Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Music for a contactless age [Theremin 100]

Les Berceaux (Gabriel Fauré) on Open Theremin. I did promise to inflict further theremin "performances" on you at the beginning of the year so fair warning was given. I believe, or delude myself, that I am making progress in learning this instrument, and in the absence of any formal examinations in the UK I'm sure I'm playing at at least grade 2 standard.

It's approximately 100 years since Leon Theremin first invented this musical instrument (the first one is thought to have been built in either 1919 or 1920). The theremin is one of the earliest electronic musical instruments, and along with the laser harp it's one of a very few instruments played without any physical contact - instead two antennae detect microvoltage changes caused by movement of conductors close to them, allowing the player or thereminist to control the pitch with one hand and the volume with the other. The original theremin was based on an analogue circuit. Today there are analogue theremins such as the Etherwave, but also digital theremins such as the Open Theremin or the Theremini.

(Theremin 100 banner designed by Paul Sizer)

Sunday, 5 April 2020

Midsommar Murders [Review: Midsommar]

Dani, recovering from grief after the deaths of her sister and parents, and her boyfriend Christian who wants to break up but doesn't think this is the right time, travel to Sweden with some friends to attend the midsummer celebration at a pagan commune, the Harga. They all have a happy, healing and relaxing time, there's nothing sinister about this secret community or their religious festival and there will definitely be no murders or mutilations *innocent face*.

Sorry. Midsommar is a bleak and bloody horror film about a secret commune that appears very friendly and social at the start, but it's not long before Dani and Christian are shocked to witness a ceremony where two older members of the community take their own lives by jumping from a cliff. From here the weirdness builds up quickly. The festival includes other rituals including a version of Maypole dancing as an endurance competition and a May Queen coronation, all building towards some sort of final ritual. Meanwhile there's a mysterious book, mysterious goings on at night, mysterious disappearances, mysterious glances, mysterious food and drink, mysterious lack of mobile phone signals and mysterious inability to leave the commune. As is often the case in this genre of films, this is not going to end well.

Midsommar is directed by Ari Aster, also responsible for the unsettling horror film Hereditary. Dani is played by Florence Pugh. I would describe Pugh's performances in Lady Macbeth and in this film as intense and unforgettable. Possibly because the cast is large, there are few other stand-out performances.

Horror based on pagan culture (or misunderstandings of it) is a well-developed subgenre. In some ways Midsommar is a Swedish take on The Wicker Man and there are many similarities between the films. However while Police Sergeant Howie is a sane man (if a bit of a prude) cast into an insane world, Dani is different. She's already traumatized before she arrives at the Harga and, while she is further traumatized by what she sees, she responds in unexpected ways to her situation and becomes stronger, calmer and more open to the strange ceremonies.

A horrific three stars out of five.

Score: 3 out of 5 stars
All movies reviewed on the Sci-Fi Gene blog are given a score of 3 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 7 March 2020

They're made out of meat! [Review: Tender Is The Flesh]

The spread of a deadly virus leads to the elimination of livestock and animals in general - and to the creeping legalization of cannibalism and a future in which humans are farmed, bred and slaughtered for meat on an industrial scale.

Tender Is The Flesh (Cadaver Exquisito) is a dystopian novel by Argentinian author Agustina Bazterrica. It's told from the viewpoint of Marcos, a senior manager in the "special meat" industry with a role in every stage of the lives of the "heads." Motivated by a need to pay for his father's nursing home and recoiling from his own tragedies and the breakdown of his marriage, Marcos embodies the double-think of the time, taking pride in his expertise and business success while still  aware that he is participating in an atrocity.

There are plenty of bleak, horrific novels in the dystopia genre - not least the torture-heavy 1984 and the misogynistic violence of The Handmaid's Tale or A Walk To The End Of The World. I may have become a little desensitized to literary violence but I rarely read a book that truly horrifies me - Tender Is The Flesh is a rare example of writing that stopped me in my tracks several times, even though I was still compelled to finish reading it. 

It's clear that Bazterrica has far too much time on her hands and has spent much of it figuring out just how modern intensive livestock farming could be modified to farm humans, and all the ways that those on the right side of the electric fences might maintain the sense of denial, from the euphemisms such as "heads" and "special meat" to the scientific "evidence" presented against vegetable diets, to the legal structures protecting and regulating the process, to the removal of vocal cords from farmed humans to prevent them screaming or communicating. The detailed descriptions are shocking, particularly the chapter about 30% of the way through the novel where two job applicants are taken on a tour of the slaughterhouse. And there's still time for interesting subplots - the inhabitants of an abandoned zoo, and the implications that fear of infected bird droppings might be a conspiracy promoted by the umbrella industry.

There's an obvious between-the-lines link to ethical veganism - for those of us who eat meat, are we acting on good evidence that, say, cows are not conscious beings, or are we taking that view in order to make ourselves feel better? Is it our IQ that distinguishes us from the animals - and if so would it be OK to eat a human with lower IQ than a cow?* And what of the Ameglian Major Cow, served at the Restaurant At The End Of The Universe and other fine intergalactic establishments - an artificially created, sentient creature genetically programmed to offer itself up to be eaten on an entirely voluntary, consensual basis. Is that OK?**

But this novel speaks to human-on-human mistreatment too - it's about how humans dehumanize other humans in order to justify tribalism, slavery, racism, misogyny, genocide and so on, and how we give ourselves license to act in this way.

Humanity is broken in this novel - symbolised by Marcos' father, a livestock farmer whose dementia was apparently brought on following the "Transition" to human meat. Marcos and many of his generation are fully aware of the identity of "human meat" - it's an unspoken universal truth rather than a Soylent Green mystery - and they are living with the hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance of treating the "heads" as both human and inhuman, in turn distorting their humanity and morality. Some go for complete "We don't eat people in this house" denial, while others embrace the Transition, such as the game hunters who are equally happy aiming at purpose-bred humans or celebrities gambling their debts on a life-or-death run, or the Scavengers who kill and eat at any opportunity. Marcos is given a chance of a kind of redemption - an opportunity to re-integrate his divided world; the actual outcome reflects just how broken we all are.

**Still no.

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Faking It [Review: Parasite]

Ki-woo and his family, the Kims, live in a basement and barely scrape a living folding pizza boxes. They get what seems to be a lucky break when Ki-woo is offered the chance to become an English tutor for the daughter of the rich Park family, his sister Ki-jeong forging a college student identity to get him started. He then plans to bring the rest of his family into the Parks’ employment, finding ways to get their household staff dismissed and replaced. However this proves to be a risky strategy and it turns out the Kim family are not the only ones with secrets.

Bong Joon-Ho’s thriller won the Palme D’Or at Cannes last year and went on to win the Best Picture Oscar – the first non-English-language film to do so. It was also panned by Donald Trump (so far the only Home Alone 2 cast member to be impeached). It’s an extraordinary movie worthy of all these accolades, hitting many different notes – comedy, intrigue, heist, psychodrama, thriller and tragedy – while still telling a well-written and compelling story accelerating towards a dramatic finale. 

The acting is superb, often understated rather than melodramatic. Many performances stand out, particularly Song Kang-ho as the father of the Kims. I thought Cho Yeo-jeong’s performance as the impressionable Mrs. Park could have been played purely for comedy value but instead she comes across as sympathetic even when she falls for every trick or scam Ki-woo and the others can come up with, and it becomes clear that she is driven by her own insecurities.

Everyone in this story has different insecurities, and this is one of the many ways the movie explores its main theme of the social divide. It has a lot to say about this, and is far more interesting than simply moaning about the disproportionate wealth of the 1%, although the attitudes of the Park family towards poor people are made clear in some very tense scenes.

As with Bong Joon-Ho’s horror movie The Host, reviewed here and also starring Song Kang-ho, this movie centres on a family rather than the loners, romantic couples, friendship groups or mis-paired workers that feature in Western movies. It's fair to say that the Kims are less dysfunctional than the family of the Host. I don’t know enough about Korean culture to know if this is reflective, perhaps of a stronger family-orientated culture or a typical theme of Korean movies. Train To Busan, another Korean horror movie directed by Yeon Sang-ho, reviewed here, centres on a father-daughter bond.

I enjoyed this movie from start to finish, and no doubt Bong Joon-Ho will be happy to add the coveted Sci-Fi Gene three stars out of five to his packed trophy shelf.

Score: 3 out of 5 stars
All movies reviewed on the Sci-Fi Gene blog are given a score of 3 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

It only takes a minute girl [Review: Downsizing]

A Norwegian scientist has found a way to shrink humans to approximately 12 inches in height, meaning they have a much smaller environmental impact and incidentally can live a life of luxury on the cheap – but it’s irreversible. Occupational therapist Matt Damon and his wife Kristen Wiig are the couple trying to decide whether moving to a small community is an opportunity worth taking.

There are plenty of movies about shrinking people –Fantastic Voyage, InnerSpace, Honey I Shrunk The Kids, and of course the various appearances of Ant-Man. In all of these movies the shrinking effect is reversible and the tone tends to be a mixture of action and comedy.

Downsizing takes a different approach, the key to which is the one-way procedure which gives miniaturization a whole new meaning. This is highlighted by the shrinking process – no instantaneous shrink ray or Ant-Man suit but a prolonged and demeaning medical procedure involving removal of hair and teeth and injection with a special shrinking medicine before being anaesthetised and locked naked in a giant microwave.

It’s a little hard to describe exactly what kind of movie this is. It’s not an action movie or a thriller, and it’s not a comedy either, although there’s the occasional comic moment. There's some romance, so at least we can be sure that size isn't everything, but it's not really a romantic comedy either. Perhaps it’s a little confused – too many subplots with messages about environmental catastrophe, race, immigration, poverty, social inequality and division.

However this is first and foremost a science fiction story in the John W. Campbell sense – the downsizing is the only fantasy element, and the movie takes this concept very seriously and explores the consequences, good and bad, of this new technology and its impact on the world. The result is a thoughtful movie about the challenge of taking an irreversible step into the unknown, and how this affects relationships in which some decisions are reversible.

While most of the supporting cast are poorly developed to the point of stereotyping – flamboyant European party animal, immigrant cleaner with heart of gold and so on, Matt Damon’s lead character is the exception – he’s got enough of a backstory and personality to convince that he is not a hero or villain but a likeable Philip Dick-style everyman character trying to muddle through.

Downsizing is a B-movie, and it’s disappointing in places but occasionally thoughtful or touching. It’s been mis-promoted as a comedy in the trailers when it would be better described as a drama. I found enough positives to merit the highly coveted Sci-Fi Gene three-star rating.

Score: 3 out of 5 stars
All movies reviewed on the Sci-Fi Gene blog are given a score of 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

2020 Vision

Happy New Year!

Welcome to 2020, the year in which, according to Hollywood we should be racing to Mars on a desperate mission to rescue some floating M&Ms, fighting Kaiju and finding true love in our Jaegers, or hiding from dragons while teaching children about Star Wars.

I know. So disappointing when reality doesn’t match up to the movies.

I've almost finished Netflix so I’m looking forward to leaving the house and discovering some new experiences in 2020. My plans include getting to London Comic-Con and also trying some immersive science-fiction theatre – will report back if I survive. I’m also looking at all the movies coming out this year and I have no idea what to think. Ghostbusters, Top Gun and Bill and Ted are all coming back – any of which could be epic or catastrophic. On the other hand there are some originals in the line-up too, including the mysterious Chris Nolan movie Tenet, and while I don't always approve of re-makes I will probably still see the new adaptation of Dune, and I'm genuinely interested to see what Jordan Peele does with his re-imagining of Candyman.

2020 is also the 100th anniversary of the theremin, that most science-fictiony of electronic instruments. The theremin was invented by Leon Theremin in either 1919 or 1920 – the theremin community are hedging their bets on this. I’ve continued practicing my Open Theremin, working through Carolina Eyck's book, and I’ll post some more thoughts and videos for your amusement shortly.

Monday, 25 November 2019

The Empire Strikes Flatpack [Review: Aniara]

The space cruise ship Aniara begins its three-month mission to bring thousands of moderately rich Earthlings to Mars, leaving behind an environmental catastrophe. Amongst the passengers is MR (Emelie Jonsson), a technician responsible for tending to MIMA, an AI that can give the colonists soothing visions of Earth before the disaster. But shortly after departure a collision leaves the Aniara drifting off course with no engine, challenging Captain Chefone (Arvin Kananian) and his crew to try to find a solution and keep the passengers happy.

Aniara is a Swedish-Danish movie – and you can tell this as it takes place on the decks of a rectangular cruise ship clearly designed and built by the Ikea-Lego Corporation (Assemble Your Own Better Worlds). There’s some clever low-budget sci-fi filmmaking – the interior of the Aniara has been filmed in airports, shopping malls and hotels, or perhaps airport shopping malls and hotels. CGI is sparsely used, basic but effective, mainly limited to exterior views of the drifting Aniara.

The Aniara. Slightly rippled with a flat underside.

Aniara is based on the famous epic poem by Swedish Nobel prize winner Harry Martinson, which as well as this 2018 movie has also inspired an opera and several obscure albums in musical styles from jazz to metal. The original poem incidentally is subject to disgraceful anti-English discrimination. While the Swedish, French, Japanese and Spanish editions are all on Kindle for under £14, Sjoberg’s English translation starts at £117 in paperback only. And this isn’t even the most depressing thing about the poem.

Emelie Jonsson carries the film, playing MR as a character determined to be happy and optimistic, to persevere and to see the best in others. She believes in love and kindness. She’s perhaps a symbol for the human spirit. While other characters, such as MR’s roommate the astronomer, swing constantly between positivity and negativity, it takes a lot to bring MR down, and when this happens it is painful.

Beautiful but misleading poster for Aniara. While the woman in the centre is MR, the main character in the film, she generally looks happier than this. However she does occasionally look over her shoulder. The spaceship in the foreground is not the Aniara and indeed is never seen in the movie, and I don't recognize the coridoor behind MR's head either.

I loved the economical and atmospheric setting, and the contrast between MR’s optimistic naïveté and the growing despair of the Aniara society. Will hope triumph over darkness? I won’t give away the ending but I repeat, this is a Swedish-Danish movie. The movie is divided into years of the voyage, with each year bringing new, sinister developments. It’s bleak – only three years into the voyage there appears to be a line-dancing revival, and things go downhill fast from there. The film ends not with a traditional Hollywood bang but an indie Scandinavian whimper, which is in keeping with the tone and story but may disappoint some.

Aniara is a deliciously dark indie sci-fi drifting in the direction of three stars.

Score: 3 out of 5 stars

All movies reviewed on the Sci-Fi Gene blog are given a score of 3 out of 5 stars