Friday, March 23, 2018

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2018.10-11: The Marathon

I think I'm done with this.

I've grumbled about the festival and the marathon for a while, but I think this was the year that finally broke me. There was the usual annoyance at how the festival people would announce something as a premiere even though a few seconds with Google would keep them from sending out misinformation, the non-stop string of movies that just weren't very good. This year, though, I felt all that much more keenly aware of how I could be doing or seeing something else that I would likely enjoy more - I found myself scrambling to fit screenings of the Oscar-nominated short films in, as well as the three films that opened the weekend of the Chinese New Year, along with the new releases. Having actually walked out of one movie, I pretty much decided I wouldn't be getting the festival pass next year, but rather actually watching the previews and picking and choosing the stuff that looks good.

But at least there's the Marathon, right? Sure, it seemed to have a lot of stuff that had played recently, and almost none was scheduled to be on film, but getting to see these things in a big screen with an enthusiastic crowd ain't nothing.

And then people started doing the little marathon catch-phrases right from the start, especially "door!" whenever someone left a door open and it just drove me up a wall. What kind of fan of sci-fi film goes to see Close Encounters on the big screen and thinks the experience can be improved not just for themselves, but for the other five hundred people in the theater, by shouting out stupid crap? Jerks, that's who. Jerks who can't wait until between shows to get up, talk constantly, and who look up stuff on their phones during the movie. Sure, it's a small percentage of the audience, but, screw it, who needs to spend twenty-four hours in a theater with people who think they're competing with the actual entertainment?

So, yeah, I felt pretty sure by the end that I had been to my last thon. The frustration had reached a tipping point where it outweighed the fun. I may hedge my bets on that - toward the end, the festival director announced that they had formed a closer partnership with the Somerville Theatre, and while he didn't say what that entailed, I'm guessing it might mean that Ian Judge and David Kornfeld might have a much larger hand in putting together next year's marathon, with a bigger emphasis on 35mm prints.

If that's the case, maybe I'll come back. But, I dunno, a good night's sleep and not letting idiots ruin a great movie has its appeal too.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

Aside from the whole deal with the crappy audience, though, it's pretty terrific to see this one again. It's a peculiar film in a lot of ways, odd enough while watching it that you can understand why director Steven Spielberg talks about not being able to approach it the same way today, if only because he can't connect with a parent being willing to abandon his family that way. I've always thought that was more feature than bug, though - if you look at it as a movie about a man having a quasi-religious experience, that sort of explains its power, that something which cannot be denied has wormed its way inside his head and become bigger than all the traditionally important bonds, it's just so transformational and overpowering.

It's of a piece with a lot of early (mostly) early Spielberg in that way, in how it presents something very strange in a way that is nevertheless very easy to empathize with. There's a lot about this movie that is alien and unexplained and even kind of cold and distancing, but the film itself never feels that way; the audience connects. You see that in stuff like The Sugarland Express, this, and even E.T., although it sometimes seems A.I. was the only time later in his career that Spielberg really felt willing to make the audience feel kind of uncomfortable even as he was drawing them in. I don't know that he ever did it better than he did here.

Close Encounters is something other directors dream of making and it maybe cracks Spielberg's top five, which goes to show what sort of terrific work he's done over the years. I suspect we'd pull it apart in all sorts of little ways if it came out today, but it's kind of amazing regardless.

The Time Machine (1960)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

Huh, I seemed to enjoy this a heck of a lot more my first time around, back in '05 (also at a sci-fi marathon). Not that I disliked it this time - not even close - but you can kind of tell that, even with the horrors of atomic war figuring into the story, George Pal made his version of the H.G. Wells story with children at least partially in mind, and it seems a little less full of things to discover the second time through (especially with that second time at the start of a 24-hour marathon, rather than the end!).

It's still a very entertaining take on the material, though, and has a very nice arc of pure wonder becoming more mature but not being lost as its hero faces challenges

Full review on EFC (from 2005)

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

I kind of envy movie fans of my generation who grew up in area with a proper UHF station or the like in their area. Portland, Maine, had three network affiliates and a PBS station in the early 1980s, none of which programmed old movies (well, there was "Matinee at the Bijou" on WCBB Sunday mornings, but that was mostly Shirley Temple stuff if I remember correctly), so I was kind of denied the chance to experience them when they would have really blew my mind. Instead, I discovered them kind of piecemeal as an adult, able to see where they're sanitized, rough story-wise, or kind of relying on weird stereotypes, even as I do admire the heck out of Ray Harryhausen's animation.

7th Voyage is pretty good, though; Kerwin Mathews's Sinbad is kind of a bland hunk of a hero, but he's amiable enough, and he does pretty well selling that he's battling with Harryhausen's monsters. He's got a pretty delightful love interest in Kathryn Grant's Princess Parisa, who takes being shrunken down to fashion-doll size more or less in stride, especially if it means she can be useful in her fiance's adventures. They're the sort where everyone in the audience can see exactly what's coming, but it's breezy, good-natured fun where Columbia has spent just enough that Harryhausen's creatures don't look like the only functional thing in an otherwise time-killing B movie.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

The "Gort Short" this year - the winner of the best short subject audience award during the festival - is Corey Sevier's "Haley", which is, indeed, pretty darn good. I saw it at Fantasia last summer, liked it then, and am pleased to see that it holds up; that's not always the case.

Review (along with those of other sci-fi shorts) from the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival

The Lost World (1925, restored)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

The new restoration of this movie had a lot more dinosaur gore than I remember from previous versions; it's kind of eye-opening Pre-Code, something usually just said about sexiness. It also, peculiarly, feels more like it's got too much going on even though it's now stretched over more time, like the editors who cut it down before were on to something, cutting out some dumb running jokes and some tendencies to run around in circles (as well as an introduction from Arthur Conan Doyle). Or perhaps that's just me having internalized its existing rhythms and noticing where it's different.

Still, the core of it is as classic as ever, filled with impressive stop-motion animation, studio-bound shooting that nevertheless is just convincing enough. Jeff Rapsis contributed a rousing score to this showing, and by the time you get to the end and all the action, it certainly feels familiar again

Full review on EFC (of a different cut)

Marjorie Prime

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

I wouldn't be surprised if I was one of something like a dozen people to see Marjorie Prime when it played Arlington last year; it had the sort of release that went way under the radar, which is too bad, because it's a good, smart sci-fi movie. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the audience quieted down for it, because it's kind of a delicate film and could have been destroyed by being treated as something to riff on.

It's maybe not quite so stunning the second time around, or in a "we're here to be entertained" context, but it still builds to something powerful in the end, especially as one character ultimately decides to look forward rather than back, even if that's a somewhat easier, more conventional idea to explore than the machines constructing their own reality.

Full review on EFC (from August)

Bride of Frankenstein

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

I seem to wind up catching this one every five years or so - my last check-in was late 2012, and implies it had been about the same length of time between viewings - and for as much as I still love it, it's got issues. There are large chunks of perfection in it, but it's kind of padded like crazy up front, with the Mary/Shelley/Byron bit and, once we're picking back up from where the last one left off, we spend way too much time with the single most annoying character in cinema history. Still, once things start to click into place, you can't help but appreciate just how well the filmmakers have found a way to take what Universal probably intended to be just a simple monster movie and make something that is introspective as well as thrilling.

Shivers (aka They Came from Within)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, 35mm)

Holy cow, guys, after twelve hours in one of the best theaters for projecting film in New England, we finally get some actual 35mm celluloid!

I suspect the relative availability of prints is why the marathon has had a lot of Cronenberg in recent years, but I'm not going to complain; I haven't seen many of them and there's something kind of amazing about his early Montreal films: They're not just creatively gross and sexual in ways that seem like they probably would have prevented most filmmakers from becoming respectable, but there's this odd detachment and acceptance to them that really shouldn't work: Something man-made in the water is turning people into vicious rapist monsters with weird parasitic excrement organisms growing inside them, and everybody is just barely nonplussed, like this is an inevitable consequence of modern life. The screaming doesn't start until it's not just coming for that person specifically, but it's completely inescapable.

That's there right from the start, and yet Cronenberg is doing a lot of stuff that more mainstream filmmakers probably wish they could do as well even after years of practice: Sketching out the inhabitants of the infected apartment building quickly but effectively, introducing new ones when needed, making great use of his location both as this sort of dehumanizing arcology and a place where you can do some really well-built action. There's the weird self-awareness, but it doesn't kill the genuine tension at all.

Man, I miss weird, gross Cronenberg. As much as there were hopes of his son picking up the family business, it hasn't really happened yet, and Cronenberg's more mainstream (though still off-kilter) art-hour work just isn't the same.

Night of the Living Dead

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

You know, for all the time people have spent arguing about fast and slow zombies, the guys at the start of this movie were actually pretty darn spry. Like, maybe not running after their victims the way that the rage-virus victims of 28 Days Later do, but moving with a sense of urgency rather than aimlessly shambling.

It's tough to separate it from 50 years of follow-ups, but it's worth pointing out that a lot of what I hate about this genre is pretty fully-formed from the start, although holding them against George Romero's film is unfair - the shock and despair, and quick descent into "every man for himself" with every underlying prejudice being thrown into sharp relief wasn't necessarily the world's most original thought when he made this, but he and his cast find the right blend of presenting it as nearly inevitable but also repugnant; you can feel the urge to recoil at it. It's a taut, empathetic take on the material that maybe only works quite so well the first time around; as the tropes become more familiar, the more pragmatic take on the material can't help but make more sense, even if it winds up reinforcing an emotion that is basically antithetic to the original premise.

Still, good enough that I'll have to watch it again someday, hopefully with a better audience. In the same way that I probably did myself a disservice seeing the redubbed-for-comedy Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Alien, Flesh Eating, Hellbound, Crawling, Zombified Living Dead Part 2: In Shocking 2-D first (hey, I was in college and that's what the floor-mates found at the video store), it's not really ideal to have one's first encounter with a classic be interrupted by dumbasses yelling "door!" at every opportunity.

The Twilight Zone: "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

Young William Shatner was just perfect for 1960s TV in a way that we probably have a hard time giving enough credit to, no longer being bound by the same technical limitations. He had an expressive face and voice and emoted just enough to feel mostly natural while being able to make his character's feelings clear even if reception was crappy. Just look at him in this classic Twilight Zone episode - bigger than life, enough to seem reasonable though obviously disruptive on the plane, but not really hammy. It seems like a bit much, projected clearly on a large screen, or even upscaled to your HDTV, but that wasn't how people saw it 55 years ago.

It's not just him, of course; this episode has a killer team behind the camera with Richard Matheson writing the script, Richard Donner directing, and Rod Serling overseeing things. They start out playful but not silly, having fun with the absurdity of the situation without ever throwing up obstacles to taking it seriously. It's an impressively crafted short story, and it's kind of amazing that Serling was able to mass-produce them.

World Without End
The Little Shop of Horrors

N/A (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, some digital format or other)

I am past making excuses for not staying awake through the whole marathon. It was 3:30AM, I had been up 19-ish hours, and it's not like these are necessarily hard-to-find classics.

Sure, I do wish I'd been able to see more than just the opening few minutes of Little Shop; as much as the acting looked questionable, the film had a nice indie look to it and a soundtrack that seemed like a little more than just the standard thing that gets put together for chases/shocks/something mysterious. It's maybe not Roger Corman at his best, but it's him making an effort rather than just grinding the next thing out.

Yellow Submarine

* * (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

At the end of the thon, we were told that this was a secret screening because they didn't get permission to show it and, in fact, the rights-holder had been saying no for years, so could we keep it quiet? Uh, no. My blog is a log of what I see, and I didn't make any such agreement. You stand up to the man your way, I'll do it my way.

Anyway, I thought I'd seen it before, and maybe I have, but you'd think I'd remember something this peculiar. It's not really what one would call "good" as a movie in many ways after the opening, but credit where it's due; that sequence of the Blue Meanies attacking Pepperville and laying waste to it genuinely works in how it has that pure malice attacking and laying waste to the city. That's straight-ahead good filmmaking, and the folks involved know how to make that work. They're not quite so good at dry humor, and it's in part because they've already set higher stakes, but in part because it can seem hyper-specific or consequence-free. On the other hand, every few minutes a different Beatles song will appear on the soundtrack, complete, with animation that ranges from beautifully abstract to weirdly literal, and even if these songs aren't the best parts of the Beatles catalog, they still tend to be pretty darn good, and you can certainly enjoy that.

Supposedly, remaking this was the project that ended Robert Zemeckis's motion-capture studio, and I've got no idea how that would have worked, because he might have wanted to make it coherent.

Army of Darkness

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

It's not possibly for me to love this movie as much as I did in college, but I'm still kind of amazed by it - it's the genre-mashing, self-parodying thing that everybody has been chasing for the past 25 years, and it's not been done as well since. Raimi wasn't alone in taking his slasher film in genuinely weird directions around this time (you got Jason X, Wes Craven going meta, Leprechaun in space and in tha hood, Puppet Master with Nazis, Phantasm just being generally bonkers), but he did it best, and when the studio demanded changes, he made it even goofier.

Also ridiculous: I don't believe Sam Raimi has done a feature since that Wizard of Oz prequel, and that's just wrong. I know he's been busy as a producer, but how many folks are there out there that have succeeded in low-budget genre films, massive blockbusters, and mainstream adult dramas, while being by all accounts someone people love to work with, that seem so unable to nail down a next project?

Full review on EFC (from 2004, so probably terrible)

20 Million Miles to Earth

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

This was another film that was kind of rough on my general alertness (and, as the second Harryhausen film in the marathon, perhaps something of a sign that we could use more diversity/variety in the genre movie canon), but nevertheless a fairly enjoyable early-morning watch. Like The Time Machine and Sinbad, you can see how it's more kid-oriented and silly than its monster-movie successors, but it's good-looking, whether a given scene was shot in Sicily, on a soundstage, or a part of Harryhausen's always-terrific animation. It's sort of a standard-issue monster movie in a lot of ways, but certainly a well-constructed one.

Full review on EFC (from 2013, probably shown as a tribute when Harryhausen passed)


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

Ha! When I reviewed this five years ago, I compared writer/director Rian Johnson's work favorably to George Lucas's. I am taking credit for putting the idea of his doing Star Wars in someone's head!

I still love this movie, even as the flaws are still quite clear - I'm choosing to believe that what Joe tells us about time travel and the future-relative-to-him is not necessarily accurate as opposed to being what he's come to believe. It's a good enough explanation, I think, that makes it relatively easy to enjoy what he does to hang a story on it, which turns out to be great in its details, it's quick but well-executed action, and its willingness to chase things around in time-travel circles so that one's head hurts just enough.

It's no wonder that everybody doing the major franchises that would rise up in the years after this one tried to grab Johnson; he's yet to make a movie that wasn't a pretty delightful surprise in some way or another, and the only real bummer about Star Wars landing him is that it might mean less that is purely his own for a while.

… And with that, I say goodbye to the marathon for at least another year, and in the short term I went home to get some laundry done and collapse before flying to New Orleans the next day. 2018 may have been the rare year that the weather didn't seem to mess the festival up much, but it was still a good idea to head out and go somewhere warm!

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