Hack To The Future: The Iron Man Film Festival

PrintE-mail Written by Christopher T. Miller

Filed April 15th, 2017

I’m back from the Iron Man Film Festival, and man, I’m exhausted.

A little history and context: the Iron Man Film Festival is the newest international film festival to join the circuit made up of other major festivals like Cannes and Sundance. At many of the others there is a sense of occasion, tuxes are purchased, red carpets are rolled out, deals are made and contracts are inked. At Iron Man, you’re better served with a pair of comfortable sweats and a twelve-pack of Red Bull. The Iron Man Festival, much like the race of the same name, is about endurance.

The Iron Man Film Festival was born last year about this time, when Robert Downey Jr. announced that he was working with Marvel (and therefore Disney) to create a media experience suitable to the younger generation of media consumers.  Unlike Cannes and Sundance, he would look beyond the major studios when making his selections. He (or rather, the staff of the festival) would mine the indie studios and the Internet for content. The Festival would take over Disneyland in Anaheim, CA for a weekend and show everything.

There is one catch: you’re not allowed to sleep.

In order to attend, you need to take pledges for charity based on how long you think you can stay awake. Upon entering the park, you are fitted with a bracelet which measures your heart rate, breathing, and brain wave activity. If you fall asleep, you’re out. It’s a three-day festival, and that’s a long time to be active, caffeinated, and entertained.

I told my editor I wanted to go. He bet me one hundred bucks that I’d never make it past the second day. I took the bet,  packed a bag, and headed off to Disneyland.

Admittedly, this seemed a little crazy to me as well, but the key is this: I am not the target audience.  This kind of stunt is attractive to the 18-30 set, the folks who are living on energy drinks and love a bit of adrenaline with their entertainment. They love the challenge. The planning committee knows that, and have added fitness challenges between the theatres to allow people to take things up a notch or two. Admittedly, by the morning of the third day, the theatres probably smell like Fritos and ass, but by that time, you’re either so tired or so wired that you almost do not notice.

There were a few other oldsters there like me, strolling from showing to showing, souring our stomachs with strong coffee to keep going; but for the most part this is a younger man’s (and woman’s) festival. If you like watching things on screen, jumping into a wind tank for a little air surfing, running a mile to catch the next show while downing a Red Bull, and then repeating, this is the festival for you.

During the festival, I saw eight films. Here are my impressions:

The Strange Times of Abby MacTeague: This is a latest movie from Diablo Cody but is backed by Disney, which, given some of Cody’s past work, took me by surprise. In this movie Cody returns to some of the territory covered in Juno: a misunderstood teenaged girl faces some difficult life choice but deals with them with snark and tenacity.  Abby is a sixteen year old girl growing up in Colorado Springs, home of both the Air Force Academy and some of the largest Megachurches in the United States. When she makes an offhanded comment about prayer in school in class, a teacher overhears, takes offense, and Abby is taken before the Principal and suspended. From there, the story gains speed like a cartoon snowball rolling downhill. Each new twist is both absurd and yet somewhat believable, and that’s the key to the success of this script: absurd things happen, and the best we can do is deal and move along. Well-shot and well-executed, this is a worthy successor to Cody’s other credits.

Empire State: Based on the 2012 book by Adam Christopher, Empire State is set in two worlds. The first is New York City during the Prohibition, a time of speakeasies and illegal hooch, of brutal gangs and corrupt cops. The second is a dark mirror of the same time period called the Empire State, an island city (homage to Dark City? Perhaps...) which is ruled by a despot and is caught in the middle of a battle between two rocket-powered superheroes. The movie captures the Noir feel of the book by being in black and white even while being filmed in 3D. The result is a work of art and excitement which is remarkably true to the original plot. Even though “superhero movies” have become somewhat cliche in recent years, Empire State is more character driven, more interesting and less...comic-booky, to coin a lame phrase. The result is a sophisticated adventure, one well worth watching.

Djinn And Tonic: In 1872, a young man named Wilberforce Abernathy is unpacking an exhibit for the British Museum when he finds an ancient gold lamp. He rubs the lamp three times and, surprise, a young woman appears in a puff of smoke and offers him three wishes. So begins the High Culture-Low Humor Djinn and Tonic, a film whose premise springs unapologetically from the following question: “What would happen if the 1960’s I Dream Of Jeanie was a comedy of manners and society in Victoria’s London?”  The result is oddly satisfying. Crazy as it sounds, I found myself laughing at the movie which rises above the shtick of the old T.V. series to become something more like an Oscar Wilde play. Young Wilberforce wants nothing more than respect and to move up on the world and, with his Djinni’s help, he does so, with disastrous and hysterical consequences. I could see this being a fantastic date movie, so keep it on your list gentlemen.

Elric: This one hits a soft spot for me, as Michael Moorcock’s novels were a seminal part of my young life. Elric is the albino prince of the ancient empire of Melnibone. He is sickly and weak and is only bolstered by a mixture of drugs and magic. The movie, which condenses the plots of several of Moorcock’s books into a single story, picks up with Elric being deposed by this more ambitious and stronger cousin Yyrkoon.  Elric is exiled to a place where he finds the dark runesword of his ancestors known as Stormbringer. Stormbringer is known to be a weapon of power and evil; it drinks the souls of its victims and feeds them to its wielder in a form of magical strength. With this weapon, Elric returns to his empire to take his rightful place. The film has much of the same epic feel that was invoked by Jackson’s work on Lord of the Rings, and the CGI landscapes are visually arresting. While the plot can be arcane and even slow at times, the payoff at the end is well worth it, and also allows for a sequel if there is a good return on the original investment in the film. Definitely a movie for geeks, but a good one, nonetheless.

Eight Is Enough: This one hurts my soul. Some idiot decided that turning the 1970’s Dick Van Patten sitcom into a feature film would be a wise move. Mistake. For the uninitiated, Eight is Enough is the tale of the Bradford family: two parents and eight kids. AND HILARITY ENSUES. Or something. The plot of the film is fragile at best, nonexistent at worst. I think the overall premise might have worked if the director wasn’t going for the same tone as the original series which, let’s face it, these days is about as dated as Leave It To Beaver.  I suppose this might be a good flick for “family viewing,” but only if you kids have never seen a comic book, cartoon, or Pixar movie. Otherwise, give this one a pass.

Infected: Based on the 2008 novel by Scott Sigler, this production was a real hit with the crowds at the festival. It crosses the boundaries between science fiction and horror in a way that is both engaging and oddly comedic at times. The fact that Sigler was one of the writers that adapted the book to a script for production is a real strength. The story: spores fall from space that herald an alien invasion of Earth. The spores start to blossom into sub-dermal blue triangular growths once they make contact with human flesh. The triangles start to compel the infected people to do things...and that’s when all hell breaks loose. The director does a masterful job of invoking fear and horror without the movie turning into torture porn (though, there is a scene involving chicken scissors that will make every man in the audience wince and squirm).  I believe that Infected will be The Next Big Summer Movie, and frankly, it should do well enough to get the sequel, Contagious, made.

Magnum P.I: I’ll cop to a certain anticipation for this one. I was a fan of the show as a kid, and even though Hollywood has made millions by raping my childhood, I was hoping that this one would somehow be something decent. I’m happy to report that the film is quite good. It is the story of Thomas Magnum, private investigator in Hawaii. Rather than make a pure nostalgia piece and base it in the Eighties, the action takes place present day, and the characters have been updated accordingly. T.C. is a chopper pilot and veteran of the second Gulf War, Rick is still a business owner but is more of a techie than before. Higgins, played by a marvelous Stephen Fry, is still the butler with the acid wit. I do not want to spoil the plot (is there any worse way to spoil a mystery), but I can say that the twists and turns of the story are well-executed with a delightful lack of plot holes. All in all, a good picture. Go see it.

The Big Sleep: The success of books like the previously mentioned Empire State and AlephStudio’s groundbreaking game The Widow In Red has fueled a desire for more noir-style fiction.  Rather than develop something new, Warner Brothers has re-released the Bogart and Bacall classic, The Big Sleep. The first movie adaption on Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel, the movie was originally released in 1946 and was directed by Howard Hawks (also known for his later work on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and His Girl Friday). The story, set in Los Angeles, follows Philip Marlowe as he is hired by the wealthy General Sternwood for the purpose of resolving one of his daughter’s gambling debts. On the way out, Marlowe meets the General’s other daughter (played by Lauren Bacall), who suspects her father might have other motives. This re-issue has been digitally remastered and put into 3D which works surprisingly well. Given that the entertainment industry is all about the flash-bang these days, it was nice to see a piece of craft film-making. Go check this one out.

Now...if you are doing the math, you figured out that I should have seen more movies in a three-day period than this handful. You would be right: had I not fallen asleep in the middle of the latest dreck-filled romantic comedy, I would have seen more movies. Sadly, age and fast living have caught up with me, and I was escorted from the park at around the halfway point of the festival. I feel some small shame about this, and I think I might work out and try to get into better shape for next year’s Iron Man. Maybe. Just Maybe.

There you have it...my weekend at Disneyland in two thousand words or less. If you love seeing movies on the big screen and are a little insane, sign up now for next year’s Iron Man Film Festival. It is a weekend you will never forget. Until next time, you can find me on Qlatch, via email, or at home, sleeping.

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