Friday, November 13, 2015

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival Days #10-11: The Thon!

And so, the long road back to getting this blog current begins by looking back to February, and something just a bit under 24 hours worth of science fiction films with an unusually late start time after all the blizzard activity. Remember that? Boy it sucked!

I'll be better prepared to deal with it next year, if only because I'll be living I now live a block away from the Somerville and am able to use my own bathroom if I so choose, and not looking at a 45-minute walk should the state shut down public transit again. Which, if I recall correctly, was the case on Sunday, although by then the snow had mostly stopped coming down and folks were shoveling out. It wasn't actually terrible to sleep in on that day and then walk to Davis Square in the middle of the street because people were staying off the roads. I gather I was the exception, though, because it was a relatively sparse crowd, especially in terms of the old-timers. Which is a shame, because they're the ones with the strong emotional attachment to the event, whereas I'd mostly be grumbling about being out fifty bucks if I couldn't make it.

That's kind of why I've really had little trouble pushing this set of reviews out for months until it can't be much more than a set of quick hits; there just isn't that much for me to say about it anymore. Don't get me wrong, I like going every year, because it's seeing a lot of films from my favorite genre in a relatively short period of time, but it's not a time when I see friends whose paths I don't otherwise cross, I'm not likely to discover something new and exciting there, and even the rituals I like (and, guys, you have some stupid traditions) have become sort of old hat - the sort of thing where whoever is up on stage is asking for a reaction rather than provoking one. Now that I've done the running diaries and been there enough that there are no surprises left, there's just not much to say that I haven't said at some point in the past decade and a half.

That's no knock on those for whom this is one of the biggest film events on the calendar; a lot of the examples I might use for events that excite me a lot more involve traveling at least to New York (or Montréal, or Austin, or San Francisco...), and there aren't a lot of us who are going to do that for movies. Also, I started going at 26 or 27; it might have gotten a nostalgia lock-in had I moved to Boston earlier. It's no Fantasia for me, but I can see how it might be someone else's big deal.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/40, DCP)

If nothing else, Snowpiercer yielded the best tweet of the festival:

Four Nine months later, it's still making me chuckle.

The film itself remains pretty great as well, one of my favorites of 2013, a fantasy that is more continually inventive than almost all others sharing its grimy, dystopian aesthetic. I read complaints on the message board afterward about how it threw away good characters, but I tend to see that more as director Bong Joon-ho and the cast got the audience to care more about short-timers and cannon fodder than many do. It's a pretty terrific movie that, despite being in English, was probably both too Korean and too French to be a massive hit, but I wish it had been given more of a chance in America.

Full review on eFilmCritic, post about seeing it in France here

2001: A Space Odyssey

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/40, 70mm)

I don't know if the Somerville Theatre will be getting this same print back in September when they show it again, but I'm going to be one heck of a lot closer to the front row than the balcony when I see it then. I've been fortunate enough to see this movie on film a number of times, and it has yet to be less than thoroughly engrossing. This time around, a good part of that was related to the previous night's presentation by Douglas Trumbull (who also did a brief Q&A after the feature), admiring how the film's effects work really holds up.

As truly great as 2001 is from a technical perspective, that's not why I find myself l liking it more every time I see it. Stanley Kubrick captures the highly practical, mission-focused nature of space exploration, but omits a great deal of the curiosity and passion that drives it, and while that leaves much of the film dry and procedural, it also means that the ultimate confrontation with the unknown is neither a triumph or a warning, but a reminder that this sort of encounter is beyond human understanding. It's Kubrick and Clarke looking at the mysteries of the universe and refusing to reduce them to a comprehensible scale.

It's kind of an interesting choice, given that directed evolution and the attempts by junior species to match their progenitors is a major part if the movie: While David Bowman is seeking the ancient astronauts who created and placed the monoliths, he is reliant on HAL, who is still rather akin to the proto-humans at the start off the film - capable of a great many things, but still needing shepherding (even if that takes the form of a hard reset). None of these steps are completely analogous, at least from our limited human perspective, and it's taken me a few viewings to start to grasp 2001 beyond the exceptionally executed hard science fiction which makes the finale not seem like hippie psychedelia with more apparent than actual depth.

I still kind of think that, admittedly, although I also suspect that might not be a bad way to approximate getting to a place that the human mind can only partially comprehend.

What I thought on seeing it in 2008, at SF/33

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/40, 35mm)

Some year, I'm going to see this on 35mm with live accompaniment and really have the time to write about it properly. This does not seem to be that occasion.

Then again, that may be saving me from writing something truly embarrassing. As with 2001, this is a movie that clearly benefits from being seen under the best circumstances with time for reflection, which the marathon doesn't exactly provide. And, who knows, maybe by the time I can write about it, I'll be in a spot where I genuinely like the last act, rather than worrying that is excusing the earlier inconsistencies in the crudest way possible.

The last time I saw this, a year and a half ago.

Fantasticherie di un passeggiatore solitario

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/40, digital)

This was the film scheduled to play on "sorry, we forgot the movie, and don't be so negative!" Tuesday, and it probably would have been a better fit there than the main marathon. The filmmakers' ambitions seem just a bit higher than what they can actually accomplish, which can be kind of rough for an audience that has just sat through the films that were masterful to accept. Writer/director Paolo Gaudio seems to have ideas about saying big things and creating a narrative that spans multiple time periods, but doesn't quite have the innate or learned skill to knit them together so that the trio feel like a unit.

Still, "not as good as the previous three movies" is a tough standard to hold any film by a fairly young director to, and I suspect that given a more fitting venue and slot, Fantasticherie would create a fairly decent impression. Gaudio and his crew make fairly good staging decisions within a limited budget, for instance, and the mythology being built up is just interesting enough to keep the audience curious. There is some nice work by the cast, though often more among the secondary characters than the leads.

I suspect that the audience probably would have responded better to Boy 7 in this slot, as may have been the original plan (but who really knows what was up with that mess). It's the sort of movie where my good feelings toward it are less an impulse to praise than to encourage - keep working at this and you'll eventually make a good movie! - but it is better than most movies in that category, even if it's hard to tell next to the classics.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/40, 35mm)

I think we passed midnight at some point during Them!, and I'm not sure that's entirely appropriate; it's more a matinee than late-night movie. I wonder if it might have played at around 2pm were the marathon on its usual schedule, and what the reaction might have been.

Them! is an interesting case in terms of how this sort of 1950s B-movie is perceived. It is, when you look at it, pretty goofy: It's got a an exclamation point in the title, and giant man-eating ants are a pretty ridiculous monster even if you've never heard of the square-cube law. That probably would have gotten it sneered at back in 1954, but later generations could look at its cast of characters - cops, scientists, and soldiers - and treat it as just another one of the dozens of similar, mockable movies that studios and independent producers made during the period, and maybe even assume that is among the worst, because giant ants.

But here's the thing: This movie was able to become well-known and emblematic of its era in part because it's executed better than most of its contemporaries. Allegedly-smart people doing stupid things is kept to minimum, and the writers seldom take their eyes off the prize for a silly and conventional subplot. The visual effects absolutely look sixty years old, but they seldom seem sloppy, with corners cut because the audience for this sort of movie isn't worthy of respect. That extends to director Gordon Douglas, who could stage fine action scenes and had no problem with going for genuine scares, doing a pretty fair job of attaining them.

In short, Them! is good enough to get booked, shown on TV, and remembered years later, good enough to be the one people remember when looking back. It will often get associated with the more typically poor work done at the same time, but deserves a bit better.


* * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/40, DCP)

Moonraker, on the other hand, is roughly as bad as its reputation, close to the nadir of the James Bond franchise during the Roger Moore years: Making a stab toward pop-culture topicality with its Space Shuttle-centered plot, bringing back a one-off character from the previous film and realizing the same shtick doesn't usually work twice, and crossing the line between grandiosity and self-parody without being nearly funny enough to make it work.

Its worst sin, though, is probably being boring. The scenes of Moore blithely and blandly walking around and discovering the (uninteresting) villain's plot are even more leaden than usual, the ogling beautiful women feels more like just a thing these films are expected to do than something genuinely lascivious (where Bond being a bit of a creep is a sort of forbidden pleasure), and the finale... I just feel sorry for it and everyone involved. It's the Bond franchise trying to do Star Wars, but without the speed and energy that Lucas and his crew brought. I'm not sure how much James Bond was thought of as a gold standard in action/adventure versus something commercially successful, but it really should have been trying to top what was being done around it, rather than coming off as a pale imitation.

The Day the Earth Stood Still

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/40, DCP)

I may have wound up nodding off at some point during this one - it was getting to be that time of night - because I honestly don't remember how Klaatu wound up at the boarding house befriending Helen. I suspect that may be for the best - I can't think of a way that leaving one's spaceship and insanely powerful robot unattended in the middle of Washington wouldn't come across as silly - but it's necessary in order to see Klaatu as human, or his planet's equivalent, rather than as just a patrician messenger.

That's something the movie needs desperately, because otherwise it seems to be either struggling with its own message or so keenly committed to it that it cannot step outside for a moment to really make the most important observation plain. Sure, the story is well-known - alien comes to Earth and warns that his people will sterilize the planet should we not disarm, and it's very anti-war and the metaphor that the Cold War will lead to the end of the world is right there - but the part that is often overlooked is that he does this with a threat of violence; in the 1950s, we recognized the danger we faced but could not think of any alternatives; even peaceful, advanced cultures could only function at the point of a sword. It seems Klaatu backs down just because he realizes that all of humanity does not to deserve to be destroyed, especially pretty single mothers and their curious sons, rather than recognizing that the whole system is crazy. Or maybe I'm missing what everyone else can see instinctively.

Still, that high-minded material which hints at thematic richness as well as a good moral for the end of the story is relatively rare for the genre on film, and having it married to the skillful execution that this movie features is rare. Part of that comes from Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal being more than a hair or two better in the main roles than you might expect from something that looks like a well-intentioned B-movie, but a large part is on director Robert Wise, a steady-handed workhorse who didn't necessarily put a stamp on his movies but was so good at everything that he rarely made one that wasn't worth watching, and occasionally ones that were great.

Big Trouble in Little China

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/40, DCP)

It was more early than late when this one started, so you can understand the crowd being a little more reserved, not even considering those who were grumbling about it having no place at a science fiction marathon. I have to admit, though, that I spent a lot of time wondering why the people in the crowd most prone to quote along weren't doing so. Didn't they have this whole thing memorized?

Apparently not; this is a highly-specialized genre audience. Whether they were into it or not, though, this is still a tremendously entertaining action/adventure, with director John Carpenter and the writers basically dropping a couple of Americans into the middle of a crazy Hong Kong-style fantasy and Kurt Russell thankfully realizing that he's playing a goofball who doesn't really belong and happily being the butt of every joke. Jack Burton would be an easy character to dislike under certain circumstances, but Russell really hits the spot where he can be skeptical and obtuse but still a likable lug. It may overshadow a bit how he is basically the sidekick to Dennis Dun's actual hero, but that's part of the fun. I do kind of wish we saw more of Dun in other movies later on, although some of the other Chinese-American character actors (James Hong, Victor Wong) did become more familiar.

I've always liked this movie, ever since first seeing promos for when it played on Fox, but I liked it even more this time, having seen a few more of the flat-out crazy Hong Kong flicks it resembles versus straight martial-arts action. Carpenter and the gang really seemed to get it here, so that even if it wasn't the audience's favorite genre, there's still no excuse for not saying "son of a bitch must pay" along with Jack Burton at the appropriate time.

The Iron Giant

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/40, 35mm)

This is still pretty fantastic, and in some ways the narrative that has built up around it has done the rare service of making sure that is reputation is neither over-inflated nor diminished: Its dedicated fanbase never really exploded in later years, certainly not to the point where one could misremember the film as a hit, and while director Brad Bird has made a number of films since, this was his only cel-animated feature, so it doesn't blur into a body of work. The Iron Giant is just its own still-wonderful thing.

And it really is still great. It was a singular movie for its time, as studios which had started feature animation divisions to try and replicate Disney's early-1990s success were shutting them down upon realizing a reputation and infrastructure built over decades would take time to equal, an environment that doesn't seem likely to spawn a movie that means something to its makers. Instead, this thing's heart is all over the screen, whether in terms of being nostalgic for old monster movies or boyhood itself, and the discovery that a person can be something other than what is expected of him, even if it's hard for fifty-foot alien robots.

It's getting received one of those theatrical single-night bookings this year that well-remembered movies occasionally get, with extra footage being advertised. That made me sort of curious, although not quite enough to see it again. Besides, it's awfully close to perfect as it is; how likely is it that new scenes will make it better?

This Island Earth

* * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/40, 35mm)

I recall there being some talk, when Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie came out, that This Island Earth either didn't deserve to be the subject of the characters' mockery because it was too good or was at least something that would look good on the big screen rather than being too rough to look at for that long. I must admit to leaning far more toward the latter point of view myself. It's got better production values than many of its brethren, but in terms of being a quality movie, it's no Them!.

This is mostly because it somehow manages to be both boring and nonsensical. What seems like a really unconscionable time is spent on getting the characters to the point where they finally realize that the secret project they're working on its sort of fishy, perhaps because they are so bland individually and as a group that they don't have any life before the film to compare it to. Then things turn, but before the audience has any time to really get into exploring the crazy new world the kidnapped Earth scientists find themselves in, they're escaping and turning around. It feels like 75% stalling, 10% good stuff, 15% an escape that really highlights the issue of why these guys with a faster-than-light spaceship need human scientists. Given that they're almost all giant brain, my only conclusion is that their various cognitive centers have grown too fast apart to be any good for thinking.

It does look pretty good for its period, there's not much denying that - even the special effects where you can see the strings at least display creativity and enthusiasm. There just isn't much time when the guys writing, shooting, and acting out seem nearly as invested in making something exciting to watch as the ones building it.

Edge of Tomorrow

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/40, 35mm)

There is not much about this film that isn't a lot of fun. Tom Cruise, making use of both the parts of his screen persons that make one want to cheer and those that make one want to punch him in the face? Excellent. Emily Blunt being both great at action and the film's heart? Yep. Fun sidekicks and supporting ensemble? Got it. A script that both comes across as a fun, videogame-derived gimmick but still has emotional stakes and authenticity? Believe it or not. Well-done action, too.

Maybe the only weakness, if it has any, are the fairly generic aliens; they're busy and have the over-articulation you sometimes see from CGI beasties and never really feel like an intelligent race (a common issue with alien-invasion movies that want to use the aliens as a sort of background element). Given what a fun action/sci-fi movie it is otherwise, that's acceptable.

What I said last summer.

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