Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Bohemian Rhapsody [Banned Book Review: Brave New World]

I've already mentioned Lovy Boheme and her Banned Book Vlog Project - a quest to read and review a wide range of banned and censored books. Here's the film we made together during her recent visit to London: a vlog review of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World."

Most of this film was shot on location at Fulwell Cross Library, one of the extraordinary buildings designed by architect Frederick Gibberd and constructed in the 60s. As Lovy says in her blog, the library staff opened up the building after hours and could not have been more helpful, even advising on the correct pronunciation of "Aldous."

Where the brass bands play and feet start to pound...

Shot on miniDV, edited and post-produced in Blender 2.5. With thanks to Lewis and Mike, the staff at Redbridge Libraries and Redbridge County Council, the Blender and Freesound communities, and a big shout out to everyone at blogcatalog. Happy Banned Books Week!

Monday, 27 September 2010

Hello Dolly! [Skateboard Dolly Part I]

It's time to upgrade the Sci-Fi Gene standard package: starting with the camera department. There are three options, any of which should improve some aspects of film quality.

1. Invest in the latest semi-professional HD camcorder for higher resolution, better image quality and all the latest built-in features.

2. Build or buy a camera rig, matte box and French shutters and 35mm adapter device to enhance the capabilities of the current camera with professional lenses and filters.

3. Sign up for a camera operator training course to learn how to get the best from existing equipment.

As you can see here I chose option 4.

The next project is a track and dolly system. I've based mine on a design featured in The Guerilla Filmmaker's Blueprint by Chris Jones, reviewed here, but there are variants of this design all over the internet. The base will be made from two 96cmx60cmx12mm sheets of plywood.

Building the wheel trucks: 8mm holes on each side of the bracket for the wheel bolts, 4mm holes on the corner for woodscrews. 8mm bolts for the wheels were cut to required length.

On each side of the bracket: bolt, nut, 2 x washer, 54mm skateboard wheel with two bearings, 2 x washer, nut.

Wheel trucks are screwed to wood blocks which can in turn be screwed to the base and easily repositioned if needed.

To be continued...

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Memoirs Of Ianto Jones

Gareth David-Lloyd, Torchwood's Ianto Jones, was cornered by the utterly irrepressible Gerri and Eugenia at an Aussie sci-fi con and interviewed for the Women Talk Sci-Fi podcast - you can listen to the episode here. During the interview, Gerri and Eugenia gently remind Gareth that he did indeed appear in one of the Sherlock Holmes movies. In other news, this podcast always makes me green with envy - those Aussie sci-fi fans clearly got it goin' on.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Augmented Reality Part I: Extreme Close-Up

As TVs get bigger, sound quality improves and HD widescreen becomes the standard, it would appear that cinema and television are converging into a single media. Meanwhile, movies intended for the cinema get watched on DVD players, portable games consoles or even mobile phones, and the crossovers, film adaptations and TV spin-offs continue to multiply.

Television and cinema technology developed in parallel. Historically, some TV footage would be filmed and converted for television – watch an old episode of Fawlty Towers and look for the difference between indoor (video) and outdoor (film) scenes.

CGI has become more advanced, increasing the range of things which can be depicted on TV – without throwing the whole series budget away in episode one. Also, watch any episode of the revived Doctor Who (a great example is the episode “42”) and you’ll see constant use of two-tone lighting or reduced colour palettes, and a shallow depth of field, creating a cinematic look which is now found in a lot of the more upmarket TV dramas. Compare to episodes from the old series - the differences are striking. In particular you’ll see much more colourful sets and costumes in older episodes.

Ever since the VCR first reared it’s magnetic head, people have been predicting the demise of the big screen. It hasn’t happened so far. So what are the crucial differences between the two?

One is location: you watch TV in your living room, on your own furniture in your own house. You have the lights on and your familiar life continues around you: a washing machine in the background, family members enter and leave, there’s a squeak from the hamster wheel. Telephones ring. You might eat while you watch, it's a matter of personal preference. The image is small (even now) and you can still see the rest of the room at the edges of your vision. So television is part of your everyday life.

Cinema is a seat in a darkened room far away from home – real life is put on hold, and the noises of the outside world are either blocked by heavy duty soundproofing or drowned out by waves of Dolby Digital. The image is massive - the widescreen cinema format is not arbitrary. It’s exactly the right shape and size to max out your visual cortex and completely engage you in the movie. Everything you see on the screen is larger than life, and the extreme close-up is used to exaggerate this even further: a cutaway to just the actress’s eyes can encompass the whole field of vision for a few seconds.

To be continued…

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Flock To The Future [Review: The Shepherd]

The Apocalypse is coming and only Sophia can save you!

Warfare and global warming have poisoned the Earth's atmosphere. The dregs of humanity have taken shelter in underground cities where they live, eat, sleep, pray, sin and continue to play out their religious conflicts: a tense three-way stand-off between the Jihadists, the evangelical church led by hypocritical preacher Miles, and priestess Sophia's sisterhood of Amazons* and killer robots.

Dakota (C. Thomas Howell) is a Shepherd, a hitman in the service of Miles and his militia leader Lyndon (Mackenzie Gray.) He has killed thousands of dissidents or threats to the flock on their orders, but when he is called in to perform a last hit he discovers his target Lilith (likeable actress Heidi von Palleske) is the mother of a young boy. This triggers something within his own unhappy memories so instead he goes on the run with the pair.

The dimly lit, poverty stricken underground city full of churches and religious cults reminded me of Franklyn's Meanwhile City - and Franklyn also revolves around a religious hitman. The Shepherd is a simpler film though, with none of the metaphysical genius that makes up Franklyn's multi-reality. There's also a distinct lack of Eva Green and stovepipe-wearing gothic policemen. In their place though is the relationship between Dakota and Lyndon, who were cop buddies together in the pre-apocalyptic world but are set against each other by Dakota's choice.

This film was released in 1999 but the production values suggest a much earlier time, and a particular approach to sci-fi filmmaking with too much emphasis on coloured backlighting. There's no CGI, the sets are dimly lit and massively over-used - the same alleyways and coridoors appear over and over again with different coloured lighting. And what is it about fires in barrels? There are rather a lot of these. Sophia's robot preachers are Johnny Five with some extra guns and are a bit wobbly. And apart from Sophia's security chief Magdeline (Nicole Xidlas) who looks pretty cool on her motorbike, the rest of the characters ride unimpressive, dinky little sci-fi cars.

C. Thomas Howell is an underrated actor who has given a lot to the sci-fi and horror genres over the years, from his supporting role in E.T. to the present - he is currently filming Gulf War horror Camel Spiders. There's nothing wrong with Howell's performance here, or for that matter the other major cast members - and, also typical of this school of sci-fi, The Future(TM) is populated by eccentric minor characters headed by David Carradine as a mad ventriloquist. The script veers all over the place - the exchanges between Miles, who talks the faith talk, and Lyndon, who always calls his bluff, are lively and hilarious, but Howell has to make do with second-class script material and at times the writing is cliched and vacant.

In conclusion there's stuff to enjoy here but also stuff to endure, including two scenes that approach soft-porn but are neither erotic nor of any dramatic value. This film should be filed under G for Guilty Pleasure rather than remembered as any kind of classic.

In what seems like a desperate move to make it sound relevant, this film has been broadcast under the alternative name Cybercity and the tagline "Before The Matrix there was..." This is true but only in a strictly chronological sense. The rebranding exercise resolves one issue though - the Shepherd poster shows some kind of hovering aircraft which disappointingly never appears in the film. There is a sequel, Cybermaster: Shepherd II.

*The term Amazon is used in the film in reference to Sophia's warriors. There is however no evidence that these women have undergone any kind of surgery to enhance their archery skills - instead they seem more into firearms, motorbikes and bondage gear.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Three's A Crowd [Review: Human Centipede: First Sequence]

A few years ago, writer Chuck Palahniuk came up with the short story "Guts" which was reputed to cause mass blackouts and vomiting at public readings. I managed to remain conscious myself but it is certainly a disquieting read - cleverly written, using imagery to trigger a particular gut response (pun intended.)

If Chuck Palahniuk had written the script for The Rocky Horror Show, the result might have been Tom Six's film Human Centipede: First Sequence. The set-up is similar: on a dark and stormy night, two naive youngsters en route to a party are trapped in the middle of nowhere by a flat tyre, finding themselves at a mysterious house in the woods to be offered "help" by a sinister stranger. As with Frank'n'Furter, Dr. Heiter (a graduate of the Evil Medical School, played creepily by Dieter Laser) is also obsessed with creating the perfect human being - it's just that his obsession has less to do with muscles and blonde hair, and more to do with sewing three people together nose to tail to create a single being sharing one long alimentary tract.

If you have seen the film or are planning to, you probably know all of the above. This film is CONTRIVED CONTRIVED CONTRIVED from start to finish - it's raison d'etre is to bring you to the creation of this unnatural being and, as with Palahniuk's story, to induce emotions through visceral reaction.

To this end, Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynn Yennie play their roles perfectly - ditzy, airheaded American party girls, lost, terrified. They give really strong performances and are perfect for the film, which hints at the uncomfortable theme of punishing those who are not worthy, as practised by Dr. Hannibal Lecter or the Jigsaw Killer - although in the end it's more about transplant compatibility.

Akihiro Kitamura, playing a Japanese tourist captured by Heiter, is also great but seems to be present purely because swearing sounds so much ruder in Japanese.

The film delivers pretty much what it says on the tin. It's slightly easier to stomach than expected. The style is more Hitchcock than Tarantino and the more horrific aspects take place in the viewer's mind rather than on-screen. For the most part it is effective horror, although there are certainly some scenes that elicited peals of laughter from the whole cinema audience. The "100% medically accurate" claim seems reasonable - at least, it compares well to certain nameless hospital TV dramas. However I noticed that while that nice Dr. Heiter does take his three subjects through the details of the operation using some nifty diagrams before putting them to sleep, he fails to obtain written consent - a surprising error for such an experienced surgeon.

This is a shamefully enjoyable little film. It would also make a great road safety video detailing what will undoubtedly happen to you if you don't learn how to change a tyre.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Human Centipede Patient Information

Tom Six's recently released horror-torture film is "100% medically accurate" according to the producers. Some more helpful information for potential patients:
  • Here in the UK, between 20 and 35 Human Centipede operations are carried out every year by the National Health Service, with an unknown number also taking place in private clinics.

  • The average NHS waiting time for the procedure is approximately eight months. The operation can only take place in a small number of specialist hospitals due to the need for a purpose-built, elongated operating theatre.

  • Common side effects in the first three weeks post-op include knee pain, nausea, altered bowel habit, slowness of movement, pain, impaired vision and irrational aggressive impulses directed mainly towards the surgeon.

  • National Institute for Health & Clinical Excellence (NICE) operative guidelines released in 2008 recommend that this procedure should not be used for children under 14 years of age, except as a last resort when all other options have proved unsuccessful.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Videolog Heaven

Two cool vlogs for you today. Natalie Tran, communitychannel, is absolutely my favourite on the YouTube comedy scene. She's my twin sister separated at birth - she has to be, there's no other explanation for our identical sense of humour. See? Here she tackles realism or otherwise in hacker movies, something I mentioned in my review of Antitrust.

Blogger and vlogger Lovy Boheme is "a gal who has dedicated her life to the written word." When she's not writing super-creepy flash fiction, Lovy is working her way through a massive pile of banned and censored books, reading and reviewing each for The Banned Book Vlog Project. Here's her review of "Huckleberry Finn." I think this is a worthy undertaking but I also have an ulterior motive for posting this. Just saying. You should also know that September 25th to October 2nd is Banned Books Week in the US: get your copy of And Tango Makes Three, then go to Lovy's blog to find out more.

[Edit 5.9.10: removed extremely embarrassing mistake. I don't think anyone noticed though :o ]

Friday, 3 September 2010

Twisting The Night Away [Review: Twisted Metal]

A planet inhabited by mechanical creatures: self replicating humanoid robots that have evolved beyond their mysterious origins and built up their own cultures and societies. War is brewing between the two city states of Turing and Artemis, the former valuing individuality, sentience and creativity, the latter militaristic, fascist and impersonal. Welcome to Penrose, the harsh and unforgiving setting of Tony Ballantyne’s Twisted Metal.

The robotic biosphere of Penrose is imagined in rich detail – in addition to the humanoids with many variant body forms, there are robotic worms and other non-sentient mechanical creatures. Organic animal and plant life is present but sparse. Multiple viewpoints allow a broad exploration of the main cultures of the Shull continent – giving the sense of a complete overview of the workings of Penrose. However when the conquering robots travel further north they make some surprising discoveries.

Tony Ballantyne has given his robots human-like personalities and motivations, as well as a form of sexual reproduction and lovemaking – a male robot produces wire which the female robot twists into a functional robot mind. At the same time this is not simply a story about humans with mechanical bodies as many of the dilemmas faced by the robots go to the heart of their robotic, non-human nature. The storyline is brutal and desperately sad in places, particularly when dealing with Artemis’ processing of its captives and converts after a war: male captives are forced to kill each other or choose which of their fellows should be killed, while females are subject to the robotic equivalent of systematic rape as they are trained to create the perfect cloned Artemis citizens. However this has a bearing on the robots’ origins – did they evolve on Penrose? Or, were they originally designed to produce identical offspring? And if so, from where does the mother robot get her instinct to make her child’s mind unique?

On a lighter note, the book namechecks and references famous roboticists and artificial intelligence scientists, real and fictional, at every turn, from the planet, Penrose, to the hero of one plot strand Karel, and his robot wife Susan who I presume is named for Asimov’s Susan Calvin. In Turing City, a form of Turing test serves as the citizenship exam.

This novel has a great concept and setting, with lots of original elements and a strong plot. Some elements are clearly contrived in order to make parallels with human society – particularly the mode of reproduction – but even this is cleverly done. It’s a WALL-E or Robots for grown-ups, and I would much rather see a movie version of this made than more Terminator or Transformers numbers. The story continues in the sequel Blood And Iron, reviewed here by Cybermage.