Thursday, February 28, 2019

Boston Sci-Fi Film Marathon 2019: Innerspace, Dr. Cyclops, Rollerball '75, Woman in the Moon, "Live", Star Trek VI, Annihilation, Source Code, Sunshine, and Escape from New York

Continuing my plans not to get worked up too much about this event from the festival half, I didn't buy a ticket until a fair chunk of the lineup had been announced (and announced as playing on film), and on top of that, the cold I was nursing for the previous days worked into it. I'd pondered just eating the ticket the night before, and when I walked to the theater, I was basically thinking that if I fell asleep at any point, it didn't matter. If the worst parts of the audience started acting like they were the entertainment, I'd try not to stress.

Mostly, though, people were a lot better this year about not trying to improve genuinely good movies by yelling out "door!" or "Mark!" or whatever other silly thing popped into their heads or served as a ritual. I do wonder how much the programmers took it into account this year (I must admit, I'd run a potential movie through IMDB and just not include it if any character was named "Mark").

Anyway, I think this was the first time I've actually put the atomic fireball handed out at the start into my mouth in a long time (the cinnamon helped my sinuses), felt no shame about sleeping through what needed sleeping through, and then didn't do a darn thing when I got home despite the errands I had intended to run.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, 35mm)

I'm not sure that Innerspace is the most 1980s movie ever made, but it is simultaneously a Joe Dante pulp adventure, a Martin Short comedy, and a Meg Ryan/Dennis Quaid vehicle, all of which were things in the 1980s and into the 1990s but which have rather faded away since, despite never really having had a memorable bomb. It's surprisingly good at all of them, and that's actually kind of a crazy sort of synthesis: Short's band of goofy physical comedy was kind of unmistakable, and it's a bit odd to see it showing up in the middle of this other sort of movie.

Dante and the writers make it work together (it doesn't escape my attention that one is Jeffrey Boam, who would later co-create The Adventures of Brisco County Junior). Even for something with a strange high concept, it's kind of elevated, with genuinely weird villains where it could have gotten away with standard thugs, and deadpan peculiar supporting characters. It's funny in a way that's kid-friendly and eccentric, in some ways a lot more willing to be openly comic-book-y than a lot of the comics that came later.

I also like the way the design and effects teams play with biology without things getting gross or having a rubbery, too-polished look that would come with later CGI technology. ILM does a really neat job on what is billed as "Martin Short's Interiors" even before getting to the funny, surprisingly believable half-sized goofiness in the last act.

Dr. Cyclops

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, 35mm)

I suspect I liked this a little more than the last time I saw it at a genre marathon in the Somerville Theatre. It's utterly earnest and straight-faced, never really trying to be as clever in how it plays with its shrinking technology or character motivations as, say, Innerspace, but it doesn't have to be. As a 77-minute B movie, it doesn't need twists or to do a whole lot more than what it says it will. The cast might be kind of flat at times, but they're effective, and the special effects (mostly scaled-up set decoration and decent matte work) certainly get the job done.

What I thought back in 2013

Rollerball (1975)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, 35mm)

Rollerball was far too ambitious for its own good, although maybe it just seems that way from forty-odd years later. Its strongly felt anti-corporate message feels kind of half-baked when we have actual capitalist dystopias to which it can be compared, and the screenwriters can't really do much with it for all that they talk about this being dangerous and dehumanizing. Points for wanting to have a strong humanist message, but the filmmakers too often make the subtext text but without a lot to say.

It doesn't help that James Caan is James Caan, a mumbler where the dialogue is concerned and just not charismatic enough to seem like this sort of threat to the world order. Caan may be a nice enough guy, but he's always been at his best when there's a layer of slime on him, and his rollerball star doesn't stand out for his general decency or feel like he's the cunning sort of celebrity that can beat the system at its own game. He could still pursue a lost love while being cunning, but what killer instinct he's got is limited to the rink here.

That said, the actual sport of rollerball is presented fairly well here; the movie doesn't have the budget to make it seem like a global obsession of the future (CGI crowds often look fake, but they make a point), but the harsh action and the design that you can see is supposed to preclude long-running superstars makes a kind of cynical sense, and Jewison shoots the film in a way that lets the audience get caught up while occasionally slapping them with how awful it actually is. It sometimes seems like the folks involved have the right idea, but haven't really thought out how sports and capitalism collide in a way that makes the cynicism feel earned, especially from today's perspective.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, digital)

One of the award-winning short films from the festival part of the festivities, "Live" is kind of on-the-nose about the topics it's addressing, the kind, and that they're the sort of things that are specifically of more interest to a young actress than her audience. It's very much got a "write/direct/act in what you know" vibe to it, although filmmaker Taryn O'Neill never winds up so far into inside baseball for it to be a problem.

Mostly, she makes a confident movie that knows of what it speaks in terms of the pressure to maintain a persona and constantly produce content, the more lurid the better. The whole thing is quick and idea-focused - it doesn't particularly have a twist or an arc to play out - but it's by and large a good use of that idea, and a fair calling card for an actress not looking to get caught in the future it imagines.

Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, digital)

Fritz Lang's Frau im Mond is a trailblazer in science fiction, not just for the things it anticipates - it is credited with introducing the countdown to the world, among other things - but because it is perhaps the first time that a major milestone in science and discovery is, as far as the writers and directors are concerned, second fiddle to the individual struggles of the human heart, in this case a girl figuring out which boy she likes better, or at least the one that is willing to sacrifice for her.

Not that this Friede is not worth sacrificing for; Gerda Maurus plays her as whip-smart and always carrying herself with the casual assurance of a woman is confident despite knowing what pressures are on her compared to the guys. She's almost certainly worth more than either Wolf (Willy Fritsch), who would run away from the whole planet out of self-pity, or his friend Hans (Gustav von Wangenheim), who is more than a smidge self-centered, although the three have enjoyable chemistry together. Meanwhile, Fritz Rasp is giving the kind of enjoyably slimy performance where one can hear the sneering superiority despite it being a silent.

In some ways, it's kind of a shame that Rasp's character is kind of unnecessary; he's the lingering remnant of how at least the restored version of this film certainly does take its time getting started, with a ton of conspiracy material that ultimately doesn't matter - although, I suppose, this sort of shadowy cabal is another sort of science-fiction trope that the movie anticipates. When Fritz Lang does get to the big set pieces, though, it's impressive as heck, anticipating more of the realities of space travel than one might expect and inventing a lot of the language of event-movie cinema. Frau im Mond is more exciting and modern than one would expect from a 90-year-old movie, even one which could certainly be expected to age badly.

It certainly doesn't hurt that this presentation was accompanied by organist Jeff Rapsis, who always adds something to a silent film but who was clearly working from a place of special excitement here, never flagging despite this movie being nearly three hours long without an intermission. It was an energetic score that kept things moving during the long opening and kicked it up a notch or two when things got igger.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, 70mm)

Nicholas Meyer's Star Trek VI came out at the height of the franchise being willing to pat itself on the back for being the cerebral science-fiction franchise, and truth be told it could probably use a lot less trying to show how smart it is by quoting classics, and a lot more by way of avoiding the dumb plotting that often has heroes and villains alike looking like fools. He's a strong enough director to get away with it, especially the first time through - he has a knack for mixing the familiar and the exotic to best effect, stages nifty action and shoots around a tight budget without drawing attention to the fact, and juggles the large cast well. He and that cast know what all of these characters mean to the audience, and do a fine job playing on that.

And even with the pretentiousness and flaws more evident than when I first saw this in the theater (and when I cringed seeing the dumb material added for home video), it's probably the sharpest of the films in the series and the one that most directly serves as the heir to the show that had Vietnam War stories in the middle of its big sci-fi adventures. For all that it was timely in 1991 for how it was clearly using the collapse of the Klingon Empire as a metaphor for the end of the Cold War, it doesn't feel handcuffed by the metaphor - it still feels current and I suspect it always will for as long as there will be people who have trouble with history moving on past the conflict that defined their lives.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17-18 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, DCP)

The middle of the night is a pretty good time to see Annihilation - not only is your brain starting to accept strangeness even as it registers shock, but the parts of the marathon audience that might be tempted to be a pain in the ass are starting to sleep a bit. I don't know if it's quite so thoroughly unsettling the second time around - the bear mess me up the way it did when I first saw it - but it's still pretty darn brain-melting when you get to the end. Alex Garland is looking to make the audience feel the absolutely unmoored nature these characters feel as they confront the unknowable, and I'm not sure I've ever seen a movie do that better.

Maybe 2001, but that's a different sort of unknowable.

What I thought the first time

The Andromeda Strain

N/A (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, 35mm)

Remember what I said about not being ashamed of when I nodded off because I was fighting a pretty strong cold and didn't have anything to prove? This is where it starts coming into play. I don't know when I'll ever get another chance to see this methodical thriller on 35mm film, which is a darn shame; I liked the businesslike-but-intense start and remember once being genuinely freaked out when I caught a bit of it on TV and saw someone not bleeding from a cut, and wanted to see what it all added up to.

Another time.

Destination Moon

N/A (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, digital)

Same here - I was tired and full of snot, I'd gotten about as far as caffeine was going to take me, and it was something like three in the morning. Older-movie pacing and the clipped delivery of serious mid-twentieth-century men wasn't going to do it.

Not helping the impression was that this was a situation where there were two of a few things in this marathon, and a second "first trip to the moon that features drawing matchsticks to see who stays behind" was one more than I needed, especially since this wasn't as good a movie as Frau im Mond. But, they wanted to program something to go with the Chesley Bonestell documentary, and this fit that the best.

Source Code

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, 35mm)

Speaking of doubling up, the festival had a print of Duncan Jones's Moon earlier in the week, and I kind of wish I'd made time for it; Source Code is a reminder that he's closer to the top tier of science fiction/fantasy filmmakers than you might recall. He's able to dig into a strange situation and make the audience feel at home as well as anybody, even if it's meant to be unnerving, on the way to a pretty darn good thriller.

Also: Michelle Monaghan needs to be in more things. Maybe she is and they're just winding up on streaming services, but it kind of boggles my mind that she never became a big star after Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. There's a certain amount of missed-star potential to Jake Gyllenhaal as well, but this movie kind of shows him as maybe being too naturally eccentric to really be a leading man.

What I thought back in '11


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, DCP)

This may have been my first time seeing this since its theatrical release, which is weird, because I loved it more the first time through than I had loved another movie for a while, and given how I got a similar vibe off Annihilation last year, it might have been due for a revisit.

On a second viewing, yeah, I absolutely find the slasher ending a bit messy, especially when compared to how arty Boyle makes the execution at spots. Much like Annihilation, I think that's at least part of the point - coming this close to the sun, all too well aware of their mission's impossible stakes, the filmmakers are trying to show the audience that all sorts of madness are not just likely but inevitable here, but a guy just going nuts and killing people seems almost prosaic next to the overwhelming power of the sun.

Still, heck of a cast, memorable sights, and a genuine feeling of desperation to the all-life-on-Earth stakes. That last bit doesn't come across as well as it could sometimes - it's just too big and the monomania Chris Evans's Mace displays of monomania are usually reserved for smaller things, so it's almost surprising that they actually work at an appropriate scale.

My 2007 review at EFilmCritic

Escape From New York

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2019 in Somerville Theatre #1 (SF/44, DCP)

I must admit, there's a level on which I like this movie's sequel more than the original; Escape from L.A. is up front about its satirical intent, and if this one is playing the same sort of game, it's bone-dry parody that can easily be mistaken for the real thing. Escape From New York feels serious despite playing on thin stereotypes, not quite getting the vibe where the lawless prison of Manhattan is vibrant and free compared to the outside. Heck, Snake Plissken is a stereotype himself, a bad-ass action caricature that we'd snicker at a filmmaker trying to present as a worthy protagonist otherwise. Even when you can see them playing it broad, it doesn't feel like jokes.

On the other hand, this group is just so darn good; John Carpenter, Debra Hill, Nick Castle, and Kurt Russell have made plenty of great movies in various combinations, and they've got a good cast with them. This film may not completely deserve its reputation as a classic - or maybe it's just more a relic of its time than it initially appeared to be - but it's still a solid B movie: A clever idea that combines capable execution with moments when it at least touches what it's capable of.

No comments: