Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2018.09: Closer Than We Think, Muse, and Canaries

I'm not necessarily saying there's a diversity problem in sci-fi or genre filmmaking, but I kid you not, I had to double-check timestamps on my phone to make sure that there were indeed guests at three films rather than two. Sure, that's in part because the "horrible photography" tag on this post is apt, but, yeesh, Saturday was averagewhiteguypalooza.

First up was Brett Ryan Bonowicz, who I believe is making his first visit to the festival despite it being his second film screening (I don't recall him being here for The Perfect 46 a couple of years ago). I talk a bit in the review about how he sometimes seemed to hit upon a certain theme of the movie accidentally, and part of it comes from the Q&A, where he talked about being kind of shocked that one of the people he talked to was repulsed by the futures depicted in Closer Than We Think, sounding like he still entirely didn't agree with that take but put it in because it was an interesting counterpoint.

That's not to say he made a good movie by accident at all - when you're making any film, but especially a documentary, you put in the good material, even if it doesn't necessarily fit what you're trying to do perfectly, and if you've done it well, either through research or giving fictional characters and situations believable depth, something will emerge, even if it's not what you intended. And it is crucial to figure out what needs to stay and what needs to go; he talked about how originally the film was going to be structured around the search for more of Arthur Radebaugh's works, but that wound up not just feeling repetitive but pushing Radebaugh out of the center of his own movie.

At full size, this is not obviously the same guy, but I did some double takes looking at it. It's Muse director John Burr, whose movie I liked somewhat less but whose enthusiasm was infectious. He talked about being really excited to discover the legend of the Leannán Sí because, despite it being the sort of thing that a creative person might immediately identify with, it didn't seem to have been used much (or at all) in horror films.

He also was able to supply a kind of fun fact and a half - when someone noted they'd seen the name "Lou Ferrigno Jr." in the credits, he said that not only was the fellow playing the jackass boyfriend the son of The Incredible Hulk, but that he supplied a fair amount of the artwork used in the movie from his own collection.

The last guest was Canaries filmmaker Peter Stray (center), who was pretty happy to see that co-star Tsilala Brock was in the audience because she was doing a job on the east coast and figured she might as well come up. Stray flew over from the UK, and like a lot of the guys who come to this festival from there, he's got a pretty big personality, and I suspect you kind of have to in order to fly across an ocean to attend this festival. I mean, I'd use "made a feature-length film that got accepted into even the smallest of festivals" as an opportunity to see the world, especially if money weren't an object, but it is kind of a hike for around 100 people and no market action.

He did like being in Massachusetts, though, because he filmed some of the opening scenes on Martha's Vineyard, and couldn't resist recreating shots from Jaws while doing it. Which is kind of a weird thing, if you ask me; lifting such specific quotes, including location, seems more like something you'd do for a DVD extra or end-credits outtake. It's only a few seconds in the film, but still kind of odd.

And with that, the festival portion of the festivities was done, and it was time to get a good night's sleep for the upcoming 24-hour marathon.

Closer Than We Think

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

Not a bad documentary about mid-century futurist illustrator Arthur Radebaugh, although it is hampered by how the subject made very little impact on the world outside of his work, which itself is obscure enough to require a documentary like this in order to be rediscovered: There are no audio or video interviews of the man to be repurposed, he has no living relatives, and his work was a solitary enough one that one cannot gain insight into his processes and inspirations. It's interesting subject matter, but it's hard to build a story on such scraps. The filmmakers do sold work in that regard, but it does leave a lot of room for tangents.

And so, inevitably, that lack of a footprint itself becomes a theme of the picture - that just as the weekly "comic strips" Radebaugh drew were destined to eventually become obsolete and rendered invalid by the actual progress of science, he too would be superceded in time. It gives added weight to how one of the people filmmaker Brett Ryan Bonowicz interviews, Caitlin McGurk of the Cartoon Museum, says she found Radebaugh's strips horrifying visions of post-apocalyptic future where humankind must replace the systems they destroyed rather than the images of innovation and improvement and surprisingly on-target prediction that others see. They parallel Radebaugh having to reinvent himself regularly as illustration-based advertising gae way to photography, the Sunday comics section became more exclusively the domain of children. It is less the story of a man ahead of his time as one who must scramble not to fall behind.

Bonowicz does not, at times, seem to consciously realize this, considering how he places McGurk's insight toward the front while an enthusiastic scientist gives credit to the details Radebaugh got right in one strip near the end. But that works out all right; it gives the audience room to enjoy Radebaugh's highly-detailed, annotated illustrations and absorb the way his personal life was difficult form scraps of information. It does mean that the filmmakers often spend a little more time than optimal on some things - there's just enough material on collectors finding a cache of his work and looking for more to make a viewer wonder what the right amount would be - but by and large, Bonowicz is able to make better use of how sparse information on his subject is than most.


* * (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

So, the perfect muse is blonde, naked, does not speak or have her own identity, and happily murders to help her man. Well, at least until said man looks at another woman, which I suppose puts a ding in said perfection, but there's still something more creepily retrograde than usual about how Muse presents the Leannán Sí (a figure from Irish folklore) and art in general, framing it as something men do and women facilitate by making sure the guys are sexually satisfied, removing obstacles, or running errands, or being an attractive subject. It would have been tacky under the best of circumstances but looks to be even more so as Hollywood struggles to drag itself forward from those sorts of attitudes.

It also makes the paintings that the artist in question produces kind of hollow - yes, a painting of a pretty girl often looks nice, but it's not really saying anything; the audience has to be told it's more inspired than the similar work Adam created without the Leannán Sí. It's not the only part of the movie that feels generic; he encounters standard-casting drug dealers, snobby artists, pushy landlords, and a girl next door who exists to have a shitty boyfriend upon whom Adam would be an improvement by default. The kills are fairly bloody, but not especially creative or memorable.

As simple splatter movies go, Muse is far from the worst - it's actually pretty capable in terms of doing what it says on the tin and digging up a bit of relatively obscure folklore. It just never feels like it got beyond the vague idea of its monster to the point where it can do more than have her kill people who the audience mostly won't miss every ten or fifteen minutes.


N/A (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

I'm sad that I kind of reached the end of my line during Canaries; it's kind of got problems with scale, but I appreciated what it was trying to do on both ends, setting up a mystery that involves displacement in time and space along with the associated conspiracies on one hand and then doing going with "comically combative acquaintances must repel alien attack" on the other. It's not a perfect combination, but it's fun to see this sort of movie open in a way that suggests something bigger, and the group having the New Year's party in Lower Cwmtwrch, Wales are enjoyably mismatched and fun to watch when things start getting nuts.

But, again, this was Day 9, with work and detours for Chinese New Year movies and Oscar-nominated shorts, and I hadn't really caffeinated during this one as much as I had others because I knew I needed a fair amount of sleep before the marathon the next day, so I drifted off at points and eventually got to a point where I knew I'd missed a lot when a guy was talking to his doppelganger from another time period and I couldn't remember when this was introduced.

Then again, it might not have been properly explained, because writer/director Peter Stray is pretty explicitly saving some material for a sequel that I can't imagine is likely to come, ending the movie on a "To Be Continued". And while I admire ambition, the movie didn't earn that.

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