keep him company, the audience will spend much of the film watching him alone, with his "companions" present only as voice-over provided by Geoffrey Holder and Sally Kirkland (among others). The voice actors do their work somewhat more broadly than Robert Strauss, a hint that he has not exactly conjured complete individuals but characters with whom he can act out simple dramas, and it works, by and large: As much as the audience gets to watch interaction, there is never a feeling that Noah is anything but alone.

Full review at EFC.

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2015 Day #06: Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150

I intended to do the Dr. Who double feature, but got off the train and discovered that I had misplaced the festival pass/ticket I had picked up on Friday. It was no big deal - I actually had that one because I had forgotten to bring the one I had printed out when purchasing a pass on-line - so I opted to head home and grab that, after a stop at the comic shop, I picked that up, put it in a lanyard and headed back for part 2.

No big deal there; I saw Dr. Who and the Daleks a couple of years ago at the Brattle. The interesting thing was, as soon as that popped up, there was demand to have it at the Marathon the next year, and I argued that it would be kind of tacky to do that sort of repeat. It was announced anyway, but didn't wind up on the final schedule (a documentary on the series and its fans was canceled because of weather), and I always wondered what happened there.

Semi-random thought: I would kind of like to see this offshoot of the franchise revisited somehow. I'm no particular supporter of fan-films, but I might be convinced to make an exception here, especially if Roberta Tovey were to come out of apparent retirement to reprise Susan as the current Dr. Who traveling with her own grandchildren. This would also be a fun crossover with the current series in a parallel-universe crossover story. Probably more feasible in the comics, though, since you could use Cushing's and Tovey's likenesses there and just pick up where the movies left off, perhaps with the unfilled version of "The Chase".

(I'm available and would work cheap, Titan!)

Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #2 (SF/40, DCP) & 22 March 2015 in Jay's Living Room (refresh, DVD)

I'm curious what would have happened had Daleks' Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. been the hit its producers had hoped for. Would the "Dr. Who" film series have overshadowed the television series, or would they have boosted each other? Would it have moved on from Peter Cushing in the same way the character was reinvented every few years on television? No way to tell; this second film in the franchise was the last to be produced for theaters until 2013's Day of the Doctor, which was part of the original series rather than an offshoot. Like its predecessor Dr. Who and the Daleks, it's a fun alternate take on the series and not a bad Sixties sci-fi movie in its own right.

Once again, Dr. Who (Cushing) is taking his time-and-space machine built into a police call box out for a new adventure, this time heading for 2150 AD with granddaughter Susan (Roberta Tovey), niece Louise (Jill Curzon), and Tom (Bernard Cribbins), a policeman who thought he was jumping into an ordinary phone booth. Once then, though, they find that the planet has been invaded by the Daleks, cruel aliens so encased in armor that they look like robots. They are occupying London and enslaving humans, either to work in a nearby mine or as "Roboman" enforcers, though there is also a dogged resistance.

The movie starts with a cold opening that the current iteration of the television series would really tip their caps to - start looking like a cops-and-robbers movie, throw the main character for a loop when he stumbles into something strange, sending the action off in another direction. Things continue in that same vein in the future, with director Gordon Flemyng keeping the script by Milton Subotsky (adapting Terry Nation's original BBC teleplays) moving at a brisk pace, especially while concentrating on action that is fairly intense for being intended for kids. Flemyng and company single a bit later on when they veer into slapstick territory; it's well-executed but arguably misplaced in a movie that had been driving forward at a good clip. There's also a sense that Subotsky struggled in the second half, when one can see characters and subplots being added and just a as quickly discarded (perhaps a remnant of the original serial structure) while plot holes are waved away a bit too vigorously.

Full review at EFC.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Lost and Love

I almost let a whole week go by without visiting the cinema for a variety of reasons - it's been a few days of getting upset over nuisances only to get reminded that they are, in fact, minor things. I didn't quite feel bad about checking the late show of this out, although it did make me kind of a zombie on the bus home to see how my mother and grandmother were holding up the next day.

Shi gu (Lost and Love)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 March 2015 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, DCP)

There is an unabashed simplicity to Lost and Love that might often be called deceptive by those who might want to praise the film, especially if its early stumbling didn't quite click with those viewers. That may not be the case; it's quite possible that this movie about a man who has long strove to be reunited with his abducted son is just what it appears to be, and works because the emotions involved are easy to grasp.

Two missing children are introduced at the start: Zhou Tianyi, an infant who was just taken recently, and Lei Da, who disappeared fifteen years ago, when he was about a year and a half old. Tianyi's mother Su Quin (Ni Jing-yang) is practically hysterical as she stands at the spot where she last saw her daughter, but Da's father Lei Zekuan (Andy Lau Tak-wah) is grimly determined - he's spent much of the past fifteen years crisscrossing China on a motorcycle, trailing a banner with a picture of his son taken in 1999. Spotting a poster for Tianyi, he adds another banner to the back of his motorcycle. When he crashes, young mechanic Zeng Shuai (Jing Bo-ran) repairs the machine, and reveals that he has a child abduction sorry of his own to tell.

It's hard to imagine this turning into an optimistic film without some very unlikely turns off the plot, and to his credit, writer/director Peng San-yuan never losses sight of how even a happy ending to one of these tales will likely be gut-wrenching for some of the good people involved. He sets the tone right from the start when he first shows a worn-down Zekuan handing out flyers on a ferry; one bystander makes the reasonable observation that this quest has likely reached the point of futility and another immediately starts shouting him down. As much as the film may frame itself as a lonely quest, it also acknowledges a pervasive generosity of spirit, from Zekuan's willingness to add others' searches to his own to the network of people around the country willing to help despite their lack of the same personal stake.

Full review on EFC.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2015 Day #05: Shorts & Parallel

I hate that this is the case, but this is one of the most memorable days I've had at the festival portion of this event, and is not because of the movies or even the weather, but because the festival director and I were baking at each other for having different ideas of what this event should be and not a whole lot of respect for the other's priorities.

If you want to just skip to the reviews of the shorts & feature themselves (and I can't say I'd blame you), he's a table of contents:

"Ghost Light"
"Abandoned Planet"
"I Remember the Future"

Tuesday was the day that the entire MBTA was shut down pre-emptively, even though it wound up not snowing very hard, so that they could get the system cleaned up. It was a mess and I hope everyone who had a nightmarish commute in February sent their complaints to the International Olympic Committee. It is unlikely that there will be a blizzard during the 2024 Summer Games, but if they think our infrastructure can't take an event of their size, maybe they'll let Paris or Cape Town deal with that headache/expense!

That meant I was working from home and walking to the Somerville Theatre, which isn't a terrible distance but is a trek that one only makes under lousy circumstances, as there are otherwise a while bunch of ways to get there from my house via public transportation. I don't think it put any extra edge on my cynicism about this festival - I made the walk because I looked forward to what was on the schedule - but it likely didn't actually help my mood.

So, as we die-hards are hanging around theater 2, festival director Garen Daly comes down and starts chatting. We give him a bit of a hard time for some of the more obvious mishaps, such as Boy 7 lacking subtitles and Matt Mercury just generally lacking, and he says "take it up with the judges", but they thought kids might like it in regard to the second. The thought isn't fully articulated in my head at the time, but that's kind of a horrible thing to say about kids - either that you can/should fob something not very good off on them because they're not going to know any better or that they're going to respond to a parody of stuff their grandparents liked. Give them some credit, because they're used to better and deserve better. And if that's an audience they're trying to develop, do it with something comparable to what they're watching on Disney XD or Cartoon Network.

But the thing that got me was when he said there should be some crap in the schedule, to which I half jokingly responded "I disagree". After all, I said, people paid money to come to these screenings, and they deserved good value for that, to say nothing of their time. His response was that it shouldn't necessarily be a festival's first or only priority, that they are trying to create an environment that fosters new filmmakers.

I get that, on a certain level - as much as there are more ways than ever to get your film seen online, butts in seats are a real feeling of tactile accomplishment. There should be space in a festival to get promising and/or local filmmakers exposure, although in most festivals I've been to, there's a bit of separation between that and the good stuff - the material programmed more for good intentions than greatness winds up in lesser slots - and there is even a kind of coding in the way they are described in the program and put on the schedule that tips the festival-goer off. Hey, it is kind of a good thing that being selected to this festival helped Blessid play elsewhere. Making movies is tough and expensive and very few people deserve to go broke doing it, and while I am kind of personally indifferent to what happens to that movie after I'm done with it, I don't begrudge its makers any opportunities.

I do keep coming back to "I paid money", though. I wasn't sold a chance to help young filmmakers; I was sold movies. Most people, I'll bet, come to a film festival looking for something better in some way than the regular release next door - more accomplished, more daring, more specific, or more enlightening (if only because you may get to talk to the filmmakers afterward). The really galling thing was that while dismissing my expectations of value for my money and time, Garen scolds me for not respecting his investment, because of it weren't for that, the event would have died with the Orson Wells Theater and would be dying now (quite likely on the first count, I'm not sure on the second if we're specifically talking about 2015). After all, what have I done to help?

He mentioned becoming a "judge", and I mentioned that I hadn't seen any call for that; if it was in the emails that got sent out, I missed it under the progress reports about his documentary about the Welles. Something that didn't come up because we were talking past each other on whether he'd even made the need known, though, was that what he calls a judge is not how I think of the term: He's using it to describe the people who decide what gets in, whereas most other festivals I've attended describe those folks as "programmers" or the selection committee, with the jury being the ones who decide on awards. I suspect that the jobs overlap some, but I was still wondering why being a "judge" would help do anything about the cruddy selection. It's another way we were talking past each other, but one that further makes me wonder whether the people running this festival have ever even been to another one to know what the expectations are.

The kick in the teeth: He was in the auditorium to tell us that Fantasticherie di un Passegiatore Solitario, the film on the schedule, would not be playing because the technical director had left the movie at his house. We wound up seeing the shorts program that had been canceled the night before ("Temporal Globes"), and it was okay, but for crying out loud, this does not happen at festivals that merit the level of respect Daly seems to think his deserves. That this was why he was in the room when he decided to complain about me being too negative is what boggles my mind a bit.

I honestly don't know what to do with this. I suppose I could volunteer come fall, but he made it sound like that was just giving a 1-10 rating to whatever came in via Withoutabox, which makes any attempt to shape the festival very hands-off. I did participate one year, and while the stuff we got to see wasn't good, by and large, at least Izzy Lee made it a discussion. I just feel very frustrated as a fan, though - as much as my head knows better than my gut that the amount of snow I've braved to see some independent science fiction films in February over the years does not mean I should expect to be catered to, it is tough to swallow the idea that I should not expect "showing good movies" to be a film festival's primary purpose. It hurts doubly because in talking to the other attendees who showed up for a lot of screenings, I discovered that so many don't realize that there is a lot of great stuff being made right now, but presume that what gets screened at this event is the best material available. They just don't know that Predestination, Time Lapse, Automatons, The Resurrection of William Zero and more are out there. This could be a great event, but it's so often run like a way to serve the marathon (via submission fees, people who buy passes mainly for early entry on Sunday, and a title that it has been said makes obtaining prints easier) that I wonder if there's any actual intention to make the festival a great event itself. Sometimes, I wish I could just quit it the way I've effectively bailed on the Boston Film Festival, but I want something like this in Boston and there's no better local alternative since the Boston Fantastic Film Festival closed up shop. So I keep buying passes, at some point feeling like a schmuck for doing so.

Especially on a night when not only does this stuff happen, but I've got plenty of time to stew about it walking home.

One other weird thing: There were filmmakers in attendance for Parallel, with one producer here and seeing movies all weekend, but no Q&A or introduction. Sure, we all wanted to get home because of the storms, but it was really strange that a movie that had people coming wasn't given a 7 pm slot and some time for the people involved to talk about their film.

"Ghost Light"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #2 (SF/40: Temporal Globes, digital)

"Ghost Light" is done up to look like a comic book, with scenes suddenly freezing as rotoscoped drawings, sometimes with a pan to the next being used as a transition and sometimes with a bit more speech and action than you might expect going on underneath. It's not a bad idea for a theme, as the sort does call to mind the sort of horror comic that allowed Frederic Werthem and company to bowlderize the comic book industry in the 1950s: nasty and heavy-handed, more likely to base its final shock on a gross-out than any sense of irony.

As an homage to that sort of comic goes, it does all right. Abraham Benrubi makes a thoroughly unpleasant father reluctantly stopping at a dinner with the kid (Jordan Thompson) he doesn't much like but isn't going to cede to his ex-wife, only to find some creepy stuff going down. It's a recognizable, human nastiness, although it's not given a whole lot of contrast from the surly kids or the sinister folks at the dinner. Still, the audience will get is expected violence and cruelty, and if people suddenly switch behavior to act like bigger jerks for no reason, that's kind of a feature of the original material, too.

Director P.J. Germain might, perhaps, have pulled back a little bit. There isn't much beyond the presence of cell phones (which, naturally, don't work) to make us feel the foundation has been built on rather than just rebuilt. The comic-style images are also laid on rather heavily occasionally to the point where one might want to remind him just which medium he I is working in.

"Abandoned Planet"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #2 (SF/40: Temporal Globes, digital)

Brad Clapper gets points here for some awfully fun repurposing - rather than building an elaborate or particularly futuristic spaceport set, he shoots in a small railway depot because in this future, that's all the poor folks left on Earth are going to get. It makes for some moments when the cast looks like overgrown kids playing make-believe out in the back lot (some sort of cheesy laser pistol effects add to it), but it also gives us trains leaping off their tracks and heading for the space station where upper-class humanity lives, and that's kind of cool.

Aside from that, it's about as generic as its title suggests: Class-based war, a mercenary who just happens to be converted to the rebels' cause when one of them happens to be a beautiful woman, some mildly satirical bits. The cast does all right with their prefab characters, the effects are clearly not state-of-the-art but they're passable. It does have the one neat bit, though, and that's more than a lot of films like this (heck, features like this) can claim.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #2 (SF/40: Temporal Globes, digital)

The double meaning in the title of "Strangers" is kind of clever - the two brothers that the film spends most of its time with have grown just that far apart, while something else is lurking around the edges of their town. Maybe if writer/director Justin Nickels did a little more with this, rather than just having one brother not trust the accounts of the other, this would be a more memorable short. Instead, it tops out a bit lower, not quite defining its own identity.

It's at least enjoyably energetic - with our without the fantastical element, many folks along these lines will go for clenched jaws and brooding, but Jason Wiley plays the brother just released from prison with an enjoyable self-righteousness. The moment when Nickels could choose to go gritty,he instead starts to play things a little larger-than-life. Tonally, it his the target intersection between sci-fi/horror and brothers who don't see eye-to-eye fairly well.

It's still kind of forgettable, though. Nickels has this great little metaphor ready to go, but no especially clever science fiction idea that pairs with these brothers at odds and the woman in between them, and while not every fantastic story needs to have that sort of obvious parallel with the characters' earthly issues, this sort of short that is built up from the human side can often really use that. It helps wedge the whole thing in the audience's collective mind, and given how short films like this are often meant to be calling cards, that would have served "Strangers" particularly well.

"I Remember the Future"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #2 (SF/40: Temporal Globes, digital)

There's a large part of me that sighs sadly at stories along the lines of "I Remember the Future", where science fiction is a subject for nostalgia, and it's sometimes unfair to them. Take this one, for instance; I don't think there's a way to tell its particular tale of becoming lost in the past while transitioning to the big What Comes Next without engaging in a bit of that paradoxical indulgence.

Maybe it could have been done without such thick accents - the Australian cast is making darn sure you understand that Abe (Reg Gorman) was probably one of those New York writers who showed up to bounce ideas off John W. Campbell in person, and adult daughter Emma (Tiffany Lyndall-Knight) doesn't fall far from the tree, speech-wise. They're kind of stock characters - he's rooted to the old days, she's a bit less enthusiastically rooted to him, and this present-day structure feels awfully familiar, a lot of work to push his dreams in particular directions.

Those fantasies are kind of half-baked themselves, takes on Golden Age tropes that at least don't look like they've been given any sort of deliberate low-budget look: They are as they were in his imagination while writing them, and while that involves some anachronism, it's not done in a mocking way. It does takes a while to get to the really good bit, though, where the authors' creations are facing the heat death of the universe, and they may just be pulling him in after them. A little more time spent on this might have included more consideration of whether they are pulling him further into his own mind or whether the black hole in the story is a portal to some sort of afterlife. It's a meaty idea, which probably deserved a lot more of the short's running time.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #2 (SF/40, digital)

It's not quite ideal that my strongest reaction to Parallel is to note its strong fundamentals - that the filmmakers keep a potentially-confusing picture clear is great, but this is a love story; shouldn't that be what sticks the best? The film is decent on that count, though, so viewers looking for a bit of science fiction more character-based than action-packed should not be disappointed.

As one may guess, the title refers to parallel worlds, and we initially see Dr. Vincent Jeffries (Terence Cranendonk) in two. One is seemingly hostile and unpopulated; the other has him attending a lecture by his mentor Stewart (Richard Portnow) at a conference on mathematics and physics. That's where he makes the acquaintance of Keira Benjamin (Liz DuChez), who is part of the staff. There is clearly chemistry there, but he pushes her away, and not just because he has a big trip to make.

Being that this is a love story, and small enough in scale that the audience is going to be spending a fair chunk of time with this small group of characters, a decent cast is no small thing. Terence Cranendonk and Liz DuChez give performances that are more likely to please than truly amaze the audience, but that's okay for this movie. Cranendonk is maybe a little bit more abrasive than Vincent really needs to be, while DuChez plays Keira as almost too good-natured to be true, but the pair do click together; there's a definite feeling of chemistry between Vincent and Keira that is more than just "opposites attract". And speaking of opposites, writer Keith Nickoson and co-director John Turk don't make the hackneyed choice of the various alternate universes containing doppelgangers with vastly different personalities. The various iterations of these characters certainly reflect different circumstances, but the cores are similar.

Full review at EFC.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 20 March 2015 - 26 March 2015

You've got an assignment this weekend, Boston-area movie fans.

  • It Follows opens at the Coolidge and Boston Common. It's a fantastic little horror film - Maika Monroe stars as a woman who has a terrible curse passed on to her. I loved it when I saw it at Fantastic Fest last fall, and am thrilled that the Coolidge is giving it a full 7-day booking on the main screen, including midnights on Friday and Saturday (the other midnight, Aliens, only plays those two nights).

    They also pick up The Hunting Ground in its second week of local release, and they will be offering it to students with a valid ID for five dollars. There will also be a special screening on Sunday, with a pair of assault survivors and activists there for a Q&A afterward.

    There are two special screenings Sunday morning. The Farewell Party is a Talk Cinema preview, following a group of retirees who make a euthanasia device, which becomes a small business, at least until it becomes personal; an hour later, the Goethe-Institut presents the German thriller The Lies of the Victors, following an investigational journalist who may have been compromised. The first will have discussion afterward, with the second featuring a post-film Q&A with director Christoph Hochhäusler via Skype. There are also two special screenings on Thursday night, with Goddard House, Sherrill House, and the Brookline Council on Aging & the Brookline Community Aging Network presenting Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me (remember the great Oscar-nominated song?) and the French consulate wrapping up the Francophone Film Festival with the animated Aya de Yopougon, an adaptation of the graphic novel series.
  • The Brattle will have two live performances from the cast of web series Gayle on Friday night, while Saturday is given over to the Women, Action & the Media film festival. Sunday is for the Chlotrudis Awards, with special guest Signe Baumane sticking around after the ceremony to introduce and discuss her animated film Rocks in My Pockets afterwards. The director of Ukraine is Not a Brothel, Kitty Green, won't be on-hand for its DocYard screening on Monday, but she will join via Skype. There will also be guests on Tuesday for Recycled Cinema: An Experimental Shorts Story, presented by Balagan and Crows & Sparrows.

    Then on Wednesday, it's Boston Underground Film Festival time, and there's fun stuff on the first couple days: The Editor, which I was too worn-down for to really process at Fantastic Fest, where I also saw Thursday night's pretty fantastic The World of Kanako. Thursday's nifty-looking Excess Flesh features local filmmaker Izzy Lee's "Postpartum" beforehand. The Wednesday-night repertory screening (Gone with the Pope), sadly, is a piece of crap.
  • At the multiplex, Taken director Pierre Morel tries to get another guy not necessarily known for action a hit with The Gunman, starring Sean Penn as a fugitive assassin making his way across Europe trying to clear his name from some combination of Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, Mark Rylance, and Ray Winstone. It's at Apple Fresh Pond, the Embassy, Fenway, Boston Common, Assembly Row, and Revere.

    The bigger opening (in both 2D and 3D) is Insurgent, the follow-up to last year's Divergent, and I have to admit, it looks like there's a good action bit or two in there despite the first merely looking rock-dumb. And how the heck did they get Kate Winslet to sign on for multiple movies? It's at the Somerville (2D only), Apple Fresh Pond (2D only), Jordan's Furniture (Imax 3D), Fenway (including RPX), Boston Common (including Imax 3D), Assembly Row (including Imax 3D), Revere (including XPlus), and the SuperLux.

    Boston Common also has this week's Chinese new release, Lost and Love, featuring Andy Lau as a father whose son disappeared fourteen years ago and who hasn't stopped searching. Tony Leung Ka-fai and Sandra Ng co-star. They also have Do You Believe?, an intersecting-cast movie with everyone having some sort of religious epiphany along the way.

    Fenway and Revere, meanwhile, has three special screenings this week: Rear Window screens (digitally) on Monday and Wednesday as a TCM presentation; "documentary" Four Blood Moons on Monday; and The Breakfast Club on Thursday.
  • Kendall Square finally gets around to opening Goodbye to Language, Godard's experiment with 3D and the like. Maybe I'll give it another try, because it was seen under less-than-ideal circumstances the first time around. They've also got a one-week booking of An Honest Liar, a documentary on magician and fervant psychic debunker James "The Amazing" Randi.

    Both they and West Newton open two others: Gett: The Trial of Vivane Amsalem recounts an Israeli woman's attempts to divorce in a country whose religious laws mean that the husband's consent must be obtained, while Merchants of Doubt profiles professional skeptics of a different sort than James Randi, expert witnesses meant to cause confusion on subjects like climate change. Kendall's 7:10pm shows on Friday and Saturday will have Naomi Oreskes, the co-author of the book from which the movie sprung, on-hand for a Q&A.
  • The Irish Film Festival Boston continues from Friday to Sunday at the Somerville Theatre; with notable screenings including Friday's One Million Dubliners with the director and producer on-hand and a special presentation of In the Name of the Father on the main screen on Sunday afternoon.

    The Somerville will also be playing Adam Carolla's Road Hard, a roman-a-clef about a no-longer-famous stand-up comic that will be playing after the festival heads down the street for parties through the weekend and presumably evenings through the rest of the week.
  • The Harvard Film Archive
    (mostly) wraps up To the Beat of Shirley Clarke with Ornette: Mate In America (Friday 7pm on 35mm), Lions Love (...and Lies) (Friday 9pm), "Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World" (Saturday 7pm), Portrait of Jason (Saturday 9pm on 35mm), and a number of short films (Monday 7pm).

    On Sunday, the Lav Diaz retrospective continues with Death in the Land of Encantos, which starts at 1pm and continues for nine hours. "Furious Cinema" is what continues on Wednesday with a 35mm print of The Devils, which is crazy, and is listed as the 109-minute version.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts has the 14th Annual Boston Turkish Film Festival this week, including winners from the short film competition there several months ago.
  • The Bright Lights program has three selections at Emerson's Paramount Theater Bright Screening room this week: The 15th Annual Emerson Film Festival has two programs Sunday night is the extra one, with alumni and student films. Tuesday's is "Ophan Morphin: Creative Plundering of the Archive with Craig Baldwin", and Signe Baumane will apparently still be in town on Thursday for another screening of Rocks in My Pockets.
  • The ICA will be showing the programs of live-action and animated shorts from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival on Saturday.
  • The UMass Boston Film Series welcomes director Thomas Wirthensohn to campus on Thursday for Homme Less, which follows a staple of the New York nightlife who, despite his glamorous appearance, sleeps on a rooftop in the East Village.

I won't actually be seeing much; my plan for the weekend involves heading north to see my family after losing my grandfather yesterday. I'll probably try and catch Lost and Love, An Honest Liar, and (hopefully) It Follows before settling in for BUFF on Wednesday.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Recent Russian: Hard to Be a God & Leviathan

These were two surprisingly crowded screenings, given that the one was for a 170-minute black & white Russian fantasy and the other was 140 minutes and an art house movie that had already played the better part of a month. In short, I've got no idea why some things do well and others don't.

To a certain extent, it's a matter of compacting the screenings - there are just enough people in the Cambridge area who would be interested in some combination of Aleksey German's last film and any black-and-white fantastik film and will come out on Wednesday or Thursday evening. Spread it out over a week, it's not impressive, but two days is apparently just enough.

Leviathan, on the other hand, I'd kept not quite fitting in my schedule until it left Kendall Square, which meant I would have to head to West Newton to see it (not realizing it would open in Arlington a week later). Pain in the neck, as it was raining and takes two buses to get there and the place only takes cash and I just had three bucks in my wallet and there wasn't an ATM for my bank in easy walking distance so that $9 ticket wound up costing $12...

Not a bad crowd, considering it was a pretty niche movie on a Saturday afternoon. I've said it before, but the West Newton Cinema kind of fascinates me just in terms of being really weird outlier as these places go, an art house in a place where you'd think a mainstream place could thrive which in apparently knows its local audience well enough to thrive with its idiosyncratic programming. I kind of love the place, in part because it is the opposite of the carefully designed, highly-polished theaters I often go to. It's got plain white walls with posters taped or tacked to them, screens located at the end of snake-like hallways, and a balcony that overlooks the lobby. The popcorn is good and the place is surprisingly big for the amount of frontage it has on the street. The screen I saw Leviathan on was smallish (seating about 100 people) and the holes at the ends of the armrests, if they are supposed to be cupholders, to not hold a large beverage. Pretty cool until the person who has to sit right next to you knocks your popcorn and soda into your lap.

That'll stop the waxing rhapsodic about old-fashioned movie houses right quick.

Still, it's always neat to go out there, and I'm disappointed that the transit options will be making it all but impossible to see some of the Belmont World Film festival selections that will be playing there with the Belmont Studio currently shut down. It's a neat place that more folks in Boston should check out.

Trudno byt bogom (Hard to Be a God)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 March 2015 in the Brattle Theatre (first-run/special engagement, DCP)

Hard to Be a God may deserve your ten bucks just for the sheer level of will and effort it took to get made, with decades of working on the script, six years of filming, and another seven of post-production, during which time filmmaker Aleksey German passed away, leaving his similarly talented wife and son to complete it. Appreciate that, because the film itself is an endurance test - impressive but decidedly not for everybody's taste.

The premise of the film and the novel by Arkadiy & Boris Strugatskiy that it is based upon sounds like an episode of Star Trek - a group of scientists have arrived on a world that is much like Earth, except that it is stuck in the middle ages, never having experienced the Renaissance. A group of thirty scientists have been observing for a while, but are under orders not to interfere with its development. One, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), hs been there some time, posing as the bastard offspring of a noble and a local god. He has been given the job of rescuing an intellectual by the name of Budakh (Evgeniy Gerchakov) from warlord Don Reba (Aleksandr Chutko), but getting there is apparently far from a straight line.

Indeed, it's a long, meandering one; the film runs nearly three hours and the story as such doesn't really kick into gear until some time after the two-hour mark. Until then, it's a lot of getting to know the world and Rumata's place in it, and that's a tough, tough slog. German does not shrink from how ugly the equivalent time period was on Earth or Arkanor, with the latter planet apparently being made almost entirely of mud just as a start. That isn't quite grimy enough for German, of course, so he makes sure that it gets mixed with blood, pus, snot, excrement (animal and human), and any other nasty material one can come up with as it sticks to Rumata, and that's just the obvious gross-out material. The people are uncouth and barbaric, cringing as Rumata plays jazz on his flute, burning any writing almost by reflex, and just as really visiting violence and degradation upon each other. There is some discussion of competing factions - "blacks" and "grays" - but who can tell any difference based upon how they act?

Full review on EFC

Leviafan (Leviathan)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 March 2015 in West Newton Cinema #6 (first/second-run, DCP)

What is it that makes a movie jump from a solid drama with an interesting premise to borderline-great, the sort of film that doesn't just get chosen as its country's Oscar submission, but makes the final cut? Obviously, if there were an easy universal answer, everyone would do it; for Leviathan, it seems to be tying an exquisite knot: Able to tighten and come undone with the minimum amount of the right kind of pressure.

It starts with Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a handyman and mechanic in the north of Russia whose family home may be humble, but it is located on a very desirable patch of land. Desirable enough that the city has made moves to legally seize it to build a communications center. It's difficult to fight City Hall anywhere, but an old buddy from the Army, Dmitriy "Dima" Seleznyov (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) is a high-powered lawyer from Moscow, and comes to argue his case - or, failing that, apply some leverage to the Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the religious but highly corrupt mayor. It will take some days, during which time Dima can see the tension between Kolya, second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and son Roman (Sergey Pokohdaev).

Director and co-writer Andrey Zvyagintsev begins the film as Kolya's chances at an official remedy are drawing to a close; it's barely ten minutes before the court reads out how Kolya will take what the city says his land is worth because his claims that he deserves more are baseless. It's a numbing declaration - few other languages can truly communicate the system grinding a man into paste like Russian spoken in a monotone - that both establishes an air of fatalism and signals the real plot is about to begin. It's time to start trying to make the rampant corruption work in this family's favor. Everybody, from Vadim down to Roman, is breaking the rules in some way, with the common thread being that seizing advantage also creates leverage that can be used against that person, depending upon how ruthless his or her enemies are.

Full review on EFC