Monday, June 20, 2016

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2016.10-11: The Marathon!

Though I gather than event presenter Garen Daly might like the the festival to be something akin to Austin's Fantastic Fest beyond just being a multi-day event where many genre movies run in terms of quality and prestige, the long-running marathon portion in some way resembles that event the most in certain ways: It's not a la carte, the community is just as important as the movies, and the rituals can either enhance or detract from the experience depending on your temperament.

Writing that, something crystallizes in my mind - as much as I like to see a movie with a crowd, I want it to be a crowd of individuals. Get the audience too synchronized and too prepared with their actions, and I'm not going to be comfortable with it at all. Indeed, I'll get kind of upset if it's too obviously a planned response rather than an honest, in-the-moment reaction.

It's been a while (and I've written reviews of these movies elsewhere on this blog or EFC), so I'm going to lean on what I tweeted out just after the movie in many cases.

Or, you know, before things started:

So, it turns out that when the heat isn't turned up enough (because you're not around), the pipes freeze. Didn't happen in my last place, and I'm not sure how it did here - I never had the heat turned down that low.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Marathon, DCP)

I'm not sure I've ever seen this thing in its entirety before, which is a weird, although at times I've found myself more fond of Joe Dante than really committed to seeing his stuff (not that it's necessarily been easy lately). The moments when he's indulging nostalgia (like when Robbie the Robot shows up) got the biggest laughs from this crowd, but they're kind of the easy gags, not nearly as much fun as when he and writer Chris Columbus let their twisted sense of humor loose, disguising a nasty little monster movie as a colorful kids' adventure. He's making the sort of movie he loved as a kid but making it look like the sort his parents would have approved of until it is way too late to leave.

And, in the middle of it, there's Phoebe Cates's story of why she hates Christmas, which is just this horrible thing but also absurd, and it perfectly encapsulates what the filmmakers are going for here, showing how something that seems wonderful at the start can become lethal anarchy, and the brilliant thing about it is that Dante doesn't try to build too much of a metaphor there, because stating a pattern would counter the idea that life is chaos and you've got to learn to manage it, and there's no perfect way to do so. It's a tricky as heck balance to manage, but it's the sort of thing that gives Gremlins the hook necessary to dig into our brains and help us remember the many, many terrific gags.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, 70mm)

Okay, that last bit is harsh, but it was my first time seeing this movie, and the few dozen people who think they're part of the entertainment have to diminish it because of a running joke that was only funny in very specific other circumstances. It's a bummer and the first a few times that the audience hurt the movie for me.

The movie's still pretty good, though. Though Jeff Bridges is the one who got an Oscar nomination, it's kind of a broad version of an alien being, kind of stuck with a story that doesn't give him much of a purpose (the classic come-crash-run away-leave arc that gives the movie structure but not leaves the visitor a complete cipher). It's memorable but kind of hides the great work Karen Allen is doing as a woman who is on an absolute roller coaster, mourning her husband, freaking out at the impossible situation of the Starman appearing in his form, reluctantly letting a fondness for it overpower how she's often a scared hostage. She's terrific.

And though this is in many ways not a typical John Carpenter movie - the genre elements are more clearly there to facilitate the odd relationship than fuel primal emotions - it makes the moments when he can show his expertise with impressive special effects and beautiful photography all the better. It's a delight to see Carpenter working in the sunlight, finding beauty rather than horror,, even as the film is clear-eyed about it.

Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, DCP w/ live music)

I didn't write "funeven" on purpose, but I kind of want to make that portmanteau word a real, regular thing, because it does describe movies like this silent from 1918 rather well - kind of a mess, but with things you won't necessarily see anywhere else that are at least exciting.

And it is that. This story of a group of Danish scientists and adventurers planning a trip to Mars in a spaceship that is modeled more on a train than the rockets that would become the standard imagery later, eventually arriving and finding a group of peaceful, enlightened inhabitants there. There's a relentless, joyful optimism to the movie; even the opposing forces are kind of ridiculous, whether they be "Professor Dubius" or a harsh system of justice that still bends to a passionate argument. There's a belief that, given the proper example, humanity can remake the world into a better place that overpowers potential cynicism.

Blade Runner (The Final Cut)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, DCP)

Huh, I'm reasonably sure that I've seen Blade Runner, specifically this "Final Cut", in a theater more recently than the 2007 edition of the marathon, but I can't find it on the blog. Still...

Three incept days in 2016, and it was good fortune/planning to connect with one of them. With the last one being Monday, 10 April 2017, I hope the Brattle or Coolidge is already carving time out on next year's schedule to take advantage..

It is still a pretty great movie, and while I don't know if you can quite say that thirty years of tinkering has refined it into its best form, but it's survived this sort evolution better than most films do, and none of the changes what's great about the movie: Ridley Scott's eye for atmosphere, a lived-in future world, performances that are often off-kilter but still utterly human.

High Treason (sound version)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, 35mm)

Last griping about the audience for this marathon, I promise, although it is interesting that this is a film I've seen twice, ten years apart, under very different circumstances - previously at the Harvard Film Archive, not only silent but without musical accompaniment in 2005 - and I wonder if I would have seen it differently had I seen it at the HFA again. I got kind of defensive about the audience laughing at the thing I had thought was pretty neat the first time I saw it; maybe I would have been less generous in my reappraisal. Sure, to a certain extent, everyone sees things differently - an online friend pointed out that the fashion in this film was terrific, something I'd barely given a thought to.

I still think it's a neat little movie, and I really should get around to seeing more silent sci-fi.

Full review on EFC from 2006, updated to include the sound version.

Ex Machina

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, DCP)

Second time through, I think I liked it a little more, although it's kind of a funny thing that the themes which seemed important when I wrote about it last year didn't wind up quite so strong on this viewing. But, hey, I'd let it simmer some before writing that review, so that's to be expected. It's still a very well-made movie, suspenseful and willing to go for uncomfortable ideas and moments rather than just playing a potentially rogue AI as inherently dangerous.

Review from earlier this year.


Seriously, just walk a block away, no line, it's clean, maybe grab something out of the fridge, come back and you've only missed, what, the tinfoil hat contest or something?

The Man Who Fell to Earth

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14-15 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, DCP)

There's cleverness in the double meaning of "The Man Who Fell to Earth", in that David Bowie's alien is not only stranded here because his spacecraft cannot bring him home, but because in his time using his advanced knowledge to earn what he needs to build a new one, he succumbs to the temptations and shallow nature of Terran life. It's a solid idea, enhanced quite a bit by Bowie's otherworldliness - which, it should be noted, seldom made him seem distant or inaccessible; he's a guy you can get to know. Director Nicolas Roeg doesn't underline the connection,but it works, though better in retrospect than at the time - the audience may be more disappointed in the film than "Thomas Jerome Newton" in how it's not the way we want to see things go.

I think that's in large part because there's so much of this movie; IMDB lists it as 139 minutes, and one can feel it. It's an epic-length film with a tight focus on Bowie's character, who is often very passive, and frustration can set in as Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg explore a great many permutations and eventually run out of ways for this to seem exciting and new despite there being an hour of movie left to go.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, DCP)

I've certainly thought about the concept that filmmaker Mike Judge expounds upon at the start of Idiocracy, that the demographic disparities between those having a lot of kids and those maybe having one a little later in life a lot, and while I think that in a lot of cases it's a time bomb (much of the country's wealth being concentrated among fewer people while what's left is divided between more), I got uncomfortable with the way Judge presents it partially as the lower classes being a drain on sensible, successful people; as much as the premise already has some issues - I'm always suspicious of middle-aged folk grumping about how that next generation is dumb when that next generation is at ease with new and complicated things that we don't get at all - this adds a level of snide meanness that may be a little too much.

Fortunately, Judge takes his premise of average folks placed in cryonic sleep for 500 years and awakening to find that this has led to them being the smartest people in the country and builds a bunch of pretty decent gags, with Luke Wilson perfectly deployed as the everyman kind of flabbergasted at the stupidity around him. As snide as this can be in conception, the deadpan over-the-top execution is often gold. It's no surprise that this is a cult film that got buried by its studio and hasn't really broken out as a repertory favorite despite having some advocates - its future is ugly-looking and its cynicism is kind of shallow, even if enough jokes work to make it worth a watch.

"Bride of Finklestein"

* * (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, digital)

Speaking of mean, that's not a very nice thing for me to write, but "Bride of Finklestein" is not really much fun, instead being an assembly of Jewish vaudeville jokes that were old when the movies were young that is a bit too aware of its hoariness. Writer/director Michael Schlesinger never really finds a way into the material that celebrates the style in addition to mocking it, and while that can be frustrating with many genres, it is really troublesome for comedy.

Pitch Black

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, DCP)

I've been a lot more forgiving of the entire "Riddick" series than most, in part because I really liked this first entry and in part because, unlike a lot of things that seem to be more about the studio trying to put something non-risky on the schedule, this really seems like something Vin Diesel and David Twohy want to do and try like heck to make great.

And this particular movie? Yeah, pretty darn good. It's not one that does much to reinvent the wheel, but Diesel is part of a game ensemble and Twohy is pretty darn good at fitting the gears together so that things move forward well. It's still fun to watch even knowing not just who is going to survive but the approximate order that everyone else will go, and a lot of thrillers can't say that.

Big Ass Spider!

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, DCP)

It's a bit unfortunate that one almost has to qualify one's fondness for Big Ass Spider! by saying he loves it without qualification, but that's kind of where we are today - unless a monster movie is specifically positioning itself as a spoof, it has to be almost exaggeratedly vicious in order to be taken seriously. This movie is often confused with spoofs because it's funny and good-natured, but it actually plays things pretty straight as far as the story goes, with the humor coming from being quippy and fast-paced like a modern action-comedy.

I'm lucky to have had the chance to see this in theaters a few times. It plays well with a crowd, and director Mike Mendez was pretty passionate about making sure it got seen that way rather than just shunted to SyFy or VOD.

Full review on EFC from 2013.

Never Let Me Go

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, DCP)

For some reason, Big Ass Spider! and Never Let Me Go had their screening order flipped, and it wasn't a bad idea at all; I'm not a big believer in biorhythms or the like, but I do find that my body clock will sometimes do things like letting the time of day influence whether I'm hungry or not or give me a second wind, and pushing the quiet but brilliant Never to "when I would be getting up and active" from "when I would usually be asleep" helped it out. I probably still dozed off for a moment or three, but I was really worried about missing it all.

Watching it anew - and not that long after screenwriter John August's Ex Machina - I couldn't help but be more struck by something that was practically only seen through oblique bits of conversation, as it's clear that Britain's response to the ethical issues of the "donor program" is not so much reform as further dehumanization, making sure that the next generation of clones doesn't have a voice as more than spare parts. It's the resolution that is perhaps all too real in its selfishness compared to the progress we want, and quietly devastating for it.

Full review on EFC from 2013.

Donovan's Brain

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, 35mm)

Apparently, not only did this star a future first lady, but author Curt Siodmak was initially scheduled to direct, and I (a) had no idea he was related to director Robert Siodmak (b) didn't know he was in the movie business as well as a pulp sci-fi writer. Not that he was one of the big names, but somehow he had this book adapted three times in eighteen years back in the middle of the twentieth century, with this apparently the best of an uninspiring bunch.

Why? Well, just in terms of genre, the science fiction trappings serve as an intriguing bridge between traditional ghost stories where the dead man takes control of others via sheer force of will and a crime story where we get to watch a mastermind run rings around everyone else. That's a great idea, but the telling of it often feels half-hearted; stars Lew Ayres, Nancy Davis, and Gene Evans turn in fairly workmanlike performances, and the filmmakers have trouble with scale and casually handwave obvious things throughout. There are moments when the film manages actual tension, but all too often it's given back with silliness and too little effort.

They Live

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, 35mm)

A bunch of weird clustering in the selections for this year's festival, as there were two films written by John August, two directed by John Carpenter, and the second was right up against another movie about an unseen alien invasion. Sometimes, this genre can seem rather limited.

On the other hand, Carpenter's take on it is genuinely peculiar, sometimes seeming to built out of random things that look cool even if the bulk of it is a pretty focused screed on how the country has turned its back on those who need the most help with a complicit media. Carpenter is clearly passionate enough that the bluntness of his message overcomes the odd ways that he goes about saying it and the messiness of the story. The fact that he's one of the best at just going with something unusual and making it work is huge here - there are three downright great moments in the movie, and the fact that the long fist-fight and what Roddy Piper's character sees when he first puts on the glasses are famous doesn't dilute their impact at all.

As you see, I decided that would be a good way to end my marathon; Invasion of the Body Snatchers would cover a lot of the same category but, let's face it, the original version isn't that great, no matter how many "stay awake" bits it might inspire at the end of a 24-hour marathon. The smart thing to do would have just been to go home and crash, although I did wind up coming back to the theater to see Hail, Caesar! later, with the end result being that I went to see that again in a couple of weeks.

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