Monday, 31 May 2010

Code Monkey Go To Job [Review: Antitrust]

Cyber thrillers deal with the work of computer programmers and hackers. They walk a tightrope between accuracy and drama: without some concessions to the non-expert viewer they would be completely incomprehensible to the casual viewer, but too many concessions and they lose touch with reality: oversized fonts and "You've Got Mail" screens, typing in commands in plain English etc.

Antitrust manages this juggling act better than some films. It deals with the conflict between monopoly corporations and open sourcers: something that does get programmers' juices going in the real world, such as the authors of this message on the GNU website. It goes to great lengths to explain their concept of "free software" (it's like free speech - not free beer) and how it differs from "open source" (one is a philosophy, the other is a practical way to write software) even though most free software is also open source. As a Blenderhead I have to point out that many open sourcers are pretty idealistic too but I digress. The plot, in which software company NURV (uncannily Microsoftish) tries to monopolize digital communication and shut down its' free software competitors, is plausible. Ryan Phillipe's genius programmer does actually do some programming, and for the most part it all adds up and looks realistic. Naturally Tim Robbins, doing a Bill Gates impression, steals the show...

On the other hand, bypassing the security cameras by looping a tape from two days earlier is now standard practice for all espionagers - but NURV's security contractors thoughtfully added this option into their computer interface to make it easier. Thanks guys: won't be hiring you to secure my Skullcrusher Mountain hideout. I was also a bit confused by both Claire Forlani and Rachel Leigh Cooke's roles but I think I've got it: the one that he thought was helping him but was actually betraying him and may or may not have been involved in trying to kill him was also helping him all along, while the one he thought was helping him and actually was helping him turned out to be betraying him - but still seemed to have helped him quite a lot. Or did they both switch sides? Several times? By the end it had all gone a bit Deus Ex, and while this remains an exciting thriller, the sense of a real underlying issue sort of gets lost in the chaos.

Thursday, 27 May 2010


Another art-as-treasure-quest: hundreds of urban elephants are now roaming through London. As you can see these elephants have evolved the chameleon-like ability to blend seamlessly into their city environment. Don't move - there's probably one behind you right now.

OMG it's full of stars!
Photos: Sci-Fi Gene
Elephants: Elephant Parade London

Friday, 21 May 2010

Captain's Log [Review: The Wooden Spaceships]

The Wooden Spaceships, Bob Shaw's sequel to The Ragged Astronauts, takes place on Land and Overland, two co-orbiting planets sharing a common, figure of eight atmosphere that can be traversed by air balloon. Overland has been colonised by refugees from Land fleeing an airborne disease, but a Land ship arrives to re-claim sovereignty, crewed by survivors subtly affected by the plague, and heralding the onset of a war of independence. Overland's defensive strategy - including the invention of military space stations and a number of zero gravity dogfighting techniques - is led by Toller, the hero of The Ragged Astronauts who is only too happy to abandon his unsatisfying marital life to save the world again.

The Overlanders' struggle to develop war technology in time to repel the feared attack is gripping, as is the technology itself - with only a few fictional elements (the unusually hard wood brakka and the two crystals that produce a reaction) this is a pre-steam medieval space opera and war novel. Part of the fascination is seeing these astronauts master space travel without knowing any Newtonian physics and the wrong-headed assumptions that they make as a result. Having said that, once the Land forces do appear on the scene the action is anticlimactic as the Overland forces are a little too well prepared and lucky, and always stay several steps ahead.

The book also feels as if two novels have been squeezed into one - the last third of the novel deals with a journey to the system's third planet, Farland, to resolve a paranormal mystery described in interludes throughout the earlier chapters. With a little more balance between sides in the war, and perhaps a longer, more in-depth exploration of Farland, both could easily have been fascinating stand-alone novels. The story of Overland continues in a third novel, The Fugitive Worlds.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Guerillas In The Mist [Review: Urban Ghost Story]

Urban Ghost Story is directed by Genevieve Jolliffe and produced by Chris Jones, authors of the Guerilla Film-Maker's guidebooks. Nine years before Paranormal Activity, this film brought the ghost story into a downbeat setting: Glasgow, a block of flats, complete with poverty, loan sharks, drug use and teenage pregnancies, and it brought the paranormal together with real-life menace to create a tense, creepy atmosphere.

The ghost story element is intelligent and non-patronizing - possible explanations for the entity are presented by characters we don't quite trust so there is no glib solution to the mystery, and in any case it's really a film about trauma. The heroine, Lizzie, has survived a car crash in which her best friend died, but is traumatized over and over again by the crash itself, the mysterious happenings that follow it, and then by the various responses from the police and social services, the spiritualists who terrorize her and the para-scientists who tie her to her bed for one more experiment.

This is an awesome film which I would recommend to anyone, with a great story and a lot to say about trauma. It has a strong cast, headed by child actress Heather Ann Foster who plays Lizzie perfectly, and has a memorable look: it's filmed in drab blues and greens that perfectly convey the mood of despair and fear, offset by the bright colours of the goldfish, a symbol of Lizzie's dilemma that appears throughout the film.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Lost In Your Ice [Review: Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus]

Before I watch an Asylum film I always wonder if it will cure my sci-fi gene deficiency and restore my critical faculties for sci-fi. So far it hasn't worked - despite sometimes laughable production values, I have to say they've all had something to redeem themselves, whether it's the performances, the sense of fun, or just the audacity with which they have been made.

Cruelly overlooked at the Oscars, Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus is nevertheless another such film, and despite aspects which are undeniably cheap and silly, I have to admit as usual that I enjoyed the ride. The plot concerns two prehistoric beasts frozen in an ice-shelf and released due to global warming and military interference - this is a metaphorical film with a strong eco-message but that's not really the point. What's not to enjoy about a film which features an oil-rig eating octopus, an aeroplane-eating shark (technically a megalodon) and, playing their oceanographer nemesis, singer-songwriter Debbie Gibson?

I am inconsistent. I complained here about the poor depiction of gravity in Armageddon which jumped the shark (although I enjoyed that movie too) but I wasn't troubled in the slightest by this shark jumping out of the sea to eat a plane - my sole complaint was that it only happened once! Far too much of this film was about beautiful Debbie Gibson moping around on beautiful beaches watching beautiful sunsets and there was not enough aeroplane chomping.

There is no cure for me. I am lost in the eyes of a giant octopus and I am doomed to continue loving bad sci-fi. Hit it, Debbie!

Monday, 10 May 2010

Read Me, Seymour!

Two short films today: firstly, The Wonderful Present, placed 3rd this year in Sci-Fi London's 48hour film challenge. I saw this film at the screening event, it's got great atmosphere and effects, does a lot with minimal dialogue, and seems to be following the DV Rebel's Guide to the letter - right down to the vignetting. Congratulations also to Shoot The Runner, makers of this year's winner Abducted, and More Reel Than Real, who made the other runner-up The 10th Planet. You can see the other films here.

Today's second film is The Slush Pile, a comedy by Keith Kowalczyck and Martin Ott. This is not a 48 hour challenge entry. It's based on a true story, and another screenwriter friend also confirmed that it is very true to life. Martin Ott writes:

An friend of mine in the entertainment industry worked at a top agency where he dumped all of his "reader" scripts in a "Slush Pile" so that he could network his way out of the mail room (which he did).

So part of it is true enough and part of it is "tongue-in-cheek" - obviously a Slush Pile monster hasn't really eaten Hollywood (yet!). However, a town filled with so much nepotism and "connections" for a script to get read deserves this type of "parody."

[edited 10.5.10]

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Secrets Of Dragon Training [Review: How To Train Your Dragon]

A war rages across cinema as live-action/CGI hybrid blockbusters face off against CGI children's movies. The children's movies are winning.

How To Train Your Dragon isn't another Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs - not quite - but it's a charming and hilarious children's film that scores above the live-action blockbusters in terms of plot, characterisation and visuals. It features believable, sympathetic and likeable characters: it's easy to care about what happens to Hiccup, a steampunk lad growing up amongst Vikings, his axe-wielding love interest Astrid, or even his enormous, comical and blinkered father (and yes, this is another film where a young man must earn his father's respect despite choosing a different path in life. I despair of cinema ever rising beyond this theme.) The supporting cast of characters are great too and the result is genuine comedy that arises from their interaction rather than just slapstick.

The film is also beautiful, particularly the dragonflight sequences that hold their own against Avatar, and it makes excellent use of the 3D viewpoint. The Viking settlement did remind me a little of isometric strategy games such as Warcraft or The Settlers, perhaps this was a deliberate reference or a merchandising option.

Monday, 3 May 2010

The City Of Gold And Lead

This week sci-fi has literally been oozing out of the ground all over London. First of all the Tree of Souls sprouted in Hyde Park:
Rumours of the discovery of massive deposits of unobtainium beneath the Serpentine lake remain unconfirmed and I am assured that the excavation works all over London are pure coincidence.

Over in Piccadilly Sci-Fi London is in full swing. Accompanied by my two leading ladies I came to the screening of the 48 Hour Film Challenge entries, just as the All-Nighter survivors were leaving. I say "leaving", but what I really mean is "falling asleep all over the foyer." Brave souls, I will join you in your cryogenic suspension pods next year.

Our non-shortlisted film, Half A Million, received a few giggles and some applause - you're a polite lot, Sci-Fi London! More about this in my last post. It was shown alongside some really good entries made by some very nice people, so I'll round up the links and publish my favourites in another post.

Starcraft II was on display. This is news. Look!

The amazing Science Fiction cupcakes by Chocoloty (pictured) - which tasted as glam as they look. I'm guessing Chocoloty is a fan of Barbarella, Flash Gordon or old-series BSG rather than, say, new-series BSG.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Half A Million intro [remake]

We made a film for Sci-Fi London 48 Hour Film Challenge 2010. The results were shockingly poor - looking back the decision to shoot everything on bluescreen & model all the locations in Blender within the 48 hours was a bit ambitious and should have rung a few alarm bells, and although the live shoot went smoothly post-production was completely rushed. The film will eventually be uploaded at Sci-Fi London & I'll link to it when it appears.

This is not that film.

Here I've completely re-made the first few shots using the original bluescreen footage - took a few nights but the clip you are now watching is closer to how the film appeared in my head.

With thanks to the wonderful cast and crew.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Bond Girls: Curse or Blessing?

The Curse of the Bond Girl crops up in newspaper articles and columns from time to time. It seems bizarre: a high profile, glamorous role in a massive blockbuster movie that puts the actress in question right in the centre of media attention, often showing off both talent and beauty - yet her film career seems to slide instantly into oblivion afterwards.

It's not quite a universal rule: stars who already have a strong international following such as Sophie Marceau and Michelle Yeoh will have had no difficulty shrugging off their chains. Hollywood is too small for these wonderful characters anyway and there are plenty of stages and screens in the world. And - irrepressible and incorrigible - I'm sure Halle Berry will be earning both Oscars and Raspberries for years to come.

However it seems there is a way out for the others: while other Hollywood doors close, the science fiction door stays open! Izabella Scorupco from Goldeneye makes an appearance in Reign Of Fire as a dragon-fighting paratrooper, for instance, or there's the wonderful indie film Franklyn, starring Casino Royale's Eva Green. Goldeneye also gave the world it's Dr. Jean Gray, Famke Janssen who also appeared in The Faculty, and in general had no difficulty finding work after her Bond Girl role. Meanwhile Michelle Yeoh has appeared in sci-films ranging from the wonderful Sunshine to the less wonderful Babylon A.D.

One possible theory for the Curse is the essentially submissive role of the Bond girl - successive films have tried to create stronger female characters, but however assertive or action-orientated the part, the film format generally requires that Bond eventually "gets the girl." It's not a great explanation but it's a start. An exception is Olga Kurylenko in Quantum of Solace, whose character Camille does not end up in bed with Bond: it's too early to say whether this will lead to a different outcome for Kurylenko's career.