Monday, 22 January 2018

Horrid Henry [Festival Report: Horror-On-Sea]

I spent Saturday at the Horror-On-Sea Film Festival in Southend-On-Sea*, Essex. I will review the features I saw (Egomaniac, Witches Brew, The Snarling) in separate posts but wanted to share some lessons about the horror movie zeitgeist gleaned from this festival.

1. It's not about horror any more. It's all about comedy horror now. Shaun Of The Dead changed everything.

2. It's not about zombie movies any more. It's all about films about filmmakers making zombie movies now.

3. It's as good a time as any to stick two fingers up to production values and just make movies that entertain.

4. The future of indie filmmaking is in good hands, proven by the premiere of a short horror film directed by a ten year old with a (literally) killer twist.

5. Finally! Someone else understands the nightmarish, Lovecraftian plastic tentacled horror that is Henry Hoover.

Horror-On-Sea is a fun, friendly festival for those of the horror persuasion. Movies are clearly selected simply for being enjoyable to watch rather than on any mainstream criteria - production values are random, there's not a Hollywood name in sight and everything is funny or at least fun. The features are topped with a well-chosen shorts programme, including a quadrilogy of animations from my erstwhile collaborator Molly Brown (those in the know will have caught my brief voice-over in Attack Of The Killer Eels From Mars) as well as horrors based around such naturally creepy concepts as the baby monitor, a chihuahua and Henry.

It was also great to attend filmmaker Pat Higgins workshop on fear in cinema - a rambling, autobiographical journey through fear and phobia which somehow managed to teach without teaching, plus a round of Consequences leading to the greatest horror film pitch of all time, all presented in the form of an Atmosfear-style 80s video board game.


*Southend-On-Sea is not on the sea, by the sea, at the sea, or juxtaposed to or even near the sea in any way shape or form. The only sea in Southend-On-Sea is the ConspiraSea that puts out a constant stream of marine propaganda keeping the Southenders in blissful ignorance of the truth of their estuaryside existence. Any who accidentally discover the truth by, for example, looking across the river and seeing the bank that is clearly visible on the other side, receive a mysterious invitation: "Congratulations, Southender #22358-33761. You're going to the pier!"

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Snoke And Mirrors [Review: The Last Jedi]

Picking up where The Force Awakens ends, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) but must persuade him to return to help the rebellion. The First Order, under the command of the mysterious Snoke and his subordinates Kylo Ren and General Hux are closing in on the rebel fleet. Providing any more synopsis would be a spoiler - and nobody wants that.

The Last Jedi is directed by Rian Johnson but J.J. Abrams is still the executive director and there is still evidence of his influence - not least the in-jokes that reference the original trilogy and the legends that surround it. To give one example that is only a minor spoiler, it's quite well known that R2-D2's electronic sound is based on actual dialogue, and that much of that original dialogue was filthy. In this film R2-D2 is reprimanded for using inappropriate language in a holy location.

However the film feels a little more gentle than The Force Awakens, despite the intense battles at the start and end, and more spiritual. Midichlorians are not mentioned and the mystical side of the Force is emphasised, not unlike Hope and Empire. We also get to see some completely new sides of the Force, even if one of these is taken wholesale from Harry Potter. And there are one or two scenes that carry surprising emotional weight, on a par with the most memorable scenes from the original trilogy. The writing is good, and questions are answered - but not the ones I was expecting. Performances from the newcomers (Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver) are matched by the awesome return of Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. There are some things called Porgs, and BB-8 still steals scenes left right and centre.

The Last Jedi is enjoyable for many reasons, but particularly for the comedy aspects. Visually all of the Star Wars films are strong and The Last Jedi is no exception. It's not another Empire Strikes Back but definitely one of the better present-day films.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Tanis Through The Looking Glass [Podcast review: Tanis]

I've worked my way through series one of Tanis, a podcast from the producers of Rabbits. The presenter, Nick Silver, is on the trail of a legend called Tanis. He's attracted to the mystery surrounding Tanis - he doesn't know what Tanis is, it could be a person, a place, an idea, a god, a magical force of some kind. He's assisted by fellow producers and interns, a hacker friend (sorry, Information Specialist) and various other characters who come forward during the investigation.

Although fictional, Nick's investigation involves many real-life characters, events, mysteries and legends. It's a meandering journey that begins with real-life British magician and cult leader Alastair Crowleigh and his American ally, rocket scientist and part-time alchemist Jack Parsons, and continues backwards and forwards through ancient and modern history, taking in numbers stations, famous historical serial killers, and the fairytales of Baba Yaga. Meanwhile a network of corporations, cults, research groups and secret agencies gradually rise to the surface and the stakes become higher.

I mentioned that Rabbits was a tale in the vein of The X-Files - this is even more true of Tanis. Nick Silver even sounds a little like Fox Mulder. The plot develops very slowly and in a pleasantly psychotic way, it's the podcast equivalent of a wall covered in newspaper clippings highlighted and connected with pins and string. Tanis feels smarter than Rabbits and better paced, although both shows sometimes get confused as to whether they are broadcast during the investigation or put together in the aftermath. I now need to listen to series two and catch up with the current third series.

You can listen to Tanis here.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

How Deep The Rabbit Hole Goes [Podcast review: Rabbits]

Rabbits is a podcast presented by journalist Carly Parker, who is looking into the disappearance of her friend Yumiko. The trail leads Carly into contact with players of a mysterious and sinister Alternate Reality Game believed to date back to ancient times, and to a series of clues related to contradictions about her own past. What is Rabbits? Who are the Men in Grey? How many steps are there to the Lighthouse? And what is a Welshman's tiara?

Why tell this story as a podcast? Serial established the investigative format - enthusiastic, gutsy, female journalist recording her interviews and findings in a search for the truth, and this format has become popular as a result. In the case of Serial the format allowed the investigator to share her findings with her listeners and recruit them to help her solve a (real life) mystery. However for a sci-fi or fantasy investigative story it's the perfect format, a logical follow-on from The X-Files and a way of developing a slow-burn plot arc while building suspense and atmosphere.

Rabbits tries to create the impression of a secret world underlying our own, set against a background of videogames and ARGs. So the format turns this from a story about ARGs into its' own ARG - during the broadcast images and cuttings were posted on the website and listeners debated the puzzles on Internet forums and searched the Internet for clues. And searching led to some fascinating finds - not least because Rabbits works in references to obscure rock bands, videogame Easter eggs, historical codes and puzzles, and real historical figures such as Byron Preiss, author of a fantasy novel The Secret, which included picture clues to the location of hidden treasures - only two of which were ever found.

Rabbits brings to mind literary treasure hunts such as Byron Preiss's The Secret and Kit Williams' Masquerade, as well as books or films such as The Da Vinci Code, The Ninth Gate and Ready Player One - a book that shares Carly Parker's affection for classic videogames. The Da Vinci Code mixed reality, fiction and speculation cleverly giving the impression that it could have been true - only on closer inspection does it become clear that only the first few clues on Langdon's journey are real. The theme of ARGs blurring the boundary of reality features in classic Michael Douglas film The Game, while Iain Banks' The Business tells the story of an ancient organization hiding in plain sight. Some of the mysteries of Rabbits also bring to mind horror movies and in particular The Ring. And of course there are ongoing ARGs such as Ingress, and related games or activities such as orienteering or geocaching.

When I started to listen to Rabbits I found it slightly slow and repetitive, with a lot of deliberate recapping and some quite contrived cliffhangers. I also found the adverts breaking into the broadcast incongruous, although no more so than typical TV adverts. And yet I got the Rabbits bug - by the end of the first episode I bought into the characters and the mystery and wanted to continue listening to see how deep the rabbit hole went. The episodes are long - varying from 20 minutes to almost an hour, the story is complex and the reveals are well-paced. There's some nice sinister backing music too.

You can listen to or subscribe to Rabbits here. Rabbits is produced by the Public Radio Alliance who also make two other mystery podcasts - The Black Tapes and Tanis. You can also read an interesting review and discussion of all three 'casts on The Cultural Gutter here. It's not clear whether all three mysteries are linked, although the podcasters sometimes refer to each other suggesting that they might at least be playing out in the same reality.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Take On Me [Review: Victoria]

This German film tells the story of a few hours in the life of a young Spanish woman, Victoria (Laia Costa) , living in Berlin. While out clubbing she befriends a young man Sonne (Frederick Lau) and his dodgy Berliner friends, and is drawn into a robbery that doesn't go entirely to plan.

I'm trying hard to review this film without focussing too much on its most unusual feature. Victoria is a fascinating character - smart, brave, open-minded and generally bigger inside than out. Laia Costa is amazing to watch, and when you take into account how the film was made, this is an extraordinary performance. She appears happy-go-lucky, and in a way she is, but this persona is her escape from a background that turns out to be extremely sad, and by the end of the film you've seen her make some extraordinary choices, and go through an entire lifetime of emotion and experience. Similarly her new German friends appear to be happy car-stealing rascals but they also have a past, and perhaps this is why Victoria and Sonne don't seem too worried by societal rules - perhaps they've grown up thinking society doesn't owe them all that much.

How this film works is OMG THEY MADE IT IN ONE TAKE! OK. That's true, but perhaps it's more significant that it's in real time, which in turn gives it an authentic feel, and it's written and filmed in the early hours of the morning, relying on natural dawn lighting to create a metaphorical journey from darkness into light - a reversal of Sh
akespearean writing where plays were written to incorporate natural evening light fading to darkness - particularly apparent in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Macbeth. This is fitting - there's a little of Romeo and Juliet in this film.

The international nature of the film is also interesting - Victoria and Sonne are Spanish and German and only have limited knowledge of each others' languages - dialogue is partly German and partly English. Watching these two try to express their feelings to each other in broken English is quite touching.

However the one-take thing isn't trivial either. This isn't a music video, it's a feature length movie of over two hours, with a plot that moves between several external and internal locations all over Berlin, some frantic driving, some action scenes including a gun battle, and intense and draining performances from the main characters - and it's all shot on a handheld camera in one take. Seems legit too, there are very few genuine cut points and the momentum seems to continue even at these times, there's also plenty of online material about the making of the film - much of it directed with the director inside the boot of the car.

Victoria is a film worth watching for more than just the one-take spectacle - it's a beautiful, authentic drama about loyalty and friendship between strangers.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Shine On [Review: Crazy Diamond]

Crazy Diamond, the fourth Electric Dream, takes us to a near-future of rising sea-levels, eco-homes perched on precarious, crumbling cliffs, and Jacks and Jills - synthetic humans grown from human and pig DNA and implanted with a QC - a quantum consciousness. Ed (Steve Buscemi) works in a facility that makes the QCs, but dreams of leaving his limited life behind and sailing away on a voyage of discovery, taking his wife Sally with him. He meets a Jill (Sidse Babett) who has a failing QC and a plan for something that could change both their lives, but is quite illegal.

Ed is the archetype PKD everyman - didn't I tell you to get used to this? - living day to day, holding down a job, dreaming of a voyage into the unknown but only half-believing that it's possible. He's capable of overlooking small illegalities such as the seeds home-grown by Sally (Julia Davis), but larger crimes as proposed by the Jill throw him into conflict between his dreams and his wish to do the right thing.

Some of the back story for this episode can be deduced from the setting - the eco-homes, wind turbines and electric Beetles all point to a post-oil world, with rising sea levels causing coastal erosion and destroying homes. However there are some gaps. It's not clear why food is decaying more quickly, or why the sell-by date is enforced so enthusiastically by the refuse collector. There's a sheet of metal under the ground to prevent people growing their own, apparently to protect the local economy - but why does this make sense?

More significantly, it's not clear why the synthetic humans and their QCs were created, or why they are needed in this society. They're not servants like the synths of Humans or indeed the replicants of Blade Runner. Or at least they're not all servants - the tour guide showing a group of visitors around the QC facility tells them that Jacks and Jills are living amongst us all, then reveals his own status as a Jack. It's possible that they are needed as a result of decreasing fertility hinted at by Ed and Sally's failure to conceive - and taking this along with the food issues I wonder if the writers aren't just thinking of a world that has run out of oil but one that has also been poisoned by pollution.

It's also unclear exactly what the synthetics are - more or less capable than humans? More or less intelligent? Do they actually share human emotions or are they something different? Jill turns out to be capable of some shocking acts, apparently driven by desperation due to her own short shelf-life.

Sally confides in a woman with a pig's head and trotters, Sue, who works as a security guard at the facility, but it isn't clear why this is - the other Jills all look human. She might be an earlier model Jill, or a different type of Jill created specifically for the work, or maybe a Jill from another facility. Sally and Sue's chats do reveal some anti-Jack and Jill snobbery and patronizing attitudes - in one scene Sally is overcome by some form of middle-class guilt while Sue's parting comment is "I'm bred not to take offense."

This episode owes a great debt to Blade Runner - in particular the central character who is a synthetic femme fatale reminds me a little of Rachel from the original film. However there are other influences here too, not least the air ducts and waste pipes in the eco-homes straight out of Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

This was another good episode, mainly down to excellent casting. The Electric Dreams series seems to have attracted some of the best actors, and the three leads here are no exception. However while there's some good worldbuilding, and it's OK to leave some mysteries for the viewer to think about, this time I feel the episode didn't quite provide enough hints.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The First Holographic Wives' Club [Addendum: Blade Runner 2049]

Some more thoughts about Blade Runner 2049: in particular what's happened to all the women in 2049? While I loved many aspects of this film, it does appear to play fast and loose with the Bechdel Test, with no qualifying conversations between female characters, and a lot of submissive stereotypes in a world where the major corporations still appear to be run by men.

Warning: spoilers follow.

Sylvia Hoeks plays Luv, a high-end replicant who is a detective, hunter and fighter with enhanced strength and intelligence and a license to kill - who is chief exec Wallace's personal assistant. Ana de Armas plays Joi, K's holographic wife, a mass-produced consumer product, perhaps a future Alexa. Both are stunningly beautiful as their characters - that's a fact not a judgement - while also being efficient at their roles, in very different ways. This is clearly a world where women are seen as pretty things to look at while they work. Other female characters include several prostitutes and a woman trapped for life inside a sealed room.

There's only really one exception - one female character who isn't defined mainly by a submissive relationship to men, police lieutenant Joshi played by Robin Wright. She's a smart, determined professional woman in her own right, defined by her job, her moral stance, and by the few moments when she lets her hair down and gives away a few hints of personality. She's a great character and it would have been good to see more of her.

I like to be generous about this kind of thing - there might be individual films where there is actually a point to having gender inequality on show. I do find it hard to buy into dystopian scenarios where there is perfect gender equality even while everything else is FUBAR and poor people are forced to fight to the death and othersuch. It's not always bad writing. I came up with some possible explanations for the gender issues in Blade Runner 2049:

It's bad writing. Maybe the screenwriters were too busy writing the plot twists and Harrison Ford's dialogue and didn't make the effort to write in better female characters. However I'm not sure. I'd have to say that the writing in many places is good. The relationship between K, a synthetic human, and Joi, a holographic A.I. with no physical presence, is original and fascinating and raises many questions of its own. Luv is
an enigma - possibly driven by repressed anger, or something else? They're not the one-dimensional characters they seem at first.

Perhaps it's a question of focus. The story is shown from a male perspective - it's K's story, and in this materialistic society his interactions are going to be with women. Had the story been shown from a female perspective, perhaps in this world we might have seen a male A.I. assistant or prostitutes.

Perhaps it's deliberate. This is 2049 but it's an alternate 2049 leading on from the original film, and in many ways a future that's a continuation of the 70s and 80s, and so we should expect to see the 80s patriarchy alive and well along with other 80s icons such as Atari.

To take things further, perhaps this is the point - this is what happens if the patriarchy continues and the world is led by men - we allow global warming and all the other catastrophes to happen, leaving the rest of the world to go to shit while we're busy inventing flying cars.