Thursday, February 28, 2019

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2019: Axcellerator, Ikarie XB-01, King Kong '33, Last Sunrise, and Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future

I knew, going into the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival this year, that I would be seeing less - several years of underwhelming selections, frustrations with technical gaffes (and weather-related cancellations), and the increasing number of worthy other options to see in mid-February made it seem like I was committing more than I should. In recent years I've run myself ragged trying not just to attend the festival I want to be great more than any other, but trying to see the Oscar-nominated short programs, watching the big Lunar New Year blockbusters from China, and the increasingly strong movies released during February by the usual suspects was too much. But I didn't think I'd cut it own this much.

Part of it was also work taking my time, but part of it was just going to the site, watching trailers, and thinking "I have seen something awful close to this movie before and with more put into it" or "the fans of such-and-such will enjoy that documentary". Maybe there were some hidden gems in there, but when your trailer makes me think "so, it's basically Jumper without the star power of Hayden Christenson"... Well, that's not a great sales pitch.

Anyway - guests!

Left to right, from Axcellerator that's actors David Johnson, Sam J. Jones, and John James; writer-director David Giancola, cinematographer Georgia Pantazopoulos, and David Porter, whose post-production house handled much of the sound work. That place is local, much of the film as shot in Vermont, and Jones was there because a documentary about him and the rest of the cast of Flash Gordon played the night before.

Anyway, they talked about wanting to make a real 1980s-style movie, and I guess this was that. Giancola would return during the marathon to accept an award, and go on about how this festival respects genre film, and… I dunno, like I say every year, there's lots of really good genre festivals, and I guess it's nice that this one gives folks a chance to feel appreciated, but I have a hard time downshifting for it.

As an aside - you can't really see it well in this picture, but I think this was my first time in one of the downstairs theaters since they renovated them last October, and it's nice. Seats are a little bigger, though not the full recliner the screen is a full Panavision aspect ratio (I think they moved a wall), and it just looks spiffy and well-lit before and after the shows. We've lost the owls, but, gosh, Q&As are going to be nice during IFFBoston.

My last film of the week wound up being Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future, with producer Christopher Darryn, writer/director Douglass M. Stewart Jr., interviewee Douglas Trumbull, and editor Kristina Hays on hand. One of the things that came up was that Bonestell had done a mural for the Museum of Science which was later found not to be a terribly accurate depiction of the lunar surface, and was as such taken down, though the artist would create another work. The original mural is being restored at the Smithsonian, as it still have value as art even if it's not accurate.

It was one of those Q&As of pretty specific interest, whether intended or not. Some folks arrived less to learn about Bonestell than to have their fandom stroked a bit, which is fine, and other times what I suspect was a more general question kind of got into the weeds with Trumbull and Hays talking about specific post-production software and such. But, hey, someone just starting out having a legend like Trumbull chatting with her as an equal has to find that pretty cool.

I was originally intending to stay for more that evening - I feel bad about collecting a button from some of the filmmakers who would have the 7pm show - but you get back to the whole "hey, these kind of look like generic alien visitation/found-footage-time-loop trailers" situation, and my cold started walloping me enough that I figured I"d be no fun for the people sitting next to me and I could use some sleep before the marathon the next day.

Hopefully things work out that I'm feeling more like seeing a bunch of movies at the festival next year, but I must admit that I tend to treat a pass as something of an obligation (either a festival gives me one as media and reviews are the way you repay them or I find myself insistent on getting value for money), and even if I may have paid more going a la carte this year, it didn't have me resenting the bad ones nearly as much.


* * (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

Axcellerator is one of those movies that straddles the border of irreverence and parody, to the extent that its makers would probably, upon being asked which it was, ask what you wanted it to be. There are worse offenses a movie can commit than landing in that grey area, especially since it's got the energy and most of the charm it needs to pull either option off, but every once in a while it does something dumb enough that you can't help but wonder what it could have been if some of its ambition and enthusiasm had made its way into the script.

Said script has Dane (Ryan Wesen), the son of a car thief who was apparently legendary in small-time-crook circles, stealing the car that his father had targeted when he had the fatal heart attack, only to have a mad scientist try and do so at the same time - one who was seemingly being tailed by every domestic security agency the United States has. One chase and explosion later, Dane is magically back home in New York, because the invention everyone was after is a brainwave-reading teleportation device. They're still after it, even though it's somewhat wonky, with the head of one faction (John James) springing psychopathic tracker Brink (Sam J. Jones) from prison against the wishes of the other (Maxwell Caulfield), and a double-agent (Sean Young) playing both sides. Said wonkiness has saddled Dane with traveling companion Kate (Laura James), so they decide to head back to her home in Arizona the old-fashioned way. Good thing Dane's father taught him a trick or two.

Why? Well, she's got a dog at the vet, and though I can't recall anybody in the film actually say that this is why they're going back to Arizona, it's the closest thing to a sensible reason for someone doing anything in the movie. The script is actually kind of impressive in how it covers the whole range of dumb, but eventually the filmmakers seem to just run out of even bad explanations and handwaving, appealing to a higher power and treating that like it's supposed to be satisfying. It's frustrating to watch, because there's no moment where details feel like they're fleshing out characters and themes, as opposed to being nuisances.

Full review at EFilmCritic

Ikarie XB 1

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

This was a Janus release, so I'm figuring that there will eventually be a Criterion Blu-ray or it will get a couple of playdates at the Brattle or somewhere like that, and maybe then I won't be zonked from it being my fourth movie of the day and apparently nod off during the only moments of the movie where anything of consequence actually happens.

Jindrich Polák's film is certainly interesting for being a fairly elaborate piece of science fiction for Czechoslovakia in 1963, well-designed with the sort of dusky monochrome photography that can make otherwise garish designs look cool, but it's also the sort that doesn't do a whole lot to distinguish its mass of crew-cut guys in uniform, personality-wise - even the one who goes mad more or less does so because of outside stimulus rather than a particularly interesting storyline - and apparently lands on "sleep through it" as the best possible way to deal with the interstellar perils.

I'll give it another chance, should the opportunity come around; its Eastern European roots often lead to fantastic visuals, and there's a genuine excitement for exploration and discovery that the militaristic analogs in Hollywood often lack. There could be an idea or two buried in there that I just wasn't able to see that day.

King Kong (1933)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, 35mm)

It's been a few years since I last saw King Kong and I think that's sort of the ideal way to handle things - wait a couple years, see it on film with an audience, and be reminded all over again that it's actually a no-screwing-around monster movie, surprisingly ruthless in its violence and often sexier than you might remember as well. It's surprisingly intense and the stop-motion effects enhance this fact in surprising ways, in that the artists were pretty good at switching from a live actor to a doll without the audience noticing, so that the action which was a little removed is suddenly dangerous.

The bits without the ape straddle a line between charming and hokey (and not always a charming hokiness), and I must admit, I find it kind of amusing that the same folks who were making loud points of running down how Peter Jackson's remake before the movie started were also the ones laughing the loudest at all the unnatural-sounding material that Jackson and company took great pains to patch up. It's enjoyably pulpy material regardless, and you can't help but admire how the filmmakers walk a fine line between pushing off the good stuff and keeping things moving.

Full review from back in 2013

Last Sunrise

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

Do they know something in China about how the Sun is about to screw humanity over in some incredibly catastrophic way, or is it just a coincidence that two films which take that as a starting point have come from that part of the world in relatively rapid succession? It's probably nothing, but you wonder. Last Sunrise is a far less bombastic take on the idea than The Wandering Earth, the small indie version that has more to say about two people at the end of the world than the event itself.

The first to get wind that something is up is Sun Yang (Zhang Jue), a freelance astronomer who has noticed small fluctuations in our local star's luminosity that remind him of another star that somehow disappeared, although his emails to Wang Yun (Wang Dahong) - the solar-power entrepreneur whose open-source astronomical data shows the anomalies - get shut out. When the sun starts to flicker before outright vanishing, though, Wang sends Sun an address at which to meet - but to get there, he'll have to split a ride with neighbor Chen Ma (Zhang "Ran" Yue), who has a car but has never actually been close to the reclusive Sun Yang.

The nuts-and-bolts science fiction of the story isn't necessarily important in that writer/director Ren Wen isn't going to have Sun Yang and Chen Ma spend the movie chasing details down, but there's something reassuring about how how Ren doesn't take it for granted or completely brush it away. The cataclysm itself is striking without being a big visual-effects demo, and the explanation that Wang Yun offers is satisfying in that it doesn't minimize this huge event despite putting any chance of doing anything about it well out of reach (like Liu Cixin's Three Body Problem, it reminds me a bit of Asimov's The Gods Themselves, which is not a bad influence to have). There's enough future tech sprinkled around the first act to establish the film's world as a bit ahead of our own but not so much that Ren can't make it familiar.

Full review at EFilmCritic

Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

Sometimes, watching a movie like Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future, I wonder what the line is between "documentaries" and "educational films", or if one is a subset of the other. The film Douglass M. Stewart Jr. has made serves its purpose in describing Bonestell's career to people who may not know about this particular artist well enough, and if it comes off as more equivalent to a chapter in a middle-school textbook more than the sort of non-fiction that people read for pleasure, that's fine. It would be nice if the film created the sort of rapt fascination that Bonestell's work did, but it gets the job done.

Bonestell, born in 1888, did many related jobs over the course of his life, from architecture to creating matte paintings for the movies - he worked on designs for the Golden Gate Bridge and created matte paintings for Citizen Kane - but where he had the biggest impact was on space art. His illustrations for both pulp covers and glossy mainstream magazines were praised for both their striking layout and their exceptional eye scientific accuracy. His presentation of the solar system would inspire later artists, scientists, and engineers alike.

These are no small accomplishments, and there doesn't necessarily need to be a great story to go with it, though Bonestell may have one of those as well. You can see bits of it, but Stewart tends to present it as a pile of facts that don't necessarily build to a narrative, especially as the film covers his early years, which include a lot of moving around and a series of marriages that include two to the same woman. There's a lot going on, but the film is focused on his art and as such does not delve deeply into his life as its own story, but also spends relatively little time on how that side of his history informs his art, but aside from a few comments about how his being in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake had an effect on some of his more apocalyptic works, there aren't many lines to be drawn.

Full review at EFilmCritic

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