Tag: fantasy/science fiction

Festival Review: IFF Boston Screenings

Though my various work commitments kept me from experiencing the full festival, I was able to take in four films at the Independent Film Festival of Boston, and they were all varying levels of good! I’m kind of behind on blogging so I decided to compile all my festival reviews together into one post, so they’ll be short.

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First up was my number one priority, Obvious Child. Based on the short of the same name, the film stars Jenny Slate as Donna, an aspiring stand-up comedian who loses her boyfriend and her job back-to-back. After wallowing for a bit she allows herself a one-night stand with a cute but fairly strait-laced boy named Max (Jake Lacey), whom she meets at the bar where she performs. A short time later she realizes she is pregnant, and decides to get an abortion as she is not ready (personally or financially) to be a parent. In the weeks before the procedure she renews contact with Max and they sort of think about dating, but she struggles with telling him about the results of their first night together.

Obvious Child is basically the kind of pro-choice romantic comedy I wanted it to be- it’s just a genuinely enjoyable, relatable film with a hilarious performance from Slate and a lot of ladycentric positivity. It did a good job of stretching the premise of the short to feature-length without overcomplicating the story. The script treats abortion as a regular thing, something many women experience (in fact, all three main women characters in this movie have had it), and it isn’t seeking to become an “issue” movie. It’s just part of the story. Essentially, it’s all a showcase for Slate, who is so so so so funny and I hope she has an amazing comedy career. A neat bit of trivia about this movie is I know someone who was an extra! They filmed one of the later scenes at the Planned Parenthood where my friend Sammy used to work, and she’s in the background of some shots. Cool, huh?

 

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Two nights later I caught my second-most priority film, Dear White People. Set at a fictional Ivy League school, the film tracks the events leading up to a so-called “riot” at an on-campus party through the eyes of four black students. Sam (Tessa Thompson) is an aspiring filmmaker whose notorious radio “Dear White People” mocks contemporary race relations. Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is a quiet writer seeking a place to fit in- feeling cut off from both the gay and black communities but hoping to make friends at the school newspaper. Coco (Teyonah Paris), who doesn’t accept Sam’s aggressive stance, dreams of being a reality star, and works to create a persona to make herself more viable. Troy (Brandon P Bell) is a popular poli-sci major who wants to try comedy writing, but is pushed into more distinguished extracurricular activities by his father (Dennis Haysbert), the dean of students. Their fates become intertwined at an ill-conceived party held by an elite house full of white assholes, technically “hip hop” themed but really just an excuse for white people to mimic black stereotypes and in some cases don blackface.

Biting in its satire and liberally sprinkled with both regular jokes and meta-jokes, Dear White People is a telling glimpse into race relations on American campuses while also being a fantastic film in general. It’s funny and fast-paced, a little bit cheesy at the right parts and subtle in its analysis of the many intersections of race, class, gender, history, and prejudice. The protagonists are navigating a tricky environment, trying to find where they feel comfortable while understanding the pre-conceived notions held by their peers as well as their elders. The film is about all those deep-seated assumptions we all carry with us, so deeply ingrained in our society we don’t always realize they’re there. Writer/director Justin Simien tackles these issues with wit and heart, and an interesting juxtaposition of under- and over-statement. I loved the cast (who are all insanely attractive), the script, and the style, and came out of it thinking about my own experiences in college and those of my friends of color. Ultimately I loved it, but recognized that I’m not really who this movie is for. Which is actually great.

ALSO! I have to mention how excited I was to see Malcolm Barrett in a supporting role. He is one of my (many) favorite things about Better Off Ted.

 

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I followed up Dear White People almost immediately with Ti West’s The Sacrament, a big shift in both tone and cast diversity since it’s mostly about white dudes. This found-footage thriller stars Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, and Kentucker Audley as VICE journalists investigating a mysterious cult that began in the United States but moved to an unknown jungle location (presumably in South America) to build a utopian commune. Their leader (Gene Jones), known only as “Father”, is an intelligent Southern gentleman who preaches tolerance, togetherness, and living off the land. Their world seems like a paradise- indeed, many of their inhabitants call it just that- but, as with all cults I guess, there’s a seedy underbelly waiting to be exposed.

Generally employing the found-footage angle well (except for one big misstep at the end that really bothered me), The Sacrament builds gradually into a really fucked up finish, which I guess is Ti West’s basic style of filmmaking. It’s interesting for its showing-but-not-telling kind of approach, dropping hints as to what is really going on in the commune but rarely coming and saying it. The supporting cast is excellent, with the creepy-charismatic Gene Jones and the incredibly versatile Amy Seimetz. I thought the main characters were all kind of boring though, like there’s nothing memorable about them. They’re just these regular kinda bro-y white dudes, and I wasn’t especially invested in their plight. But the story surrounding them is engaging enough that I would recommend the movie as a whole. The final sequence is some intense shit, my god.

 

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The closing film of the festival was Mood Indigo, Michel Gondry’s latest feature. Based on the novel by Boris Vian, the movie focuses on Colin (Romain Duris), an independently wealthy layabout who coasts by on charm and magical realism. He meets and immediately falls for Chloé (Audrey Tatou), and they marry after six months together. They have a grand time living, hanging out with Colin’s multi-talented lawyer-chef Nicolas (Omar Sy) and other eccentric friends, but then Chloé contracts a mysterious illness and things take a turn. The film progresses steadily from a light-hearted romantic comedy into a hopeless tragedy, with the colors literally sapped away by the final scenes.

I’ve always loved Gondry’s visual sensibilities, his techniques and special effects and sheer imagination are just wonderful, so I’m always happy to see one of his narrative features on a big screen. Mood Indigo is whimsical as fuck, incorporating all kinds of weird cutesy effects- including stop motion animation, time lapse, forced perspective, and color shifts. I loved the bizarre lecture with enigmatic writer Partre, the animated food, the behind-the-scenes typists who wrote Colin’s story, the encroaching fungal growth that filled the house as Chloé’s illness worsened. I could tell its tonal switch didn’t work for a lot of the audience, who were surprised and confused by the totally downer ending. I had been warned it was a really sad movie so I was ready for it. I didn’t mind the shift so much, because to me it was an interesting experiment in style- we know how Gondry’s whimsical point of view can give us comedy and romance, but how does it reflect tragedy? How do these magical, saccharine elements work themselves into a sadder story? What did bother me was how shallow the whole affair felt, how little we actually know about these characters, and yet we’re supposedly meant to care about them and their problems by the end. It’s not like I hated it, but I enjoyed it almost purely on a visual level, recognizing that the story itself was barely there if you stripped away the stylish narrative techniques.

Movie Review: Phantasm (1979)

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Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from netflix.

After his parents die, feathery-haired teenager Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) suffers from nightmares. His older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) is left to take care of him, but when one of Jody’s friends dies Mike spies on the funeral and becomes convinced that something weird is going down at the cemetery. After some reconnaissance, he determines that the sinister mortician- known only as “The Tall Men” and played with relish by Angus Scrimm- is stealing corpses for some unknown (but likely nefarious) purpose, and he commands a legion of dwarfish demons who help defend the funeral parlor. In fear for their own lives, Mike, Jody, and their friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) decide to investigate and, if possible, take down The Tall Man and his minions.

Phantasm has been on my radar for a while, but once I finally got around to watching it I realized I didn’t actually know much about it, aside from my previous Don Coscarelli experiences with John Dies at the End and Bubba Ho-Tep. It proved to be a wholly different thing than anything I could have anticipated. It begins as a fairly standard 70s horror-thriller, partnering its low budget effects with a dank, gritty aesthetic and sub-standard acting, with nods to Argento and Ray Bradbury. It’s basically just lots of fluffy hair and bell bottoms and a few boobs, all set to a spooky synth soundtrack. But then it starts to pump up the surrealism and everything gets nice and weird, with a never-explained flying death ball, inter-dimensional travel, and yellow blood. I loved the crazy visuals at the funeral parlor- the interior is gorgeously stark and the effects are nicely realized. The climactic sequence is a bizarre, intense, unpredictable excursion through the Tall Man’s traps, and it somewhat makes up for the so-so plotting leading up to it.

There was a lot for me to like in Phantasm, and it’s definitely an impressive feature for limited budget and a 25-year-old writer/director. But I can’t say I loved it. It’s uneven in both narrative and tone, it meanders blandly for most of its first half, and its characters are super boring. Like I just didn’t care that much about Jody and Mike, they’re just these dumb guys who continually rush head-first into a weird paranormal situation, assuming that guns and a can-do attitude will keep them safe. Idiots. I kept hoping that psychic lady from the beginning would come help them, but Coscarelli clearly decided there wasn’t any room in this movie for women characters, since there’s maybe about 10 minutes total with any women onscreen. And two of them are ditzes. And one of them isn’t even real.

I was generally very into that ending though. The wind effect with the barrels? And the dimensional portal? So cool. And I’ll be the first to admit that the Tall Man is fucking creepy, and I looked over my shoulder once or twice later on to make sure he hadn’t followed me out of the movie. These things have been known to happen.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: It definitely put me in mind of contemporary low-budget horror-thrillers like Halloween. Or its weirdness reminded me of Beyond the Black Rainbow, which has deliberate 70s/80s horror vibes.

Movie Review: Under the Skin (2014) at 366 Weird Movies

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Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge.

Gradually paced and exquisitely shot, Under the Skin is a strange, dark, and thoughtful story about an alien who hunts unsuspecting single men in Scotland. Johansson is delightfully off-putting in the main role, impressively communicating a sense of the inhuman, aided by a tense, ethereal score and memorable visuals. It’s a little like The Man Who Fell to Earth but with less talking. I wrote a full review of the film for 366 Weird Movies, please head over there and check it out!

Festival Review: The Congress (2014)

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Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, part of the Boston Underground Film Festival.

Beginning in an almost-real version of the real world, The Congress centers on Robin Wright, playing struggling actress Robin Wright, once-beloved star of The Princess Bride whose career has gone sour after years of missed roles and bad film choices. Now in her 40s, Robin devotes much of her time caring for her sick teenaged son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is slowly losing his hearing and sight. When a cruel producer (Danny Huston) offers her an unbelievable contract, she decides to take it, resulting in her entire self being digitized. Her digital likeness is taken over by a studio conglomerate, which uses it to make new movies starring a younger, malleable, no-personal-melodrama version of Robin Wright, while the real one is no longer allowed to act. Twenty years later, she meets with the company to negotiate a new contract, but finds that the world is changing faster than she anticipated, with a new chemical process that allows humans to view the world as a cartoon, changing themselves and everything around them through drug-fueled imagination.

Positioning its characters between the contrasting poles of heartbreaking realism and completely bonkers fantasy, The Congress juggles a multitude of ideas but manages to present a fairly cohesive story. By grounding his tale with a real-life protagonist, the actress Robin Wright, Folman is able to gradually incorporate stranger and stranger concepts, with the final destination barely resembling the starting point. The world he creates is definitely weird, distinguished by its ever-fluctuating landscape and psychedelic colors, populated by people who are limited only by the reach of their imaginations. The animation retains the superficial sheen and flatness of Folman’s previous film, Waltz with Bashir, but the visual style varies, overwhelming the viewer with different aesthetics and effects, conveying the befuddlement felt by Wright when she enters this unfamiliar animated world.

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I loved it, but it’s not without its flaws. The animation just works, stringing together multiple influences and references but almost distracting me with that Flash-style feel, where everything is sort of disassociated. The story is all over the place, jumping across decades at different points to reflect the extreme changes in society, and attempting to simultaneously focus on Wright’s personal experiences of caring for (and later trying to locate) her son as well as the structure of this crazy future. But somehow it all mostly works, with Wright remaining strong as the protagonist whose confused perspective comes to mirror the audience’s. The whole thing is an emotional experience, weird and funny and satirical and inventive and honestly rather touching. I could tell that some people in the audience were left with a “Huh?” reaction, but I walked out feeling inspired and moved.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: I don’t know. I’m just drawing a blank here for any other movie, though I’m sure there are a few sci-fi ones that would be good. It’s up to you, I guess.

Movie Review: The Apple (1980)

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Seen: On my tv, streamed from netflix instant.

This was recommended to me a month or so ago by my friend Ben, who could tell it would be 100% My Thing. Set in a dystopian version of 1994, The Apple offers a twisted take on the Adam and Eve tale set to a host of dazzling disco dance sequences. In a world controlled by music producer Mr Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal) and his glammed-up music group BIM, folk singers Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Alphie (George Gilmour) dream of sharing their nostalgic love songs with the world. Instead, Bibi falls under Mr Boogalow’s spell (against Alphie’s better judgment), and in a haze of iridescent outfits and drugs she rises to stardom while he sinks into poverty. After a few musical montages they realize they still love each other and Bibi attempts to break away from the totalitarian music industrial complex with the help of some magical hippies.

Throwing oodles of shiny spandex and glitter at its audience at every turn, The Apple is a weird blend of biblical references, biting satire, and enthusiastic musical numbers. It’s delightfully bizarre, and wonderfully self-aware, making for an ultimately funny experience. I loved the combination of over-the-top glitzy visuals and decidedly low-budget grit, kind of perfect for this futuristic world dominated by a music industry that brainwashes the working class. Honestly, this world seemed kind of awesome to me, I mean the main laws Mr Boogalow enforced involved requisite sequin accessories and mandatory daily dance breaks. What a fun future! Plus BIM’s music is really catchy!

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I know this is probably the kind of movie people watch just to make fun of, but I’m pretty sure it’s not “so bad it’s good”, I think it’s just… good. Like this movie isn’t accidentally funny or anything, it’s intentionally weird and ridiculous, and I loved that about it. The cast is pretty great, singing their hearts out and shaking their best body parts, with Allan Love and Grace Kennedy standing out as the lead singers of BIM, sporting all the best sparkly revealing fashions. The adorable Catherine Mary Stewart, whom I’ve crushed on since Night of the Comet, makes her film debut as Bibi, and perfectly captures that “corrupted ingénue” thing while making crimped hair look good. George Gilmour is probably the weak link, just because he’s so boring. I think I liked Vladek Sheybal best as the devilish Mr Boogalow, he’s all dapper and ambiguously “foreign” as he spouts out manipulative bullshit in multiple languages.

I guess this is just yet another example of me legitimately enjoying a movie that most people watch just to make fun of. WHATEVER. The Apple is seriously great, a fun and odd blend of musical, comedic, biblical, and sci-fi elements. I loved the music and visual style, and the self-aware script. I was most impressed with how prescient it felt, like I could name at least five sci-fi movies that seemed to steal from this. Or at least borrow. Thank goodness The Apple exists, it apparently paved the way for everything that came after it.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: I imagine there’s some crossover between fans of this film and fans of Phantom of the Paradise, and that would be an awesome combination. I also think it’d be great to pair with Shock Treatment, since a lot of the same themes are explored but through television as opposed to music.