Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Your Town [Review: The City And The City]



We are living in a golden age of TV adaptations of science fiction and fantasy books. Hot on the heels of The Expanse, Altered Carbon, Man In The High Castle and American Gods comes a new series based on Good Omens, a new version of War of the Worlds set in the era of WW1, and more. Right now I'm enjoying the BBC's miniseries based on The City and The City, possibly my favourite China Mieville novel.

I regret never posting a review of this novel, I may need to re-read it after watching the series and may write some more about it. I did write this blog back in 2010 about C.J. Cherryh's novel Wave Without A Shore which features a similar conceit - societies that choose to live as if they cannot see each other.

The City and The City is a traditional detective story, set in two interlinked cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma. The Besźel tourist orientation video above sets out the scenario nicely - and you should watch it, it could save your life. The plot reminded me of The Bridge - the body of a murder victim is found across a border, under circumstances that bring together the police forces of both cities and leads to conspiracies within conspiracies. The series stars David Morrissey as Besź detective Borlu, and relies heavily on deep colour grading and depth of field to differentiate between the two cities - one is always out of focus.

This is also a great example of a fantasy concept that refers to many situations in real life. One of the things I love most about London for example is that it contains many more cities than just Besźel and Ul Qoma - hundreds of nationalities, communities and active subcultures some visible, some just out of focus; also without taking this post too far into political waters Besźel and Ul Qoma bear similarities to post-Good Friday Northern Ireland and to other conflicted or disputed lands around the globe.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Rikki Don't Lose That Number [Sci-Fi Telephone Booths]

We're all familiar with a certain Time Lord and her preferred mode of telephonic transport:

But while the Doctor was one of the first, she is far from unique - in fact there's a long and respectable tradition of science fiction heroes travelling in telephone booths. Excluding the good Doctor, here are my top five long distance callers:

#1 Bill And Ted

Doctor Who has spawned many spin-off series and movies over the years. My favourites were the Bill and Ted movies - Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bogus Journey (1991). It's a blast - a great time-travel comedy and a decent attempt to create an American Doctor Who. It's absolutely canon. The eponymous heroes, played by Alex Winter and Keanu someone or other, travel through time in a US phone booth "borrowed" from Time Lord Rufus (who strictly speaking should be called The Rufus), encountering historical celebrities in their quest to complete their homework and ultimately secure the future of civilization through music. A nice touch is that this TARDIS is actually controlled by looking up the desired historical period in a phone book and dialling the number.


#2 Harry Potter

Why waste time with flying cars, boring broomsticks, itchy Floo powder or those blasted Portkeys when you can travel in style in a phone booth? The phone booths in Harry Potter are secret entrances to the Ministry of Magic.


#3 Professor Branestawm

In the BBC's fun adaptation of Norman Hunter's Professor Branestawm, starring Harry Hill, the Professor invents a slightly slower-moving phone.


#4 Neo

The Matrix is another of my favourite Doctor Who spin-offs. The links to original Who are subtle, but Whovian fans should be well aware that in Doctor Who, the Time Lords have a supercomputer called the Matrix. In the Matrix, there is also a supercomputer called The Matrix. If you are exploring the Matrix and need to leave in a hurry, you get to a phone booth.


#5 Superman

The final entry in this list is Superman. He only rates #5 as he doesn't actually travel in a phone booth, he just changes in one. This will be hard to explain to the mobile phone generation.


Thursday, 15 March 2018

Fifty Angry Men [Review: Circle]


Fifty people awake to find they are standing on glowing red spots in a circle in a dark room. They quickly learn that they are playing a deadly game – every few minutes one person is killed instantly by a shock from the hemisphere in the centre, their body then dragged out into the darkness by unseen forces. If they step off their circles they also die. It takes them a few rounds, and a few deaths, to understand that while they cannot prevent the scheduled rounds, they can choose who dies in each round.

Circle is a literal, minimalist version of the balloon debate – if the balloon is losing altitude and you can’t all survive, who gets chucked out of the balloon and how do you persuade others to do the chucking. The starting fifty are diverse enough to (loosely) represent all of humanity. As the players learn how to vote for each other, alliances and dividing lines appear around age, race, gender, sexuality, politics and profession. Players try to use this to their advantage, but if they seem too manipulative then other players may turn on them next.


This is a low-budget, one-room, concept movie – The Hunger Games meets Exam meets Cube (links are to my reviews of these films) with a dash of Lord of the Flies and a twist of Twelve Angry Men. While the scenario is contrived, even compared to other one-room movies, the writers and directors, Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione, have hit on a simple but effective concept which builds tension over and over again, and the script stands up well covering a lot of ground.

The main expense for this film was probably the cast of fifty actors - all unknown but certainly up to the job, so the conflict is believable. There's a lot of death, it's sudden and brutal although not too bloody, and while some deaths are shown directly many are communicated through reaction shots. The ending isn't easily predictable, and left me with a lot to think about. The film could be a metaphor for political extremism, media bias or the rise of prejudice in general, and of course it's even more relevant in the age of Reality TV.

Two important questions are left unanswered: when does the board game version come out, and how many batteries will it require?

To disambiguate, this is low-budget movie Circle (2015) – not the movie of Dave Eggers’ internet parody novel The Circle (2017).

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Snarl And The World Snarls With You [Review: The Snarling]

A film crew set up in a quiet village and start making their zombie movie, to the amusement of the locals - but a series of gory murders, committed during the full moon, draws the interest of the local police.

The Snarling was first screened at Horror-On-Sea in 2016 and has been brought back for a new screening in 2018 by popular demand. It's a well written, well produced comedy horror in the vein of Shaun of the Dead - light on gore, although there are some bloody moments, and heavy on jokes. The script features many colourful and funny characters amongst the film crew, the locals and the police - the fool archetype recurs in all three groups and there's a constant stream of jokes based on misunderstandings that is just to my taste. There are also plenty of visual gags including some extremely witty editing choices. Laurence Saunders stands out for playing two very different comedy characters - Greg, the male diva actor, and Les, the village fool who happens to be his doppelganger. Director Pablo Reybould also appears in the film as a food-obsessed police chief.

Horror-on-Sea features films made by passionate, creative filmmakers and from what I've seen the focus is definitely on films that are enjoyable to watch as opposed to professionally produced. However The Snarling is both and as such deserves wider recognition and circulation, perhaps a theatrical release - it could definitely hold its own against Shaun.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Get Out While You Can [Review: Escape Room]

Four friends sign up for an escape room challenge - an hour to find the clues and unlock the door. The scenario of this particular escape room is creepy - dim lighting, cracked walls covered in mysterious documents and clues, and a mysterious hooded figure at one end of the room, attached to a very short chain. However, as if all of the existing décor wasn't creepy enough, the curator has recently added a skull-shaped chest, ignoring warnings that it might contain something deeply evil, and failing to warn the players of this. What if one of them turned out to be allergic to evil forces? There'd be grounds for a refund at least. And maybe, just maybe, if you have locked four strangers into a room with an evil entity in a box, this might be a bad time to leave your escape room building altogether and go for a sulk.

Hard-core escapologists may enjoy films such as Cube, Exam or the Saw series - you may find this film a little lightweight, it's definitely on the easy setting. On the off-chance you might actually watch this modest but passable film, I'll avoid further spoilers. However I will take a tip from another blogger, Big D, and analyse the poster/DVD cover a little.

Not bad? Pretty dramatic, nice logo.

Now I'll take you through some elements of the poster.

The chained-up double door with the windows and the scratch marks - never appears in the movie. Looks to me like hospital or laboratory doors, and the movie is not set in either.

The scratch marks on the door suggest that someone is trapped in the room for days or weeks - but the movie takes place over the space of an hour or two. It's common for real-life escape rooms to have a time limit of an hour.

There's a young woman kneeling on the floor, covered by blood, and screaming from pain, terror or both. Without giving too much away, this is true to the film.

There's a creepy fellow standing by the right edge of the poster looking creepy. Again, does feature in the film.

Most interestingly, there are three huge circular saws in the picture, set into gaps in the floor suggesting that they may be able to move along them. They look pretty deadly, the kind of thing Jigsaw might dream up in the Saw movies - in other words a deliberate trap intended to kill players who failed a test of some kind. The film does not feature any circular saws at all, and no similar deliberately designed killer traps - the threat comes from the evil entity that has unknowingly been introduced to the puzzle room.

So I'd just like to say thank you to the cover artist for completely obscuring the actual content of this movie, no doubt deliberately to preserve its precious few moments of genuine horror and suspense unspoiled.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Bustin' Makes Me Feel Good [Review: Witches Brew]

A ghostbusting team consisting of a TV presenter (director Eileen Daly), a medium and a defrocked priest investigate a demon-infested castle - and their innermost desires. The mysteriously aged proprietor and his two succubus nieces give the ghostbusters the runaround while they search for a way to lift the curse. I say they... the duty falls mainly on Eileen as her two male co-ghosthunters are smitten with the nieces and unable to concentrate on the job. However when all seems lost the team benefit from the help of a passing demon-hunter and her remarkable iPhone app.

Witches Brew, screened at Horror-on-Sea 2018, is a movie that will infect you with its joy even as it challenges you with its rough edges.

Some directors and producers are so obsessed with perfection that they edit, re-edit and re-release their movies again and again in search of that ultimate, overproduced director's cut. Not Daly. Mistakes and mis-takes are seen throughout the movie - light and sound change from scene to scene, body-hair prostheses fall off the cast. This is not carelessness or ignorance. It's not satire. It's simply two fingers up to the perfection-obsessed zombie filmmakers (Prooooductioooon vaaaaaluuuuues...) - Daly makes the sense of fun her star - she could cut the mis-takes out but it's much more enjoyable to keep them in. 


Witches Brew is a loveable movie in its own right. Also, without being a direct parody it somehow brings back pleasant memories of The Rocky Horror Show, the original Wicker Man, and curiously the ancient TV series Rentaghost. I can't explain this, and I don't need to.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

The Director's Cut [Review: Egomaniac]

Struggling horror-movie obsessed filmmaker Catherine Sweeney has a dream - to bring to life her Warm Bodies-style zombie romcom. She has the idea, now all she needs is a script, a cast, a producer, funding, a crew and a camera. Her first taste of reality comes when she draws the attention of a big player willing to come on board as executive producer and provide seven-figure funding - as long as she can write a talking dog into the script.

Egomaniac, screened at Horror-On-Sea 2018, is a bittersweet black comedy about the experience of compromising to get the movie made - with a particular emphasis on the treatment of women in the industry. It was made in 2016 but with the Hollywood scandals breaking in the past few months it's deeply relevant right now, and perhaps can serve as a reminder that far from being the clean, happy alternative to Hollywood, the indie world is the Wild West of moviemaking.

Catherine Sweeney, played by the real-life director Kate Shenton, carries the film with an intense performance. The script is outstanding - the characters Catherine comes up against in her Kafkaesque journey, inside and outside of her head, are hilariously and disturbingly seedy, and I particularly liked the conceit of Catherine arguing with her imagined characters in her head. When she finally snaps it's completely believable and she takes the audience with her to the murderous conclusion.