Friday, 31 December 2010

"2007" Update Part I: And The Beat Goes On

The music video for "2007" will have several different strands, dreamed up at meetings with Tenderstar's songwriter and their lead vocalist. I love the paradox of the music video: on the one hand, as they take their structures from the music they're probably one of the most freeform and varied forms of filmmaking out there; on the other hand, however creative and artistic, they are by definition commercials as well and there's a need to hold in mind the target audience and the image the band want to get across.

One strand of the video will be a visual representation of the sounds and rhythms: for example, the bass chords and the beat will look something like this.

To be continued...

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Guess She's An X-Box, I'm More Atari [Review: Tron: Legacy]

My own Cassandrean prophecy has come to pass: Tron Legacy does indeed have no plot, no characters and no dialogue (or at least none worth speaking of) and is indeed just a two and a half hour flythrough of the virtual city - and I probably will see it again. It's visually inspiring, lots of fun, surreal, bonkers, true to the spirit of the original - and utterly lacking in point.

First casualty: that beautiful Comic-Con Trailer sequence where a man finds himself hiding amongst some rocky buildings by the side of the digital highway.

You know - that one.

In one respect and one respect only the world of the Grid still symbolizes cyberspace: Moore's Law. Computers have doubled in power, and therefore the Grid has doubled in coolness, every 18 months since the original Tron was released. So now it admittedly looks pretty cool, and by pretty cool, I mean... words fail me. The neon landscape of the Grid is the most beautiful place the cinema has ever taken me. Ever. I want to live there, with or without Olivia Wilde, and unlike dear sunrise-obsessed Cora I am gutted to find myself back in the boring old real world.

But cyberspace has changed in other ways. The Internet happened for one thing. The original Tron was about a kind of war between users, programmers and the system itself for ownership of the programmes: Kevin Flynn's original victory was the proof that he was the author of some computer games, while security programme Tron's victory was to prevent the corporate computer from controlling everything.

This war hasn't gone away, and the lines of power are still shifting: who really controls the Internet now? We the users create content and think we're in control but (for the most part) we're not really the programmers. Around us are companies we rely on - facebook, YouTube, Myspace, wikipedia, blogger that appear philanthropic yet are still turning a profit somehow, and are still fighting each other tooth and claw for dominance - and watching over us, the All-Seeing Eye of the aptly named Google.

Gaming has changed too - multiplayer immersive worlds, themselves heavily inspired by Tron, are ten-a-penny, The Sims still manages to eke out a meagre living for itself, and families gather round the Wii or the SingStation while the most hard-core gamers of all are out on street corners playing ARGs on their mobiles.

What has the above to do with Tron Legacy? Nothing. The Grid never seems to have signed up to the Internet, it's running on a separate computer underneath an arcade and just happens to have rather a lot of processing power. And rather than taking over the Internet where the real power lies [SPOILER] the best plan that its corrupted leader can come up with is to somehow invade the Real World with Real Physical Force. That's so 1940s, man! Meanwhile, the Grid's gladiator arenas are still playing host to the same two Atari games: Pole Position and Pong.

If you can appreciate a thing of beauty for what it is, and you can forgive and forget the missed opportunity to make this anything more than a show, then like me I think you will enjoy this light cycle ride. It's great seeing Jeff Bridges in action and the play-off between his older and younger selves makes for an interesting cat and mouse game; heroine Cora is captivating, perhaps because she's played by Wilde as a geeky ingenue rather than, say, another Trinity. Sam Flynn's character is more of a standard action hero type thing and he doesn't stand out in the same way, also there's always the feeling that he's out of his depth and the real game is being played by his father and his former digital best friend.

Tron excels in another way too: the sound. With the help of a Daft Punk score and the kind of attention to sonic detail that made Wall-E sound outstanding, this is a powerful, recognizable and potentially award-winning soundscape.

[edit 31.12.10: not actually Sam in the Comic-Con trailer]

Hard To Kill [Review: Starship Troopers 3 Marauder]

The Starship Troopers films tend to divide viewers: are they simply fascistic and pro-war, or is it all a clever work of satire? ST3 won't end this debate, which actually started with Robert Heinlein's novel long before the films were conceived. However there are definitely some satirical elements to this film as in ST1: particularly the over-the-top propaganda films and commercials. Would you like to know more? Sometimes it's a bit too obvious - referring to the war as the Araq-nid conflict for instance is not very subtle.

It struck me, watching this straight to DVD threequel, that the production values here are only a few notches above the Asylum films or similar low-budget dramas. The sets are a little better, the effects are a little better although still hit and miss - the bugs are as good as ever but the CGI Marauders that appear later in the film just look like toons.

As far as the acting goes, Casper Van Dien reprises his role as Johnny Rico and, having very little to do, does it quite well. Instead of Denise Richards as Carmen Ibanez, Jolene Blalock plays Lola "hard to kill" Beck - and is a million times more convincing. Amanda Donohoe as Admiral Phid is also excellent.

The series does have something to say about war. In this conflict there is (almost) no doubt about the motives of the arachnid enemy - they're a swarm of bloodthirsty creatures out to kill us all. So the films can take a look at cynical war politics and politicians, propaganda, intolerance, paranoia, stupidity and the resultant waste of life which all take place even when there's no doubt that the war itself is justified.

While I think the film succeeds in skating along the edge of war satire, unfortunately there is a complete lack of religious satire - instead the religious message of this film is actually quite worrying. Air hostess Holly (Marnette Patterson) and Sky Marshal Anoke (Stephen Hogan) both seem to be turning to Christianity when they are stranded on a bug planet. It turns out that the bugs also worship God - but it's OK, they're still evil, because "it's the wrong God."

Having completely forgotten that earlier in the film Holly's religious beliefs made her dangerously gullible and led to the death of half the squad, the film suddenly becomes obsessed with the Lord's Prayer and this leads into an ending where violent military intervention is presented as a miracle. Together with the mass hanging of dissidents that the Citizen Federation seems so keen on, it reminded me a little of the historic witchcraft trials.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Alien Vs Mockbuster [Review: Alien Vs Hunter]

Isn't copyright law interesting! It seems you can copyright and therefore protect the name "Predator" but not "Alien." This gives me hope for the future of the cross-over spin-off: I'm looking forward to "Alien Vs Mega Shark" "Alien Vs Forrest Gump" and "Alien Vs Thomas The Tank Engine" in 2011.

Alien Vs Hunter is an Asylum-produced film with a DVD cover designed to mimic Alien Vs Predator - while the film bears almost no relationship to the original. So it's a mockbuster of a cross-over spin-off from two movie franchises. The plot is simple - two meteorites land, and a small town is caught in the crossfire between a giant spiderlike creature and a mysterious armour-clad human figure. The staff of the town newspaper form an uneasy truce with the local NRA survivalist militia to defend themselves.

The film is mildly enjoyable in places. Rare praise from me, I know. However by rights it should be unwatchable - rudimentary special effects, an overwritten script, and some dodgy cardboard sets. As in some other Asylum productions it's made bearable by strong performances from the main actors - particularly Hillary played by Dedee Pfeiffer and Valentine played by Randy Mulkey.

I particularly enjoyed the making of mini-doc on the DVD extras, something that would usually bore me to death. Instead of a mutual congratulatathon, this mini-doc gives you a glimpse of the Asylum approach to filmmaking - the twelve day shoot. I wonder if, paradoxically, something about this pressurized process actually brings out the best in some actors.

Tellingly, Randy Mulkey lets off steam by making fun of the director, albeit in a good natured way, while Dedee Pfeiffer talks about the challenges of the project. Dedee's professionalism is also inspiring - treating this hit-and-run production as a job like any other, and holding tight to her character's thinly written backstory (Hillary is apparently an ex-biker chick trying to get away from her past) to give a good performance on the first or second take. There's rarely time for a third take on an Asylum set.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

There's A Shark In The Park [Review: Doctor Who A Christmas Carol]

A Doctor Who Christmas Special that snatches the sonic screwdriver of success from the shark-jaws of failure. The concept made me groan: do we not all agree that a) the definitive version of Charles Dickens' time travel epic has already been made, and b) that it had Muppets in it? There was no way this was going to be anything but contrived, boring and unnecessary.

Contrived? More than even I imagined. Boring and unnecessary? I was so wrong.

Why does it work? The settings are brilliantly realised, for a start: scenes on the shiny bridge of a crashing starship are ripped from the J.J.Abrams school of sci-fi, complete with lens flare; beneath them, a fog-shrouded semi-steampunk world where schools of fish fly in the clouds.

Secondly, Moffatt's script is definitely one of his better ones, with plenty of twisty timeline changes in addition to the ludicrous and surreal settings he so loves to create. The spaceship is doomed as the local oligarch is the only person with the power to control the planet's atmosphere and let the ship land - but he's a bitter, lonely miser and doesn't care in the slightest whether they live or die. The spark that turns the script from contrived and unnecessary to something more interesting is that the Doctor realises that pleading with the old man won't be enough, he'll have to change his entire history to bring out his better side - and chooses deliberately to play Ghost of Christmas Past to do it.

Kathryn Jenkins is cast as the heroine - whether the part was written for her before or after casting I don't know, but for me no future Christmas will be complete without someone singing beautifully to comfort and calm a dying air-shark. This brings me to the final, obvious point about what is so good about this episode: the shark.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Red Weed

"Looking towards the river, we were astonished to see an unaccountable redness mingling with the black of the scorched meadows.

"The red weed grew with astonishing vigour and luxuriance. It spread up the sides of the pit by the third or fourth day of our imprisonment, and its cactus-like branches formed a carmine fringe to the edges of our triangular window. And afterwards I found it broadcast throughout the country, and especially wherever there was a stream of water.

"On the fourteenth day I went into the kitchen, and I was surprised to find that the fronds of the red weed had grown right across the hole in the wall, turning the half-light of the place into a crimson-coloured obscurity.

"Slowly I thrust myself out through the red weed, and stood upon the mound of rubble.

"I stood on a mound of smashed brickwork, clay, and gravel, over which spread a multitude of red cactus-shaped plants, knee-high, without a solitary terrestrial growth to dispute their footing. The trees near me were dead and brown, but further a network of red thread scaled the still living stems.

"The neighbouring houses had all been wrecked, but none had been burned; their walls stood, sometimes to the second story, with smashed windows and shattered doors. The red weed grew tumultuously in their roofless rooms.

"(I) went on my way through scarlet and crimson trees towards Kew - it was like walking through an avenue of gigantic blood drops...

"Directly this extraordinary growth encountered water it straightway became gigantic and of unparalleled fecundity. Its seeds were simply poured down into the water of the Wey and Thames, and its swiftly growing and Titanic water fronds speedily choked both those rivers.

"At Putney, as I afterwards saw, the bridge was almost lost in a tangle of this weed, and at Richmond, too, the Thames water poured in a broad and shallow stream across the meadows of Hampton and Twickenham. As the water spread the weed followed them, until the ruined villas of the Thames valley were for a time lost in this red swamp...

"The red creeper swarmed up the trees about the old palace, and their branches stretched gaunt and dead, and set with shrivelled leaves, from amid its clusters." - H.G. Wells

[photos: Sci-Fi Gene]

Friday, 17 December 2010

And Silent

"Wondering still more at all that I had seen, I pushed on towards Primrose Hill. Far away, through a gap in the trees, I saw a second Martian, as motionless as the first, standing in the park towards the Zoological Gardens, and silent." - H.G. Wells

[photo: Sci-Fi Gene]

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The Chances Of Anything Coming From Mars [Review: Jeff Wayne's The War Of The Worlds]

Following my close encounters with Skyline and Monsters, I completed an alien invasion hat-trick with a return to the source: Jeff Wayne's musical adaptation of The War Of The Worlds. It was bitterly cold at London's O2 arena on Sunday so I was glad of frequent blasts of hot air from the Heat Ray.

You probably already know that Jeff Wayne composed The War Of The Worlds in 1978, basing it on H.G.Wells' novel, and that it was released as a concept album narrated by Richard Burton and sung by Justin Hayward and other artists. You may also have seen the iconic album cover and other illustrations from an accompanying booklet, with their easily recognizable depictions of the Martian Fighting Machines. And you may well be aware that a stage version of this composition is currently touring arenas and stadiums around the world. The leitmotifs and musical movements of this rock opera are also very familiar.

This production is conducted, with typical high energy gesticulation, by Mr. Wayne himself, and thanks to the magic of CGI is narrated by the detached, floating head of Richard Burton. Also returning from the original recording is Justin Hayward, accompanied by six more stage players including Liz McClarnon in a brief but heartbreaking appearance as the doomed parson's wife, and Jason Donovan as a superbly demented Artilleryman. The stage is dominated by a giant tripod Fighting Machine and the performance is accompanied by film incorporating new animation, as well as the previous illustrations. This remains primarily a concert performance and all the arena show trappings add to the experience - and are a lot of fun - without overshadowing the music at all.

Of all the adaptations of The War Of The Worlds - including at least three films and a radio mockumentary that sent Americans running for the coast in fear - Jeff Wayne's is both the most inventive, and the most faithful to the novel. The narration is taken wholesale from the text, the story remains set at the turn of the century, the creatures - bigger than a bear, made entirely of brain, building machines that take the place of bodies - are unchanged, and Wayne's powerful music takes its cues from H.G.Wells' soundscape including of course the triumphant cry of the Martians.

[pictures are courtesy of The War Of The Worlds production team]

Monday, 13 December 2010

All Alone - More Or Less [Review: Pandorum]

Two astronauts wake from cryogenic suspension to find themselves on board the malfunctioning and dimly lit spaceship Elysium. They must find a way out of a locked chamber, discover the fate of the ship and their crewmates, and reset a nuclear reactor before it does something really, really naughty. They also need to figure out their own identities - the prolonged sleep has scrambled their memories and the only clues are the code numbers tattooed on their arms. And guess what? It turns out they are not alone.

Pandorum, directed by Christian Alvart and starring Dennis Quaid, Ben Foster and Antje Traue, has a narrative structure more typical of a computer game than a film: Bower (Foster) has to make a series of action-led journeys through different sectors of the giant spaceship, punctuated by brief encounters with other survivors such as paranoid warrior Nadia (Traue) and conversations that reveal bits of the backstory, while Payton (Quaid) feeds Bower directions and information from a computer terminal. The film is therefore similar to watching someone else play a particularly linear FPS, and there's fun to be had in kibbitzing and watching the characters ignore your advice.

However what is gradually revealed between bouts of jumping, climbing and melee combat, is an incoherent mash-up of ideas, as if the scriptwriters had brainstormed the plot and then included everything. The ideas themselves are OK and just one or two of these could have been made into a much more elegant plot. A climax at the ship's nuclear reactor is another weak point as the reactor itself is just not credible as anything other than a dramatic device.

Pandorum is yet another entrant in the Most Claustrophobic Starship open competition. It faces stiff opposition from classics such as Alien and Event Horizon and has been heavily influenced by such films. A nice feature of Pandorum's visual style is that it does not overuse or rely too heavily on overt CGI for most of the locations - it's pleasingly low-tech and it's nice to see there are still artists out there who know how to build a non-virtual set and make it look solid and satisfying. This in turn helps to make the action sequences feel a bit more realistic. Of course, blue lighting covers a multitude of sins too.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Independent Day [Review: Monsters]

You've read enough about Gareth Edwards' budget, micro-production crew and unconventional methodology on all the other websites. Here at Sci-Fi Gene we're not afraid to think outside the box, and this review of Monsters will take the unusual step of talking about the film.

The plot: photo-journalist Calver (Scoot McNairy) is forced to escort his editor's daughter Sam (Whitney Able) across Mexico back to the U.S. border after she is caught up in an airstrike. Their journey takes them alongside and eventually through the Infected Zone where, thanks to a NASA re-entry failure six years earlier, there be monsters.

Calver and Sam are three dimensional characters: Calver has to make a living but is ill at ease photographing tragedy. He's a complete failure at relationships and is in touch with his son but is not allowed to be his father. Sam is from another world, the rich editor's daughter who turns out to be made of stronger stuff than your average heiress - she speaks perfect Spanish, is able to make friends and put locals at ease while Calver rubs them up the wrong way, and seems to take the situations in her stride including Calver's drunken antics that leave them stranded at the seaport. She's engaged but is there perhaps a little ambivalence? Calver clearly resents the class divide between them as well as his unsolicited babysitting role. He sees Sam initially as some kind of rich wastrel, asking her "Do you work?" a question she never answers.

Calver and Sam's relationship develops - believably - as their journey takes them to stranger places, but this is no Hollywood love affair - they are brought together not by love at first sight, nor by Calver's inept flirting, but as the witnesses of awesome and terrible sights. There's a war of the genres going on here with post-apocalyptic sci-fi, survival horror and even political satire showing their heads from time to time, but it's the road movie and quirky indie romance that carry the day.

Monsters is a sensitive film with a lot of intimate hand-held camerawork and equally intimate performances. It's also very traditional in some ways: there's no camcorder or mocumentary formatting, and overt special effects are minimal while much of the backstory is told through the signposts and ruined helicopters in the background. Visually it's gorgeous, making the most of Mexican landscapes, rivers, sunsets and the occasional ziggurat. The Monsters themselves (that is of course, assuming the title refers to the aliens) are presented as creatures of both horror and beauty.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Romantic Comedies Of The Dead

I have, on occasion, gone on record as being somewhat critical of the romantic comedy genre. To "celebrate" the DVD release of Sex And The City 2 - and personally I think The Onion got this story right - I set myself a challenge to come up with a list of ten romantic comedies that actually have some merit as films. I admit I set the bar pretty high - to my mind a "romantic comedy" needs to be romantic, and it also needs to be funny.

It took me a while. In no particular order:

Ah, the classic, genre-defining rom-com. To quote the Muppet re-make: "I'll have what she's having - but without the pepper."

Between them, When Harry Met Sally and Breakfast At Tiffany's contain pretty much every single trope of the genre: they are endlessly, and needlessly recombined by some kind of scriptwriting machine to create mindless tripe such as Serendipity and You've Got £&*!%#? Mail.

Poor Woody! He tries too hard - and there have been so many mediocre films in the last decade or two that we forget just how much he's capable of. Everyone Says I Love You is Woody at his surprising, understated best, with gentle humour plus moments of perfectly deployed magical realism such as the floating dance scene.

The music video for Daniel Powter's song Bad Day is in many ways the perfect rom-com archetype: two characters living parallel lives, destined to be together but separated by circumstance until they start to reach out; great soundtrack; and best of all, it's less than four minutes long. The link above is to the official video. Bonus points for featuring er... Screech from Saved By The Bell.

This film spawned an entire sub-genre of copycat British films - Wimbledon, Notting Hill, and so on - every single one of which missed the point about what made Four Weddings so great. It's not the swearing. It's not the provincial sidekick or the comedy dance routine.

A recent entry and I'm surprised I enjoyed it so much but it's a great script and there's enough cynicism and black humour to give it some bite.

7. Adam

Many films have tried to get this kind of thing right, few have succeeded: Adam is a romantic comedy about a young man with Asperger syndrome. I would be interested to know how it has gone down amongst those with Asperger or other autistic syndromes but for me it was genuine and sensitive although there are a few awkward moments.

Probably the most lightweight entry on this list. However this film plays it's 80s revival card at every opportunity, from the financial backstory right down to the buzz of the doorbells, to great comedy effect.

The definitive rom zom com.

Nick Hornby writes romantic comedies for men. Transplanting this peculiarly English novel about the life and loves of a list-obsessed record store owner to the United States should have been a spectacular failure but John Cusack pulls it off.

Two honourable mentions:

Sliding Doors: a film that attempts to rise above it's rom-com status with a Many-Worlds-Interpretation/Schroedinger's Cat storyline - A for effort.

Brief Encounter: definitely romantic, one of the overall best films of all time, and while it's not a comedy it has some comedy moments.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Bomb The Bass [Review: The Hurt Locker]

I tend not to watch straightfoward war films as a rule, but I made an exception for Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker. The film follows an army squadron through a tour of duty in Afghanistan, counting down on-screen the days until their return. Their mission is to locate and disarm hidden roadside bombs, using remote robots, protective suits and sometimes their bare hands.

It's a documentary at war with a drama: there's no sense of overheating the story, dialogue or explosions, and the switches between action, tension and relief are unpredictable, so the Afghanistan setting is very much realism-led. On the other hand the characters themselves are still larger than life and their relationships are very much drama-led, for example the new team-member who is stepping into the shoes of a bomb victim and who feels he has to prove himself, and who is also a bit of a maverick - he takes a highly unconventional, hands-on approach to his first explosive job while refusing to tell the rest of the team what he's up to.

Taking into account the sharpness of the camerawork and editing as well, the augmented reality of the fictional drama wins out over the reality of the setting.

The film also appears to portray the relationship between soldiers and locals honestly - the soldiers are well intentioned, always carrying their phrase books and trying to do the right thing - but when there's an explosive device on the scene all this gets dropped as they have to force the residents out of the blast zone - sometimes at gunpoint as they lack the language skills to do it any other way. There's also no getting away from the difficulty of trying to be friendly to a crowd of locals when you know that one of them is carrying the mobile phone trigger for the bomb.

I am cautious about drawing any conclusions about how realistic this film really is as I have never seen action myself. Nevertheless I get the sense that Kathryn Bigelow may be one of the few non-combatants who actually gets what the Afghanistan war is really about on the ground - this is an action movie that seems to show a great deal of understanding. I would find it interesting to see what the real Middle East soldiers make of it.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Factory Filmed

Monsters is released in cinemas across the UK from Friday. I'm looking forward to it - watch this space for the review. The movie has received a lot of positive advance press, mostly focussing on the low-budget and atypical production model: this article from the Guardian is typical. Two actors and a tiny crew took a road trip across Mexico seeking out atmospheric locations and shooting scenes along the way, a lot of the dialogue was improvised, and director Gareth Edwards then edited and post-produced the film, tentacles and all, in After Effects on his laptop. More or less.

Gareth Edwards entered Sci-Fi London's 48 Hour Film Challenge three years ago, seeing it as an opportunity to test out a depth-of-field adaptor he'd just built for his camera. The result was the 2008 winning entry Factory Farmed - which surely must have helped when Gareth was pitching the Monsters concept. Inspired by the 2008 entries including Gareth's, I had a lot of fun making films for this competition in 2009 and 2010 and plan to enter again in future.

Factory Farmed: winner of SFL48 2008

For the benefit of all the journalists who are enthused about Monsters: while I share your excitement about this particular release, indie and low-budget films are not new, and Danny Boyle is not the only respected director who started out using guerilla filmmaking techniques. Also it has always been possible to spend a massive Hollywood budget and end up with a box-office flop. It is true that post production and effects tools have become more accessible - including many freeware applications such as my preferred tool Blender - but it's not really about the tools: a good script, good direction (both theatrical and artistic) good character performances and good editing are as key as ever.

Low budget filmmaking is different though. For example, in a more traditional studio there is a tension between the director and the producer, whose role is basically to persuade the director that he can still achieve his artistic vision with only three elephants instead of six. If the director has always come from the angle of what he or she can achieve without spending anything, then this tension is not needed in the first place and there might not be a need to separate the director/producer roles in the same, rigid way. I suspect the ideal arrangement is for two people with a fairly close relationship of some sort to hold both roles but play to their own individual strengths, and this might be why there are so many successful brother-brother partnerships in cinema.