Sunday, 29 August 2010

Who is Shane Van Dyke? [Titanic II Week]

A message to everyone who sailed with me on Titanic II Week, I hope you've had a pleasant voyage. It's been a lot of fun writing these posts. I had hoped to bring you a review of Titanic II along the way but it hasn't been possible - in retrospect, shipping the review copy to me across the Atlantic by sea might have been asking for trouble...

Shane Van Dyke, director and star of Titanic II, comes from a hard-grafting cinematic dynasty: the Van Dykes. His grandfather Dick Van Dyke cut a swathe through Hollywood as cheery Cockney chimney sweep Bert in the classic witchcraft horror Mary Poppins. In his later years he would also become known as Dr. Mark Sloan of the long-running series Diagnosis: Murder. Dick Van Dyke's son Barry and another grandson Carey also worked on Diagnosis: Murder, Shane's aunt Stacy Van Dyke made a guest appearance, and the Happy Families set was completed when Shane himself appeared as medical student Alex Smith.

Shane has worked on other Asylum movies: he appears in Transmorphers: Fall Of Man which he also wrote, and Paranormal Entity which he also directed. I'm pleased to report that according to IMDb his next film Super Shark is in post production - you can never have enough films about sharks. What has the rest of the dynasty been up to? Shane and Carey Van Dyke also co-wrote The Day The Earth Stopped with Darren Dalton. You can look forward to seeing Carey again in Mega Python Vs Gatoroid, alongside Debbie Gibson and Tiffany who, contrary to popular belief, have not been cast in the title roles.

Source: IMDb

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Jumpin' Jack Flash [Titanic II Week]

Following the success of Titanic I, a sequel has been on the cards for a long time as this trailer, completely unrelated to this week's Asylum movie release, proves. This is my favourite of the many re-cut Titanic sequel trailers out there on the Interwebs.

Incidentally did you know that another film titled Titanic 2 was released in 2002? The director was James Whalley and the plot of this short - an unlikely romance between an obsessive Titanic I fan (Elizabeth Ammann) and the janitor at a Titanic museum (Will Sexton) - sounds intriguing, I might have to get hold of that one.

[edit 28.8.10: grammar corrections, this Titanic 2 was a short film not a feature]

Friday, 27 August 2010

Mockbustin' makes me feel good [Titanic II Week]

It's always been my impression that it is not only the mockbuster studios that make mockbusters. The Asylum has cornered a reputation for films such as Transmorphers: Fall Of Man, The Day The Earth Stopped, and Snakes On A Train, which apparently resemble other movies although I'm not sure which.

However, I can't help but notice that, for example, a number of films released by Disney/Pixar, Dreamworks and other mainstream childrens' film studios bear curious resemblances to each other: Antz and A Bug's Life, The Wild and Madagascar, Finding Nemo and Shark Tale, WALL-E and Robots.

Another example is the run of post-apocalyptic road movies including Zombieland, The Road, The Book Of Eli, Carriers and so on.

The Asylum released their own version of Sherlock Holmes - with pterodactyls! - but at the same time the BBC released a present-day TV mini-series Sherlock. The BBC did exactly the same thing in 2005 with Casanova, starring a pre-Doctor Who David Tennant, around the time of the Heath Ledger movie of the same name.

When a movie or franchise proves successful, you get not just one lookalike but a flood: the success of Harry Potter led to a run on the children's literature bank with adaptations of C.S.Lewis, Susan Cooper and many more. Vampire movies have been on the ascendant for some time but in the wake of Twilight you can be sure there are plenty of sparkly lookalikes still to appear. And why is it both Tom Cruise and Kate Winslet appeared in Nazi movies so close together? Meanwhile, my wonderful guest blogger Amanda mentioned Paranormal Entity but somehow omitted Paranormal Calamity, Abnormal Activity and Paranormal Effect.

Sometimes the doppelganger isn't quite what you'd expect: I vaguely remember a reviewer pointing out that Super Mario Brothers turned out to be about dinosaurs - a departure from the theme of the computer games which, they speculated, might have been an attempt to cash in on the success of Jurassic Park.

Releasing movies that resemble other movies works for the same reason we go to see sequels and re-makes, because a good movie leaves us wanting more. Right across the industry, producers are whispering to each other in smoky speakeasies: "Warner are releasing a mummy/ insect/ robot/ octopus/ supermarket trolley movie next Spring - quick, can we get one out too?"

And The Band Played On [Titanic II Week]

Something to listen to while you rearrange the deckchairs.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Not Drowning But Waving [Titanic II Week]

The iconic departure scene in Titanic I was flipped in post-production so that the ship would appear to betravelling in the right direction. As a result, the number of left-handed people seen waving from the deck is disproportionately high - I don't know about you but that completely ruined Titanic I for me. Talk about jumping the shark!

A more commonly discussed Titanic I story is the fourth funnel - a structure added to the ship's design for aesthetic reasons. The Titanic had three engines, three propellors and three functioning funnels. It has been suggested that the film should not have shown anything emerging from the fourth funnel.

However there is genuine confusion about this amongst Titanicologists - according to some sources the fourth funnel was used for deckchair storage, but others point out that steam and smoke from the ship's galleys would have escaped through this route. In addition, many of the original White Star Line posters seem to show four plumes, while this movie clip, seen in the first third of Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On video, seems to show only three.

To confuse matters even further, here's a photo from the front page of the New York Times - what exactly would you say was going on here? So I think we should cut Mr. Cameron a little slack on this one.

Meanwhile, if the trailer is anything to go by, the Asylum seems to have neatly sidestepped this controversy in Titanic II by not having any steam at all. I'll report back on this in my review of the film.

You can read more about Titanic I bloopers, genuine or otherwise, here at the IMDb. However there is one omission - I can't find any mention of those highly improbable scenes where people are clearly seen dancing without moving their arms.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Mock Mock Horror [Titanic II Week]

Please welcome my Guest Blogger Amanda, of Jigsaw's Lair. Irish horror fans Amanda and Jigsaw started their blog around the same time I did and over the past year and a half have watched - and reviewed - an impressive number of horror films (and, curiously, a few episodes of Hell's Kitchen.) I asked Amanda to come up with her own selection of mockbusters from the horror genre:

Have you ever seen a movie which has a plot suspiciously like a big blockbuster you have seen? Mockbusters are lookalikes of blockbuster films and sometimes, they can be a lot of fun! Horror mockbusters are plentiful too. Let me begin with one of the best ones. Paranormal Activity was a hit movie which was in the vein of The Blair Witch Project. I bet you haven't seen Paranormal Entity! Halloween was a classic slasher, but Halloween Night is the mockbuster!! When A Killer Calls is a tribute to When A Stranger Calls. Are You Scared is eerily like the Saw movies.

The Hitcher was a classic unlike The Hitchhiker - same plot. One of my favourites is Hillside Cannibals which is a doppelganger of The Hills Have Eyes. These movies may not be classics but they are worth a look just for the fun of it! Oh yes, don't forget Monster, which is a lookalike of Cloverfield!!!!! These movies should be enough to keep you entertained!

Thanks Amanda! I'll post my own thoughts about mockbusters shortly, just to note I also enjoyed Monster which is reviewed here; also Paranormal Entity, mentioned above, was directed by Shane Van Dyke - who went on to become the director of Titanic II. Be sure to check out Jigsaw's Lair to satisfy your horror movie cravings!

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang [Review: The Deep]

Somewhere beneath the Arctic ice, BBC's sci-fi submarine series The Deep is proving to be more than just melodrama with gritty-blue colour grading - it's got ideas. There's no question of spinning this series out and making you wait months for a tiny snippet of a hint Lost-style - tonight the revelations were coming in thick and fast and breaking their way in through the hull. I won't reveal them here, that's what BBC iPlayer is for.

The melodrama is pretty over the top - it's almost as if someone in the scriptwriting department realised that "high pressure" could be a metaphor for something! James Nesbitt and Orla Grady in particular really go for maximum emotion - admittedly, she has returned from the dead. And while I expect realism to take second place to drama in a series like this, I did notice that there's rather a lot of casual gunplay considering the action takes place inside a pressurized vessel located several thousand feet underwater.

By contrast, it's great to see Minnie Driver in a really powerful role here, as the ice-cool submarine commander taking tough decisions and just about holding the crew (and her hairstyle) together. There's a distinct lack of large prehistoric sharks in this series - so far - but you can't have everything and so I am thankful for the bangs.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Titanic [Titanic II Week]

Starship Titanic was an experimental computer game designed by galactic hitch-hiker Douglas Adams. The experimental element was the existential gameplay which involved asking questions of a series of eccentric robots, to which they universally failed to reply. Kafka would have been impressed. Where the game failed in artificial intelligence breakthroughs, it succeeded with artwork, animation and atmosphere, providing the player with (for it's time) a highly detailed art deco starship interior to explore.

Douglas Adams first mentioned the Starship Titanic in the third Hitch-Hiker novel Life, The Universe and Everything - a prototype Improbability Drive ship that unfortunately suffered a gratuitous Total Existence Failure during its maiden voyage. Terry Jones' novel "Douglas Adams' Starship Titanic" develops this story arc further in parallel with the computer game.

Doctor Who is indebted to Douglas Adams in many ways and the Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat series are laced with references to Adams' books. The 2007 extended episode Voyage Of The Damned, starring David Tennant and Kylie Minogue, was also set on a Starship Titanic, although arguably the plot itself had more in common with The Poseidon Adventure. This Titanic was once again staffed by mad robots - robotic angels with deadly, detachable halos.

Douglas Adams has a history of developing brilliant but tricky computer games - his two Interactive Fiction games, Bureaucracy and the official Hitch Hiker game, are both masterpieces of fiendish multi-layered puzzles. Success is virtually impossible but failure is fun. I don't know what happens if you complete either one of them - possibly the entire Universe is destroyed and replaced by something even more fiendish (there are of course those who claim this has already happened.) You can play a version of the Hitch Hiker game here on the BBC Radio 4 website, updated with some fantastic new artwork. The original text-only game is hosted here.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Ever Get That Sinking Feeling? [Titanic II Week]

Titanic Days by Kirsty Maccoll (1959-2000) is an epic song from the album of the same name. There doesn't appear to have been an official promotional video and I couldn't find any live performances either, but you can listen to the song at we7.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Iceberg! Dead Ahead! [Titanic II Week]

One hundred years after the maiden voyage of the Titanic, a replica ship sets off on to retrace the original course - with disastrous consequences. Titanic II, directed by Shane Van Dyke and produced by The Asylum, is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 24th August. Welcome to Titanic II Week at The Sci-Fi Gene! Over the next few days join in the fun with reviews, commentary, tenuous links and bad puns: we're really pushing the boat out here.

Returning readers: please do not be alarmed. The Sci-Fi Gene remains as noncommercial, incorruptible and unsinkable as ever. Titanic II Week has been assembled at my own request and is an exercise in fandom rather than product placement: why miss the boat when you can go overboard?

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Mission To Miaows

Back in 2009 I wrote a blog post about Jonesy and other science fiction cats. NASA blogger Pillownaut goes one better with this fascinating article about the real-life cats of the space program. Regarde Felix et Felicette!

Friday, 20 August 2010

I Crush Everything [Review: The Lathe Of Heaven]

George Orr, an undistinguished draughtsman, believes that his dreams can change reality, in such a way that only he is aware of the change. Orr is an everyman figure, terrified of the power of his dreams, so he seeks to suppress them with drugs – leading him reluctantly into the influence of William Haber, a well meaning but ambitious psychiatrist. Far from helping Orr to stop the dreams Haber starts trying to experiment with them for what he believes is the common good. Orr hires a lawyer, Heather, to try to stop Haber’s experiments: there is an awesome moment while Orr is asleep in Haber’s laboratory, when Haber and Heather look out the window and see a terrible shift in reality taking place.

Exploring the nature of reality, dreams, power and morality, centred on ordinary characters with believable flaws, laced with paranoia and simultaneously celebrating and subverting sci-fi themes such as alien invasion, The Lathe of Heaven could arguably be described as one of Philip K. Dick’s finest novels. In fact it was written by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Dungeons and Griffins [Review: Lord Of The Changing Winds]


Lord Of The Changing Winds is a medieval fantasy set in Feierabiand one of three imaginary nations. The novel opens with an incursion into Feierabiand airspace of a flock of griffins – they have been driven out of their own desert home and forced to settle elsewhere. Kes, a village girl, watches their arrival without understanding the significance, but is drawn into the heart of events by a mysterious, fiery stranger who has sensed her latent magical talents. Meanwhile the arrival of the griffins triggers a series of diplomatic crises between Feriabiand and the adjacent country of Casmantium.

In this fantasy world griffins are creatures of fire magic, set against the earth magic more typical of the humans. They are the creators of the desert – in a very literal sense, wherever they come to rest becomes sand. Griffins are also toughened, warlike creatures who do not shirk from death – their concept of “a day of blood” when death in battle is simply accepted reminded me of the oft-cited Klingon proverb “Heghlu'meH QaQ jajvam.*” Kes comes to occupy a unique position –transformed beyond humanity herself, and accepted into the complex griffin system of relationships, she stands between human and griffin styles of thinking. Her own awareness of her gradual loss of humanity is fascinating and tragic.

I get the sense that the author, Rachel Neumeier, believes that griffins are underrepresented in fantasy writing compared to, say, dragons, and that her trilogy is a way of redressing the balance. Good call. Griffins really do add something fresh to what would otherwise be a nicely written but unremarkable novel, and the author’s fascination with them burns brightly: while dragons are often portrayed as loners, these griffins are social beasts with their own emotions, rules, rivalries and friendship-like bonds, far from their human equivalents: again, it’s not entirely unlike Klingon society. Their connection to the geology and weather is, I think, a very original element, and the fire-earth magic dynamic is well thought out, as is the “political” background of both the griffin tribe and the Feierabiand Court, and the many parallels between them. Human must think like griffin and vice versa.

The aversion between fire and earth is just one aspect of magic in this world, alongside magical artisanship and animal affinities which also play their part, and the legalistic written magic of Linularinum which remains a mystery throughout this novel – I look forward to finding out more about these different magics in the second and third books. Perhaps in future the author will also turn her hand to other under-represented fantasy species: The Cockatrice Mage Trilogy, coming soon.

*Today is a good day to die.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Roland Limmerich

Roland Emmerich is filming "Foundation."
That's my favourite sci-fi creation!
I can't help but speculate
How he plans to integrate
His trademark White House desecration...

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Cult Of Sedaris Part II [Review: Me Talk Pretty One Day]

Now read on...

Hurt by the callous and ungentlemanly behaviour of those bookstorians, I went on to perform a highly scientific survey of fellow coffee drinkers, armed with my new copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day. My census confirmed, thankfully, that there are plenty of other people out there who have also never heard of David Sedaris. The test subjects also showed an immediate interest in the book - Mr. Sedaris, if this leads to any sales then I want my cut.

Finally I ran out of displacement activities and had no choice but to actually read the damn thing.

Me Talk Pretty One Day is a collection of short, strongly themed autobiographical stories. David Sedaris as a writer has a love of language and word-play. He also manages both to embrace his identity (sexuality, nationality, tastes and so on) and to simultaneously use Woody Allen-style self-deprecating humour. Eccentric family members and habits are easy targets, and the shadow of Sedaris' father looms large in many of the stories. Although I've no doubt there is at least exaggeration, the stories do ring true and are often moving as well as funny. Themes are varied - this is definitely a short story collection, not a novel - and include Sedaris' childhood encounter with a speech therapist, the rise and fall of Sedaris as a performance artist, and the title story, one of many about living in France and learning French.

While the humour is often gentle, don't be fooled: firstly, it's funny enough to cause a major incident on the Tube, and secondly Sedaris can,suddenly and without warning, dip into much blacker stuff. The following passage, from "The Youth In Asia" follows on from a series of hilarious but mostly harmless anecdotes about Sedaris' parents' pets:

"When my mother died and was cremated herself, we worried that, acting on instinct, our father might run out and immediately replace her. Returning from the funeral, my brother, sisters, and I half expected to find some vaguely familiar Sharon Two standing at the kitchen counter and working the puzzle in the TV Guide. 'Sharon One would have gotten five across' our father would have scolded. 'Come on, baby, get with it.' "

How does Sedaris fare with the Terry Pratchett comparison? It's hard to judge as they write such different material: giggling on Underground trains is probably the only common ground. Personally I would describe Sedaris as two parts Woody Allen, one part Garrison Keillor and one part Natalie Tran. And if that isn't either a recommendation or the best episode of "Come Dine With Me" ever, then I don't know what is.

With thanks to Lovy Boheme for the original recommendation.

[Edit 5.9.10: Oops! removed highly embarrassing mistake. I think I got away with it :o ]

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Daydream Believer [Review: Inception]

Inception is good, hard speculative fiction in the sense of gedanken-experiment. It revolves around a single, simple concept - shared dreaming - and the plot of the film introduces and explores the practical, philosophical and moral questions thrown up by this concept.

While the idea is straightforward, the plot is not: as the climax approaches, the heist-movie team of nöonauts* are travelling through different dreams simultaneously while trying to pull off their audacious and precisely timed plan. Director Christopher Nolan and editor Lee Smith, who also worked together on The Prestige, have once again delivered a complex plot that remains easy to follow - a number of cinematic devices, including the different colour themes and styles for each layer of reality, help with this. However where The Prestige is perfectly edited, Inception is close to perfect but slightly too long, and as a result a few scenes gain a comic edge that may not have been intended.

Casting is great whether you are a fan of Mr. DiCaprio or not - like many heist movies this is very much an ensemble piece. I was particularly pleased to see Ellen Page, the star of Juno, in a major role - an arrogant and talented architecture student and far from your typical action heroine.

Previous films such as The Cell, The Matrix, eXistenZ have explored similar ideas to Inception - travelling either into the minds of other people or into cyberspace. A common idea is that when you die, or are killed in such a state, you also die in real life. There's no obvious reason for this so I was pleased to see that Inception takes a different and more intelligent tack. Here, if you die in your sleep, you just wake up - however it turns out there are other, more plausible ways for dreaming to be dangerous.

*The term nöonaut for a dream traveller is not used in Inception but in Black Brillion and Matt Hughes' other novels and short stories of The Times Before The End Times, in which characters explore the collective unconscious and do battle with archetypal foes.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Location, Location, Location

My latest foray into amateur filmmaking wrapped on Wednesday evening. I'm keeping the details of this one under my hat for now, except to say that it's a collaboration with another blogger, and will use a hybrid of vlog and mini-documentary styles. It should be edited in a couple of weeks and will eventually go up on YouTube. More details plus production stills coming soon.

Today's Lesson Learnt The Hard Way is: always clear your locations in advance - and by "in advance" I mean 1997. Our plan to shoot in a local building with striking architectural features was set up during the past week, but almost fell through on the day when (it seemed) nobody could be found anywhere in the region who held either the key or the passcodes for the building. Cue an afternoon of anxious phone calls.

Happily everything was resolved by evening with minutes to spare, and once again I'm amazed at just how helpful people can be sometimes. After a shoot you end up feeling grateful to everyone - the library and council staff who never gave up trying to find a way in, my brother who helped me to operate three cameras simultaneously, or the narrator's travelling companion who proved to be a kick-ass clapperboard operator. Even though it meant waking him from his nap 14 times....

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The Cult of Sedaris Part I

A friend and recent visitor to this blog introduced me to the name David Sedaris. The commenter juxtaposed Sedaris' humorous writing with that of Terry Pratchett and the comment was phrased in such a way as to create a challenge: for review blogging, as for Street Countdown, once the gauntlet is thrown there is no option but to accept the joust.

Over recent years my own appreciation of David Sedaris, America's Finest Humorous Writing Source, has been only slightly muted by the fact that I'd never heard of the guy. Was this The Emperor's New Clothes all over again? (that first day at the office was so embarrassing.) Worse, the First David Sedaris Conspiracy quickly became apparent - Other People (TM) have been reading books by this author all over the internets. Shamed by my ignorance but not deterred, I resolved to find out more.

I searched a number of large high street coffee-and-bookstores. In every one, I hit a blank when looking under author in the A-Z shelves, or on the Short Story shelf, so had to engage the shop assistants. This is how I came across the Second David Sedaris Conspiracy: all bookshop assistants have been reading David Sedaris books for some time, they would all recommend the same one - Me Talk Pretty One Day - and they have all conspired to hide these books under a different definition in each store: Biography, Humour, Travel Writing and so on.

To be continued...

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Alien vs Vikings [Review: Outlander]

A spaceship crash-lands in a Viking fjord, survived by a humanoid soldier from an interstellar army… and something else. Outlander, a mid-budget movie, features a great principle cast: Jim Caviezel as the alien warrior and John Hurt as the ageing Viking leader, while Sophia Myles is brilliantly cast against type as a flame-haired, sword wielding Viking princess. The monster that has been unleashed on the Viking homestead, complicating the local and inter-tribal tensions, is also excellent even though it is yet another Giger-inspired alien, and the war against it is action-packed: Caviezel’s warrior has superior knowledge of how to fight it, but none of his advanced technology to back him up, and not everything goes to plan.

The real stars of this film though are the legion of extras – Viking re-enactment enthusiasts – who make up the tribe and bring the massed battle and scenes of drunken celebration to life. A few sequences are over-long but they are the exception in this wonderful film.