DUCK DODGERS IN THE 24TH 1/2 CENTURY
The classic way to open the Marathon is with the Atomic Fireball Countdown and then Duck Dodgers. Garen (or, since we were doing a split marathon this year in two theaters, Major Tom) hollers "Fireballs up!" and we all count down from 10 and then pop the Atomic Fireball at zero to blast off and for the next forty-five minutes, the entire theater smells of cinnamon red-hots.
Some years Duck Dodgers comes to us differently. One year, for the Time Travel marathon, we watched it threaded backwards. One year he just didn't show up at all, and that garnered such a hue and cry that the next year's Limerick Competition was dominated with Duck Dodgers-themed limericks. He's become the de facto mascot of the Marathon, even moreso than the boxes of Rice Chex and Wheat Chex (don't ask.) Everybody knows the lines, everybody cheerfully chants along ("Can you do it... Dodgers?") ("Got the drop on you now with my Disintegrating Ray and brother, when it disintegrates, it disintegrates!") and everybody hollers DUCK DODGERS, IN THE TWENTY-FOURTH AND A HALF CENTURY! when prompted. It's comfortable and it's cozy and it's familiar and Marvin the Martian is in it, too. It basically represents all that is holy, good and fun about the Marathon. That's the way things should be.
Garen always likes to open the Marathon with a commercially big film, so this year we got the Matrix. I hadn't seen it on the big screen since 1999, and haven't watched it at home for a year or so now. And after the two dismal sequels, I was struck by just how good the original was, and how good it is as a self-contained film. Sure, it's still got some lousy stinky flaws, such as the love-conquers-all kind of ending (come on, the Trinity/Neo romance just looks and feels so awfully contrived) but the thick dialogue was nothing compared to the crap we had to slog through in Reloaded and Revolutions. And the fight scenes are still a rush to watch.
I also noticed that in this first film, the product placements are at a minimum. I think the phones were the big advertising point in the original Matrix (I remember those flip-out models being trendy and popular for approximately an hour and a half after the film's release.) When Neo and Agent Smith fight down in the subway station, the posters on the walls are all ripped beyond all recognition, with the exception of one bizarre Hewlett-Packard logo which makes its appearance right before Smith gets flattened by the oncoming train. Compare this to the subway station in Revolutions (not the purgatory-like station) which, if memory serves, was plastered with Powerade ads left and right. So it goes.
It all brings me to my Theory Of The Matrix Films, which holds that, after the unexpected success of the first, Los Bros Wachowski realized the potential they had and announced "Uh... yeah! Of course we're going to do sequels. In fact, we were going to do sequels all along! There's a... story arc! Yeah! One big story arc that's gonna take at least two movies to finish. So yeah." They then retired to a hotel room for a weekend, armed with a typewriter and several bottles of Scotch, and proceeded to try and hammer out enough of a story to fill two more movies.
Search your feelings. You know this to be true.
THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL
"Formerly entitled I Was A Teenage Love Slave, formerly entitled Thirty Days In The African Veldt With Ursula." This joke only makes sense when you see the title card for the Captain Marvel serial. Anyway. This year we got the last two episodes of this amazing adventure serial, featuring young Billy Batson who goes through an amazing puberty change when he says the word "Shazam!" and turns into Captain Marvel, big guy who likes running around in tights. We dutifully prompted Billy into saying "Shazam!" whenever there was a spot of trouble ("Say it... c'mon! Say it!") and some of us helped him say it too with Gomer Pyle voices.
Young Batson accompanies his sidekick Whitey, a beautiful girl whose name I forget, and several archaeologist-types who are going after a hidden Egyptian tomb. The Egyptian tomb is hidden so well that when they eventually find it, it's located right underneath a dormant volcano. The land is also ruled by a band of men who look like they're supposed to be Arabs, but they worship some god named The Scorpion ("The Scorpion", by the way, is billed in the credits as himself.) The Scorpion manifests himself to the "natives" in the form of a man with an executioner's hood and two gaudy scorpions on his robe but, of course, is just some bad guy who wants to control the people, and Captain Marvel unmasks him just as he should, and everybody's happy in the end, and the Arab-like people get back to worshipping their Scorpion dude or something. Who knows. It's just hilarious to watch Captain Marvel run and take a flying leap off-screen to pretend he's taking off.
THE GIANT CLAW
Now this is perfect schlocky science fiction served to us in brilliant black and white, just like we like it. The sad part was that this beautiful print was loaned to us by a private collector and, well, it had a bit of an accident halfway through. The film burnt and melted in the projector. I am sure the collector is devastated. I hope he still lends us more films in the future if we promise that won't happen again.
It was great to have this film second in the Marathon because it got the audience in a great mood. It was just gleefully bad, from the excessive narration in the beginning to the horrible "chemistry" between the two leads (they have this bizarre flirtatious talk involving baseball metaphors and "stealing Second" and... gads, the guy looked like a rumpled old greasy salesman and she looked like an Aunt) to the incredibly hilarious Giant Claw, which was attached to a giant bird that looked like a Sid & Marty Krofft pinata. It was a buzzard, with hilarious google eyes and flaring nostrils. (Someone wrote, on the giant doodle sheets that the Marathon has every year, "THE GIANT CLAW: FILMED IN PINATA-VISION") Apparently the special effects came from an outfit in Mexico.
The scientific theories in the film were also great. Apparently the bird comes from a place in outerspace that's comprised entirely of anti-matter, so the bird is made of anti-matter, and that's why our "conventional weapons" won't hit it. So to defeat it, we must shoot atoms at him that are comprised of an entirely different atomic structure than the atoms we have now in our world, and then he can be hit by guns. Oh, of course!
We had a running joke in my theater (the Wheat Chex theater) started early on by someone on the left-hand side. One of the characters mentions the menacing shape they saw was "the size of a battleship." This prompted the person on the left-hand side, who I have it on authority to have probably been Major Tom, to holler "BATTLESHIP!!" Well, it was all over after that. Apparently battleships were used as the constant unit of measurement in the 50s, for it was repeated a lot and soon we were all hollering "BATTLESHIP!" after every occurrence. Sometimes we just hollered it for no reason. And, of course, when the big buzzard finally does go down, landing in the ocean, it gave us the perfect opportunity to all holler "YOU JUST SUNK MY BATTLESHIP!"
Oh, good times, good times...
The other best heckle came when a scientist on screen wondered "where did that big bird come from?" Some helpful audience member suggested Sesame Street.
The Mysterious White-Haired Girl showed up during this film. She sat next to me because there was a free seat. I didn't talk to her, but she laughed at all the ironic parts, made note of all the scientific parts, and generally had a good time. I was appreciative. She was cool, but she was also an enigma; she got up and disappeared after Have Rocket, Will Travel. Maybe she found the person she was supposed to be seeing the films with? I wasn't being obnoxious, was I? Of course not. I wasn't loud or snorty or messy. I guess I'll never know.
This film was a complete surprise to me. I had never even heard about it until the Marathon lineup was announced, so I went in with no notion of any of it except the bare plot outline -- that a dish in Australia was used to receive the televised images from Apollo 11 during the moon landing in 1969.
I wasn't around for that. The closest I ever got to a "big space exploration moment" was the first Space Shuttle missions in the early 80s, and we elementary schoolers were herded into the gym and forced to watch hours of interminable pre-mission news reports before the final countdown and blastoff, and we all cheered and then went back to our rooms and colored pictures of space shuttles shooting aliens or something. I know that the first moon landing was an incredibly momentous event, even moreso than a shuttle launch, but it wasn't illustrated properly to me until this film.
The moon landing has captivated the world. We see that in The Dish. We see the entire town of Parkes, Australia, completely and utterly entranced by the upcoming launch and landing. But they've got a vested interest in the mission, as their town is host to the largest radio dish in the southern hemisphere (located smack dab in the middle of a sheep pasture.) NASA is relying on this dish to relay images and audio when their own dish in California is out of range. Parkes, naturally, is estatic about the attention. The Prime Minister will be there to watch the landing. The American ambassador will also show up, and everything is to go as smoothly and effortlessly as planned. Right?
Well, it wouldn't be a human comedy if that were the case, and watching our dish operators scramble to find solutions for the problems that pop up is half the fun of the movie. (There's a particularly genius moment where Patrick Warburton, who ably plays the American NASA envoy working at the dish, comes up with a simple way to locate the Apollo 11 capsule, which the operators had lost during a freak blackout.) The characters are all humorous, as befits a comedy, like a quirky little Northern Exposure-like group of townsfolk, but they're never played for malicious laughs or overt sterotypes. The dish's security guard, for example, is a man who so sincerely leaps into his role as protector of the site that just after he designates every area of the dish as its own sector, he goes back and re-assigns all the sector letters for efficiency. The mayor's daughter is a cynical girl just out of the idealistic 60s mindset, and Warburton's response (and her reaction to the response) when she confrontationally asks if the moon mission was CIA-funded is priceless.
There's no bad guy in The Dish. Conflicts are resolved. Lost space capsules are found. The landing happens and the Parkes dish brings the televised images to the world. When this happens, the film lets the actual footage take over, and you realize why everybody was enthralled. It's a powerful set of images and audio, a beautiful suite of interstellar drama. Now I know what the big deal was. It's wonderful. You feel uplifted and happy afterwards, even if the ending doesn't go out of its way to uplift. I recommend The Dish to anybody who hasn't seen it yet.
Several people grumbled that The Dish wasn't true science-fiction and thus didn't have much of a reason to be in the Marathon. To this I say pish-tosh and nonsense. The Dish showed a great scientific achievement in the history of the world, one that had before inspired many stories and concepts. And besides, there are enough people in the world right now who believe the moon landings really were science fiction, so let's indulge them, shall we?
HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL
This Three Stooges feature (their first full-length feature film) was produced well after the Stooges' prime, after they lost the rights to their original shorts and wanted to recoup some kind of money after television brought a new fame to them. Unfortunately, the Stooges involved (Larry, Moe, and Curly Joe DeRita) are all much older than they should be to be performing the physical acts of abuse that are the Stooges trademark. Really. When they were 30 years old or whatever, taking a shovel to the head was no big deal. But when they're pushing 60, criminy, it's like watching your grandfathers fight or something. You're worried Larry's gonna break a hip when he goes down. It was ultimately really, really, really sad.
And the plot don't help things much, either -- the boys are bumbling janitors at some science lab, and they swear to help keep a beautiful scientist named Ingrid from losing her job, so they fill a rocket with super rocket fuel (devised after Larry tries to make coffee and adds sugar to the fuel mixture instead) and of course get trapped in it and it blasts off and off they go to Venus.
On Venus they encounter a giant tarantula that shoots fire at them, an invisible form of energy who has no friends so he makes robot duplicates of the Stooges, and a talking unicorn who speaks in a thee-and-thou form of Olde English. Don't ask.
The film ends with the Stooges back on Earth, heroes for being the first men in space. Of course, they are feted at a high society party, and you'd think this would be the perfect opportunity for a pie fight or somesuch brand of shenanigans, as the Stooges are really at their best when their lowbrow gets to mop the floor with the highbrow, but noooooooooo. Curly Joe reprises the spring-in-butt dance moves that Curly got to do before, there's a fracas for no apparent reason, and the boys escape in a spaceship with their talking unicorn pal while the evil robotic Stooges show up to menace the hoity-toity folk. Talk about an unfocused ending? Oh, and there's a pie in the end, right in Moe's face. For laughs. Only it doesn't work.
So yeah, it was really sad. I like the older Stooges shorts for many reasons, but this certainly had no charm at all. It also didn't help that there was a musical number at the beginning, middle and end of the film, and it involved the same damn song.
28 DAYS LATER
I watched half this movie, having skipped out for the first half to try and find some dinner. There was a restaurant called Odessa which I'd heard served great Russian food, but in true Russian fashion I waited for 20 minutes only to receive no service whatsoever. I couldn't find any waitstaff in the upstairs dining room, and there wasn't even a bartender at the bar. There were people eating in the dining room, which suggests the existence of waitstaff, but perhaps they'd been sent to the gulag or something in the interim. Not wanting to waste any more time (I wanted to get back before Krazy's Race of Time) I went back to the street the theater was on, found a cheap Chinese place, and had some chicken curry noodles or something that seemed to hit the spot.
When I returned to the movie, the virus had taken over and the remaining groups of humans were holed up in some estate near Manchester. I quickly ascertained who the protagonists were, I watched the zombies attack (very nice treatment of the infected; the camera on them was ... what's the word I'm looking for? Overexposed? Higher exposure time? Fast-cranked? Something?) to make them look inhumanly fast and lurchy. The gore was expected, but the interplay between survivors was not. The protagonists leave the guarded estate when they realize their idea of survival doesn't mesh with the militaristic operation manning the estate (they wanted the two women in the protagonist group for breeding purposes) and there's a lot of zombie fighting and stroby chase sequences in a thunderstorm and people getting mauled up in nice ways) and then there were two endings.
I'd heard they tacked an alternate ending on the film after release, and I was kinda hoping it was an alternate to the admittedly optimistic Hollywood-esque ending we saw first, but it wasn't what I expected. I was expecting a desolate ending a la Night of the Living Dead, where the last survivor of the besieged house is mistaken for a zombie by the army and shot dead, but the 28 Days Later ending wasn't like that. It was depressing, but not that depressing. So, in a way, it was depressing that the movie's ending wasn't depressing enough. Got it? Ok, good. We can move on.
KRAZY'S RACE OF TIME
I was looking forward to this, as it was touted as a "Krazy Kat cartoon spoofing newsreels of the future." Well, that it was -- only the Krazy Kat in this cartoon wasn't the George Herimann Krazy Kat. It was a Felix the Cat-esque creation, with a bow around its neck and a propensity for surreal wackiness. The surreal wackiness was great, though, and the short's portrayal of life in 1999 was very funny. (Everybody lives suspended in mid-air above the Earth due to crowding, and homes fly around on propellers, and you wear propeller beanies to walk about, and the guy who tips his hat at every lady ends up descending offscreen...)
All in all, though, a cute short and a beautiful print.
This independent film was made by a fellow named Greg Pak, who was at the theater after the film screened to answer questions. This is what I like about the Marathon, as we've had guest directors speak before. When Greg got up after the film, which was received very very well by the Marathon audience, you could tell he was so psyched to have seen the film go over with an appreciative, science-fiction loving audience. And for good reason; the film was damn fine science fiction.
Robot Stories is a quartet of tales, told anthology-style, like a Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov collection. The stories are far more Bradbury in feel than Asimov; stories of science interfering with (or helping) real basic human problems like loneliness or existential angst. The first segment, for example, has a couple taking care of a robot baby in preparation for adopting a real one; the problems which the robot baby presents seem outlandish and alien to the human mother, even though they're true mechanical parallels to what babies do (when the robot got anxious, its little claws reached out to grab Mom; when it reached the toddler stage, it ran amok in the house, trashing the place and scaring the mother out of her wits.)
The second story deals with robots as toys, and an estranged mother attempts to finish a robot collection for her comatose twentysomething son, in the hopes that the completion of the collection will wake him from his coma. Human grief is shown here through a collector's eyes, and the bargaining stage of the Kubler-Ross cycle is all too painfully spelled out. This bittersweet segment, I think, hit home the most to the science fiction crowd, many of whom have their own beloved collections of memorabilia or whatnot. Pak pulls no punches with his stories, and good science-fiction shouldn't.
The third is the humorous one, injecting levity between two serious tales. A cyborg iPerson, cheerful humanoid office worker who dutifully bangs out code on the keyboard every time the computer gently intones "You have work" meets the iPerson who works in the adjacent office building. Together, using key phrases and gestures of interaction that they learned from watching their office workers, they flirt and fall in love. It's offbeat and bizarre, and the way the office workers treat the female iPerson is just horrible, but the segment is ultimately sweet.
The last segment is the one in the far-flung future, where the human brain can be cloned and simulated electronically. Your body may die, but your consciousness can last forever in artificial reality. An elderly potter (played wonderfully by Sab Shimono) faces his own mortality and the choice of whether or not to clone his brain for immortality. His wife is already in the AR construct, and she appears to him in hologram form when he's awake, and in virtual tactile reality when he sleeps (he appears as his youthful self, and they languish in connubial bliss.) She wants him to become a construct as well so they can live together forever; he feels that he was a selfish bastard in real life and doesn't deserve eternal bliss with his beloved. Their conversations are smart, poignant, and ultimately sad. He may achieve happiness. You won't know. The film ends on a real downer, though.
Another interesting bit about Robot Stories is that, being an independent film and all, Greg Pak cast a lot of friends and reused several actors and actresses in multiple segments. (Pak himself shows up as Archie, the iPerson in the third segment.) The film's cast is also predominantly Asian, which itself lends an interesting feel to the film experience. It was a wonderfully smart look at technology and basic human problems, and if you see Robot Stories playing near you, go and see it. It was a real treat to see.
It's karma, really. We couldn't have such brilliance as The Dish and Robot Stories without enduring a true steaming pile of cinematic shit, and Demonlover ably fills this role. What seriously irks me is that folks were complaining that The Dish was seemingly devoid of sci-fi content, and yet Demonlover has the barest hint of sci-fi in the form of NAUGHTY INTERNET WEBSITES, and we get to ruminate on that for two full hours.
Two full hours of boredom, tedium, French characters who speak in ciphers ("Is this how the French really speak?" asked someone near me in the audience. "I mean, can they even bother to form full sentences from time to time?") and some horribly gratutitous images of hentai porn. And not even good hentai porn, I'm talking poorly-animated tentacle rape and demonic monsters taking a girl from behind and walking her wheelbarrow-style. I'm talking 3D animated jiggly-boobed women in bikinis shooting the hell out of demons, so they can dance around and jiggle some more. I'm talking gratutitous images from the "Hellfire Club", an S&M website where subscribers suggest tortures for "Zora", the star of the site, who appears in a full-on leather Gimp bondage suit. One woman on the site is also dressed up as Wonder Woman and electrocuted on a metal bedframe and yeah, you see it. Yeah, this was some great science-fiction, all right.
The real problem is that all that naughty business is just the macguffin, the "deal" between two companies that various and sundry corporate saboteurs try to undo or steal for themselves. Our team of double and triple crossers include Connie Nielsen, who you may remember as the hot sister from Gladiator, Gina Gershon, who you may remember from, uh, Showgirls, and Chloe Sevigny, who we last saw giving ugly-ass Vincent Gallo a real live hummer onscreen at the end of The Brown Bunny. Sevigny is also a veteran of Harmony Korine's nihilistic pictures like Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy, so she's no stranger to dull, boring, soulless exercursions into the depths of human degradation and boredom. Pity the rest of us aren't. Sevigny also looks damn cute in this film stretched out on a bed, naked, playing a video game. Pity that scene lasts 30 seconds at most.
Amazingly enough, Chloe's pert, nude form is the only real sensual image in the film, which renders every other potentially-cool thing -- conspiracy theory, car chases, porn, hentai porn, lesbian porn, lesbian hentai porn, gunplay, sex with Connie Nielsen -- boring as hell. There are interminable stretches of travelogue in Tokyo where Connie Nielsen's character stares balefully out a car window as neon washes over it, scenes which worked so wonderfully in Lost in Translation because of the beauty and loneliness of it all. In Demonlover they're just boring because there is no beauty or empathy felt by the audience. Nielsen has meaningless, boring sex with some French dude near the end of the film, their flesh squeaking like two balloons rubbing together (horrible Foley work, that.) Right before sex, they eat sushi and yammer on for 20 minutes in that incomplete sentence French cipher form I was talking about earlier. Right after sex, Nielsen shoots the dude in the head and sobs. Guess what? I DON'T CARE. Nothing in the film is adequately explained, and every opportunity to do so is squandered.
There were several times during the film where I said "You know, everything would be much better if there was just, like, a horrific car crash right now." Well, right at the end my prayers are answered and there's a horrific car crash and you know what? IT'S A BORING CAR CRASH! It serves no purpose other than to get Connie Nielsen back into the arms of her kidnappers, who are ... DUN DUN DUNNNNNNN! the proprietors of the Hellfire Club website, and guess who is their new star attraction. After about fifty false fadeouts, which we all dutifully applauded in the vain hope that the film really was over, the film finally ends with an American teen stealing his dad's credit card, visiting the Hellfire Club site (which is supposed to be VERY, VERY, VERY hard to find, much less get into) and then writing a request to the site which looks like this, I swear to god, almost verbatim:
When you know, if this were really the Internet, he'd have written it like this:
k so u guyz should make zora like storm from the xmen and her powrz could b taken away plz & then put on a bed lol...
I was kind of hoping that maybe the Demonlover 3D hentai porn was really some kind of Snow Crash trojan in disguise, and that a character would watch it and get their brain fried, or that maybe James Woods would show up and pull a pistol from his gut and say "Hail the new flesh" and shoot everybody, but noooooo. Cause, like, that'd require imagination, see, and nobody in this movie fuckin has any. "Demonlover" is just the currency for some boring-ass metaphor for the soullessness of modern commerce or somesuch bullshit; at least that's what the director would have us believe. There's not a shred of science fiction to be found in this fetid abortion of a film, and it shouldn't have been included in the Marathon.
The weird thing was that there was a kid in my row about 11 or 12, who was at the Marathon for the first time with his mom. We'd been talking in between films, and he was here mostly to see the schlocky films and Godzilla, and his mom had mentioned she hadn't let him see the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But she let him watch Demonlover. And, truth be told, we hadn't been warned about exactly how graphic the film was going to be, and perhaps that was a real bad glaring oversight on Garen's part. (He usually does mention if a film's gonna be a bit racy, and he does save the racier films like Invasion of the Bee Girls for a late-night slot so there's a better chance the kids'll be sleeping through it, but Demonlover's graphic content really hit us all upside the head by surprise.)
At any rate, the mom slept right thru Demonlover but the kid watched it all. And he was just as bored as the rest of us.
Ok, it's late. I'll write the rest of the things tomorrow.