I just saw a program of science fiction/fantasy short films at a local revival theater. A couple I'd seen before, a couple I'd heard of, and the rest were new to me. As might be expected, they were a mixed bag.
It's an OK Life is an animated short chronicling the life of a man born in 1999. It's brief, fairly funny, indifferently animated, and painless.
Sam's Arcade is a Canadian film, product of the infamous Film Board of Canada. Sometimes it seems to me like they'll produce anything if the animation technique is even moderately innovative. That is the only reason I can see for Sam's Arcade. As best I can make out, it's about a fellow who has some slightly sf-toned nightmares when he eats food near bedtime. Years ago, Winston McCay made an interesting animated film on this theme, taken from the Little Nemo comic strip. Sam's Arcade isn't at all interesting. It uses a rotoscoping technique somewhat similar to the Eleanor Rigby sequence from Yellow Submarine, but apparently different enough to gouge some money out of the pockets of Canadian taxpayers. (No flames about the good works of the Canadian Film Board, please. They've done some good stuff, but too much of their output is self-indulgence in technique.)
Contact is a Russian animated film about an alien encountering a human artist out in the country. It's modestly amusing, modestly animated, just plain modest overall. The biggest laugh may come from the film's insistent use of the love theme from The Godfather, a film I would bet never saw release in the USSR. I'd also bet Nino Rota, who wrote the theme, didn't see a penny for its use in Contact.
The centerpiece of the program, indeed, its reason for existence, was Futureopolis, a homemade 40 minute science fiction extravaganza. Almost all of it is animated, much of it in pixillation. For those not up on animation terminology, pixillation is a technique in which live actors are photographed a frame at a time. You shoot one frame, the actors move slightly, you prepare for the next shot, shoot one more frame, and so on. At twenty four frames per second, pixillation isn't easy. I'm not quite sure why they chose to use so much pixillation, unless it is for consistency of tone. Much of the film could have been shot as live action, saving a lot of effort.
Futureopolis cost somewhere between $20,000 and $40,000 to make, and took 9 years to complete. It contains some impressive effects, a lot of pretty good effects, only a few really bad ones. There are also some very funny bits. It is, however, ultimately a cinematic equivalent of Dr. Johnson's dancing dog: the remarkable thing about it isn't that it's good, but that it works at all. I doubt if $40,000 dollars has been made to go so far for quite some time in a film, but the ideas behind the film are weak. It's meant to be sort of a Buck Rogers spoof, but those making it know much more about art and special effects than they do about writing. The hard core science fiction film fan will definitely want to watch for Futureopolis. Others will probably enjoy it well enough if they stumble across it, but shouldn't worry about missing it.
Highrise is another pointless demonstration of good special effects. A spacecraft rips a skyscraper out of the ground and drops it in the middle of the desert, nearly crushing a parched man crawling along looking for water. It's very short and the effects are pretty good.
The Plant is one of the films I've seen before, and I commented on it in this newsgroup about a year and a half ago. Briefly, it's the story of a plant that takes over a man's house. Well worth seeing, as it is wittily told.
Nun Fu has an irresistable title and a neat pseudo-sf premise, set up in a lengthy precredit crawl which had the audience in hysterics. Unfortunately, the inventiveness flags quickly and the film lasts much too long. A couple of martial artist nuns try to wrest a briefcase from each other. The idea is funny for three or four minutes, but the film drags it out another ten minutes, and tries to get laughs time and again from having one of the combatants return from seemingly fatal wounds to take another shot at it. None the less, any film with this title which claims to have been shot on location at the Vatican and which lists Travis Bickle as the religious advisor can't be all bad.
Cambium is a weird, brief series of strange images. In some ways it is reminiscent of Eraserhead, perhaps in part because it is in black and white. I didn't understand it, but it was interesting. Since it's very short, I doubt if anyone will be much put out by it, unless the odd symbolism is deciphered by someone and turns out to be as offensive as it vaguely hints.
The last film was Quest, which I had also seen before. Directed by Saul and Elaine Bass, this was the only film in the program which really looked professional. It even looked pretty good for a professional film. Saul Bass has been a widely recognized creator of opening credit sequences for films for some years. He also directed Phase IV, an ecological disaster film involving ants and dazzling scenic design. The effects in Quest are first rate, especially the sets which are produced in a variety of ways. The story, by Ray Bradbury, isn't special, but gives many opportunities for interesting effects. The real flaw in Quest is that it plays more like an audition film than a work of its own. None the less, the splendid effects and scenic design make it worth seeing.
There seem to be plans afoot to make these films into a package which will be sent around the country, in the same manner as various animation collections. If you are deeply into SF, or special effects, or animation, you might want to watch out for the package. None of the films in it are so special that they demand attention, but they make an interesting assortment. The whole runs only about two hours, and most of the films are under ten minutes, so even the low points are bearably short and the concept doesn't outlive its welcome.
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