Saturday, 31 December 2011

Arco Warriors [Review: Cyberlords Arcology]

Cyberlords is a sci-fi RPG playable on mobile devices. Jesse, an inhabitant of the Asgard Arcology megacity, wakes up in a clinic owned by the sinister McCoy corporation. Is Doctor Who in charge of this dystopic future? Or perhaps it’s the crisps. For a moment I thought Jesse might even have lost his memory but thankfully the cliché police did not have to be called, and soon Jesse is receiving cryptic messages, from an artificial intelligence, that might help him to escape and contact the resistance. He can then tool up, recruit some thugs and hackers, and carry out a series of missions to uncover the secrets of the Arcology and the McCoy corporation’s sinister plans for its population.

I’m loving this game with it’s eight-bit style 2D graphics, simple colours and copious blood and guts, all reminiscent of the ancient classic Syndicate. As far as the RPG side goes, the playing area is large and divided into many zones and levels. You assemble a group of four player-characters, each with a little bit of personality and backstory. Sadly there’s no choice about who you recruit. There’s also a Deus Ex style system of cyber-upgrades - find the blueprint, bring it to the Resistance doctor for implantation, then trade your experience points for further upgrades. Implants might improve your stamina, speed or accuracy, or give you the ability to regenerate or hack into robot guards, but some are a bit too far fetched - one even allows a character to use both hands simultaneously!

There are story and side missions most of which are combat heavy, and some of which will send you across the playing area and back again. It helps that the control system is reasonably good with one-touch or two-touch routes to almost everything you want to do, although it’s slightly awkward if your four characters are too close together. Minor issues aside, Cyberlords is a stylish and satisfying RPG and another proof that complex gaming experiences can be provided on a mobile.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown? [Review: The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe]

You can tell so much about a man from his intertextual references. The 2011 Doctor Who Christmas Special is peppered with the blasted things, many of which are more or less throwaway – the opening, which lumps together Star Wars and The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, is both brilliant and utterly irrelevent, while the links to C.S. Lewis are fun but superficial only – World War II setting, evacuee children, the portal to a forest world, trees that talk to each other – rather than exploring the deeper themes of the Narnia novels.

What this episode is really about is trees. Doctor Who and trees have history: the Doctor’s (other) nemesis the Rani used landmines that turned people into trees (Mark Of The Rani, 1985.) Also, when taking Rose to see the destruction of the Earth, which you have to admit is a fairly impressive first date, the pair encounter Jabe, a sentient tree from the Forest of Cheem (The End Of The World, 2005.) Jabe gets an indirect mention in this episode too. Christmas trees on the other hand are to be feared: particularly deadly variants have appeared in previous Christmas Specials. These trees are sinister in a different way, but they’ve also attracted the attention of some unscrupulous humans from Androzani Major (a clever reference to The Caves Of Androzani, 1984, which was once voted best episode of all time.)

The plot is unusually weak for Doctor Who, with an ending that is both unsatisfying and hole-ful. A fundamental attack on sentient life goes unpunished, and while the victims are technically saved, they are only saved in a metaphysical, insubstantial way. Meanwhile the human tragedy, which is really moving throughout the episode, is resolved far too easily.

If, however, you can put the ending to one side, what you are left with is a box of delights. Matt Smith’s Doctor is on good comic form in his misguided attempts to become “the Caretaker,” and once again his clowning is offset by unexpected moments of empathy. A confrontation between Madge, played by Claire Skinner, and three Androzani troopers led by comedian Bill Bailey, is funnier still. There’s great dialogue, setting, atmosphere, characters and acting throughout, and the right mix of comedy and tragedy.

Of course, you don’t need the Doctor to tell you never to cross a Christmas tree:

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Once Upon A Time In Lapland

Short film made for a Kino London challenge, with a title chosen by the audience, filmed in Dalston in November, screened for a Kino audience on 1st December. Music by Parlour Cafe used with kind permission of the artists. I previously blogged about the making of this film here.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Unshrinkable [Review: Gulliver's Travels]

Some time back I reviewed the Asylum TV movie 2010: Moby Dick and I promised solemnly to scrutinize any other movie adaptations of seafaring fantasy novels to the same degree.

Lemuel Gulliver, the hero of Jonathan Swift’s classic novel, encounters the small bodied and smaller minded Lilliputians and intervenes in the ages-long war between the Bigenders and Littlenders. This is just the first in a series of fantastic voyages, each satirizing some aspect of Swift’s society. In the final encounter humans are depicted as savage Yahoos shamed by their serene, civilized superiors the Houyhnhnms. Horse worship, incidentally, is an important sci-fi trope, although arguably some authors, Suzy McKee Charnas and Elizabeth Moon for example, are both a little too comfortable in the saddle.

When I first read the original Gulliver’s Travels, a good twenty five years ago, one of the most memorable scenes for me was the one in which Gulliver cajoles the Lilliputians to build him a giant TV room and then to humiliate themselves by acting out a game of Guitar Hero for him. It strikes me as rather clever of Swift, writing in the 1720s, to have come up with such a biting a satire on console gaming.

I was extremely pleased to see that this scene, curiously missing in the so-highly-acclaimed TV adaptation, is central to the recent Jack Black movie. Indeed, If you don’t understand the role Guitar Hero plays in Gulliver’s adventures then very little else in the novel makes sense. This scene, which will go on to become a modern cinema classic, pretty much makes up for the fact that Jack Black’s version cuts out EVERYTHING ELSE. Swift would have been so proud to see his vision finally given the faithful and authentic presentation it deserves.

All I Want For Christmas Is You

Only a few weeks ago, Blender users woke up to discover Christmas had come early - four massive new features taken from experimental branches and added to the main build (beta 2.61) Just as Santa promised: the Tomato camera tracker, the Cycles render engine, a toolset for motion capture, and the Ocean Simulator. I tested the tracker when adding effects to handheld shots in Lapland, and here are some quick test renders with the ocean sim.
blue reflective material
with added foam texture

Now to come up with some ocean scenes...

Friday, 16 December 2011

Eddie Knows [Review: Anachronox]

K'Conrad Khk: "All roads lead to Eddie. It was a pleasure, detective."
Sly Boots: "Likewise, shoeshine. What's your secret?"
K'Conrad Khk: "You would be surprised how rarely people look up."

Classic role-playing game Anachronox is reviewed over at the Wertzone, reminding me of how much I loved that game, and why: the memorable dialogue and characters, the levels each with their own mood and different shades of humour, and particularly the beautiful environment design and attention to detail. For many of the locations, particularly the mechanically shifting, multicultural city of Anachronox itself, there is pleasure just in exploring. And while K'Conrad's quote above could be a philosophy for life, it also applies to the level design - look up in Anachronox and more likely than not, thanks to some interesting local gravity effects, there will be something going on.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Master Chefs of Dune

"The beginning is a very delicate time. Know then that it is the year 10191. The Known Universe is ruled by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, my father. In this time, the most precious substance in the universe is the spice Melange. The spice extends life. The spice expands consciousness. The spice is vital to space travel. The Spacing Guild and its navigators, who the spice has mutated over 4,000 years, use the orange spice gas, which gives them the ability to fold space. That is, travel to any part of universe without moving.
"Oh, yes. I forgot to tell you — the spice exists on only one planet in the entire universe. A desolate, dry planet with vast deserts. Hidden away within the rocks of these deserts are a people known as the Fremen, who have long held a prophecy that a man would come, a messiah who would lead them to true freedom. The planet is Arrakis, also known as Dune." Princess Irulan, Dune (film adaptation, 1984)
But does spice really exist only on Arrakis? Consider the evidence.
Claire 22, from Birmingham, a finalist in the current BBC series of Masterchef: The Professionals. This aspiring chef and restauranteur, barely older than Paul Atreides when his family first relocated to Arrakis, impressed judges Greg Wallace and Michel Roux Junior with her signature dish: roasted loin of muad'dib with langoustine and lardo, potato nests, asparagus and samphire, earning her place in the final three. How to follow such an accomplished feat? As most viewers will agree, this week Claire 22 really pushed the boundary with her roasted white sandworm fillet accompanied by pine nuts, rhubarb, chervil and buttermilk.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011


This is how a good screening feels: "Once Upon A Time In Lapland" was shown at Kino London on Thursday. All the production team made it to the screening, the film was well received, and, best of all - the rumours about mince pies turned out to be true.

Our film needs some final adjustments but will be online very soon. The programme on Thursday was rich and varied: here are two that made me laugh:

Laplander 2: The Last Santa
made by Molly Brown who also accepted a challenge at the November screening

Suicide Tuesday directed by Anton Short

The Kino London team: Jamie, Laura and Santa

You Don’t Know Jack [Review: Dauntless]

Dauntless is the flagship of Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet and the first novel in this military sci-fi series. Soldier Jack Geary goes MIA and presumed dead at the beginning of a hundred year interstellar war - his escape pod is detected and he is revived a century later, to discover that his last stand has become legend and he is now a mythical and revered figure. Meanwhile something is wrong with the Navy. The first signs seem small - the failure to salute, captains having too many meetings or (Ancestors forbid) voting on a course of action rather than taking orders, but it’s worse: the Navy has lost its grip on both strategy and also wartime morality.

A humiliating defeat places Geary in command and only his strategic thinking converts annihilation into retreat. Geary has two challenges which are of course complementary. He must bring the fleet home with its secret cargo of strategic importance, and defeat any threats encountered along the way. Meanwhile he must hold the captains and crews together even as they judge him against the impossible standard of his legend, restore the military skills and attitudes that have been lost and change the culture of the fleet, against strong resistance.

For most of the novel Geary struggles with his fellow captains and soldiers, making allies and enemies along the way. He realizes he will have to go slowly to avoid either alienating his men and women* or, worse, damaging their self-belief. It’s only later that he gets the reasons for their apparent idiocies - the constant attrition of experienced officers and the way that a prolonged and hopeless war has re-shaped their society.

*As with the Honor Harrington series and many other military sci-fi novels, this is a future in which the military has embraced gender equality.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

"Once Upon A Time In Lapland" Screening: Kino London

"Once Upon A Time In Lapland" will be screened at Kino London's open mic film night today 1st December, at the Vibe Bar in Brick Lane. Details at . There are unconfirmed reports that mince pies may be occurring.

Monday, 28 November 2011

It's All About Soul Part II [Review: Slabscape Reset]

Two versions of entrepeneur Louie Drago are revived onboard the Slab, a giant generation ship: Dielle, a cryogenically stored body that has been restored to youth but “reset” with few conscious memories of his past life, and Louie, a computer simulation of Louie’s personality. Dielle is naïve, Louie is a born negotiator but culture-shocked, and both have to adjust to reality of life on the Slab.

S. Spencer Baker’s novel Slabscape:Reset describes a future society shaped by a small number of technologies: in particular artificial intelligence and matter transmission. Slab is controlled by the almost omnipresent AI Sis, and there is also a council of lesser AIs and partly digitized citizens. Sis is also part of an Internet-like information network based around neural implants. One major theme is the rise of celebrity voyeurism, a bit like the satirical setting of Ben Elton’s Blind Faith or Richie Chevat’s Rate Me Red - Dielle quickly falls into the hands of a publicist and almost every minute of his subsequent life is scripted, monetized and broadcast through the network. This is not a new idea at all but it’s explored in a playful and enjoyable way.

The other major theme is the soul and this is a lot more interesting. Slab humans believe souls to be an alien imposition. Souls are detectable, at least indirectly, and the Slab is partway through a long journey to their point of origin: its mission is to make contact with the alien source and register some form of complaint. Also while the matter transmission technology can transmit almost anything, humans tend to arrive at the other end without their souls. Apparently on Earth this led to a surfeit of estate agents. Boom boom. Louie has been revived to help solve a mystery that may threaten the Slab, and the fact he that he is not concerned whether he has a soul or not becomes important.

Reset is the first in a series of Slabscape novels. It’s a lighthearted but still well-thought out and well-written fantasy. I will be looking out for the sequels and I look forward to finding out where the author is going with their ideas about the soul. I also learnt an important lesson from this novel: if you’re planning to go into cryogenic suspension, don’t pay your fees with a credit card.

Friday, 25 November 2011

It's All About Soul Part I [Review: Cold Souls]

The soul is invisible, undetectable, unfathomable. Science has very little to say about the soul. Cinema, on the other hand...

Paul Giamatti, playing a mid-life crisis caricature of himself in Sophie Barthes' film Cold Souls, feels his soul is weighing him down. He's in the theatre rehearsing for Uncle Vanya but unable to breathe life into the character - so his solution is to visit the Soul Storage Company, who for a small fee will decant your soul into a glass jar and keep it in a locker. Paul just wants his soul out of the way until after the performance, but it turns out soullessness is a very individual experience and has its advantages and disadvantages.

Sophie Barthes is a writer and director with a very clear vision. As with Inception and the shared dream technology, the script remains focussed on a single sci-fi idea - the soul removal device. The concept is extrapolated - what would life be like without a soul? and, if you can take out your soul and put it back again, what else could you do? These scenarios are, in turn, used to bring human nature under the microscope.

Giamatti is human, and it's the small things that freak him out - he's not at all bothered by the ethical or theological implications of soul storage, the fact that soul storage is "not an exact science" or the limitations - it turns out that as much as 5% residual soul can be left behind. The idea that his soul could be stored in New Jersey on the other hand really disturbs him, as does the shape and size of his soul when he gets to see it, which is one of the best and funniest scenes in the film.

Barthes also wears her love for the films of Woody Allen on her sleeve - the central character and his neuroses, the concept and setting, the soft use of hand-held camera, even the font when the credits roll, are all definitely Woody-ish. I thought the film compared very well to the best of Allen's classic films and it does have a voice of its own - I found the humour darker and more subtle.

Kino Challenge Update 1: Once More, Mit Sleighbells

Take six film enthusiasts, lull them into a suggestive state with hypnotic music videos - some with more horses than others. Add a certain amount of gentle persuasion, and a title selected by the audience - and the Kino Challenge is on. We carried out a very rapid shoot last weekend in Dalston, and our Santsploitation movie "Once Upon A Time In Lapland" is now in post-production.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Cold Caller Love

Probably my favourite of the Kino London films in November - an amazing music video, directed by James Spinney, who described it as "an intergalactic love story."

Saturday, 19 November 2011

On Yer Bike [Review: Deathsport]

Deathsport is a film produced by a certain Sir Roger of Corman, where battles between post-apocalyptic city dwellers and desert rangers take place on dirt bikes or "death machines." It is a safe bet that this film was an attempt to capture some kind of 1978 motocross zeitgeist. It stars David Carradine and Claudia Jennings and was filmed in the California desert.

Deathsport is occasionably watchable but mostly failed for me: as a science fiction film, the plot is confused, the concepts are unoriginal and mundane, the effects are lacklustre, the heroes and villains only ordinarily heroic or villainous, and the script and soundtrack both attempt to sound portentious but fall flat. And if the villain has a penchant for electrocuting naked women in rooms full of hanging phosphorescent tubes, while this is certainly an interesting aspect of his personality, I would like at least some clue as to why. Perhaps in the year 3000 this will be a common pastime or hobby.

As a film about dirt biking it fails to capture the imagination or sell the sport: while about 80% of the film takes place on the bikes, the action is repetitive and pointless, the stunts are not really death-defying and there's no attempt to make the bikes themselves interesting. A short sequence towards the end, where David Carradine rides through a series of tunnels, shows what is missing elsewhere: POV shots providing a sense of speed.

This article at Schlockmania includes some ideas about why the film is such a mess. It's more charitable than my review and points out, fairly I think, that Carradine and Jennings bring a lot of charisma and even some chemistry to the film.

"2007" Screening: Rotoreliefs

I'm thrilled about this one: "2007" has been confirmed for a screening at Rotoreliefs on 30th Jan 2012.

[date corrected 14.12.11]

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Where's Kino?

"2007" was screened at Kino London on 3rd November, alongside some other truly memorable films: a family psychodrama turned out to be about peanuts, an alien stranded on Earth made contact with a horse, a man contemplated his breakfast egg (possibly best film of the evening) and the hunt for a certain bespectacled, knitware-wearing tourist took a sinister turn.

I'll post links to these films when I can. I've also taken on a new challenge making a film with some other Kino Londoners over the next month - watch this space.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Metal Mickey [Review: The Stainless Steel Rat]

Slippery Jim Di Griz is a small-time crook with a big-time ego: one of the last few con-artists in a future where almost all crime has been eliminated, he survives by keeping one step ahead and never running the same con twice. He is proud of his achievements and views his chosen lifestyle in romantic terms, but the rat is an apt metaphor: at the start of Harry Harrison’s space opera, Jim’s current enterprise involves stealing food from the back of a warehouse.

Even with a flair for planning original crimes, not everything goes to plan for the Rat. After falling into the hands of an interstellar police force Jim sets off on a trail across the galaxy in search of a beautiful psychopath who eludes or outsmarts him at every turn and of course steals his heart. An interesting sub-plot is Slippery Jim’s aversion to killing: for Jim this is the final taboo. Nevertheless he cannot outhink his lovely prey unless he can get inside her mind: on one occasion using a mind-altering drug to draw out his own murderous tendencies.

The Stainless Steel Rat is a comedy and a satire but not a spoof: it’s comic sci-fi done right. It’s also classic space opera, and there’s always another FTL spaceship to board, steal or commandeer. Later in his writing career, Harrison wrote several novels spoofing the genre, such as Star Smashers Of The Galaxy Rangers in which the heroes discover a hyperdrive powered by cheese. However his disdain for space opera hasn’t apparently stopped Harrison from writing a further ten Stainless Steel Rat novels, the most recent of which was published in 2010. I have some reading ahead of me.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Runaway Success

Last Zombie Standing was screened at Ye Olde Rose & Crown on Friday for Walthamstow Short Film Club's Halloween Night. The film was given a warm welcome and we were in good company: seventeen other great films were on the programme including, my favourite, this lesson in how to make an action movie:
and a new edit of this film written and directed by Last Zombie Standing writer Molly Brown.
A gauntlet was also thrown down at the event which I may not be able to resist: more on that story later.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Frankenstein's Daughter [Review: Splice]

Vincenzo Natali's film Splice is a modern-day take on the Frankenstein theme. Two scientists, Elsa and Clive (Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody) decide to make a baby - the genetic way - but their Artificial Life chimaeras are not freaky enough so they add in some human DNA. The result is Dren, two parts Frankenstein's monster to one part ET, who is brought up in a store room and then an abandoned farm. Delphine Chanéac plays Dren for much of the film and this is an intense performance.

The moral of this story is: scientists should not be allowed to have babies. Ever. Dren is mistreated and abused by the pair in the name of science, love or science and love. For Elsa (Sarah Polley) her own shaky family background comes back to haunt her - and drives her increasingly erratic behaviour. There's no similar explanation for Clive's equally bizarre and shocking treatment of Dren towards the end of the film.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

High Vatta Mark [Review: Victory Conditions]

I felt the final novel in the Vatta's War series regained much of the momentum missing from the previous one, and it built to a satisfying climax on both strategic and personal levels. This is partly because we see much more of Ky and much less of Stella and Rafe. Kylara finally finds herself in command of a large and deadly, if improvised, fleet, and in the face-off against Turek it's her strategic flair that is most tested, leading to one of the most interesting battles in the whole series. Once the battle ends we find ourselves in a slightly overlong coda where other plot strands are tied up including the sexual tension: this is a bit syrupy, but there is at least a sense that Ky has grown as a person as well as a commander.

An interesting idea running through the novels is Ky's discovery that she enjoys killing, and her struggle to understand this trait. While Ky feels she is a misfit, in fact the trait is more common than she thinks - it's certainly present in other members of the Vatta family such as Osman and Grace - one went on to become a psychopath while the other became a formidable spy but remained highly moral. Perhaps many people have this trait but most suppress or deny it. Enjoying killing isn't necessarily the same as having a desire to kill, nor does it necessarily mean you are amoral, which may be the factor that separates Osman from Grace and Ky. However there is something important in how you respond to those feelings, and it seems this is about maturity and self control.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

"Last Zombie Standing" Screening: Walthamstow Short Film Club

I am pleased to announce that Last Zombie Standing will be screened at Walthamstow Short Film Club's Hallowe'en event on 28th October, at Ye Old Rose And Crown, Walthamstow. For details see the Facebook event page.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Fairy Noir [Review: A Kiss Of Shadows]

Laurell K. Hamilton's fairy noir heroine Meredith Gentry is an exile from the fairy kingdom, working as a PI under a false identity and a magical disguise. In A Kiss Of Shadows, Gentry investigates a mysterious, fairy-obsessed sadist on behalf of his wife and mistress. What she uncovers, however, leads her on a journey back to the fairy court.

Gentry is both adventuress and seductress: her adventures are A rather than YA, closer in tone to Jacqueline Carey than, say, Stephenie Meyer. The world of supernatural battles and treaties, hidden in plain sight in the mortal realm, reminded me of Sergei Lukyanenko's Night Watch. However the plot is reminiscent of A Midsummer Night's Dream with the jealousies and power-struggles between immortals and their loyal servants, with lesser fey and mortals as pawns. Having said that, Shakespeare* even at his bawdiest would have blushed at some of Gentry's exploits. You have been warned.

I enjoyed this novel: one disappointment was the plot leading straight back to fairyland - the fairy-PI setting is hardly exploited at all. There are more Meredith Gentry novels and I'll report back on these but how about a "Casebook of Meredith Gentry" short story collection?

*Recent research has proven conclusively that Shakespeare's opus was not, in fact, written by Shakespeare but by an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters. My argument stands.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Let's hope we don't have to run! [Reviews: Let's Kill Hitler and Night Terrors]

Some thoughts about Doctor Who: the second half of the season opened with two episodes written by past masters: Steven Moffat's "Let's Kill Hitler" and Mark Gatiss' "Night Terrors." The tones of the episodes are poles apart: comic sci-fi and psychological horror, but there are some interesting common themes: both feature eyeballs, and both are about miniaturization.

LKH features a humanoid robot time-ship, the Tesselator, crewed by tiny time-policemen and jellyfish robots. The concept reminded me of Woody Allen's "Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex" where a similar miniature crew pilot a man through a dinner date in what might be the most original Star Trek spoof ever. I'm told Eddie Murphy also based a film around this idea, to which I believe the correct response is "Eddie who?"

Night Terrors also involves miniaturization but it's a clever twist - to say more would be [breathy Alex Kingston voice] "Thpoilerth...." There's no sci-fi here although the backstory is borrowed from John Wyndham, instead everything is explained in terms of an unusually powerful mind, which is not really any explanation at all. This episode may also be the prequel to one of the Silence encounters earlier this year.

The original concept for Doctor Who included scope for the TARDIS to bring the Doctor and his companions into macroscopic or microscopic environments as well as travelling in space and time, allowing potential for some great sci-fi and educational storylines. This capacity was almost never used - a rare exception is the excellent William Hartnell story Planet Of Giants - so it's great to see the series having some more fun with miniaturization.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

"2007" Screening: Kino London

Exciting news: " 2007" will be screened at the Kino London short film night on 3rd November 2011, at the Vibe Live venue in Brick Lane. Entry £4. Details at the Kino London website or Facebook event page.  

Saturday, 1 October 2011

"2007" Update Part VIII: I'm Gonna Wait 'Til The Midnight Hour

Post production on the music video for "2007" is now complete. I'll post news about any screenings or online viewing, and I also plan to write a little more about the experience of making this video - twice - and everything I've learned along the way. Now I think I'm going to sleep...

Tenderstar have a presence on Facebook - look them up for details of gigs. You can also listen to 2007 and other tracks on their website here.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Not such fungis after all [Reviews: Dark Entries, The Sheriff Of Yrnameer, Finch]

Dark Entries, Ian Rankin: Of all Ian Rankin's graphic novels that I've read, this is certainly one of the best.

The Sheriff of Yrnameer, Michael Rubens: Of all the space-operas that I've read where the plot revolves around a cargo of freeze-dried orphans, this is certainly one of the best.

Finch, Jeff Vandermeer: Of all the fantasy-noir detective novels set in a future where humanity is ruled by the MUSHROOMS this is certainly one of the best.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Vatta Vatta Everywhere And All The Boards Did Shrink [Review: Command Decision]

Kylara is now set on bringing together some kind of space force to combat the pirates. Cousin Stella continues to rebuild the Vatta trade empire from her new shop-front on Moscoe. Aunt Gracie, spymaster and fruitcakerer, takes on the planetary government that sold out Vatta to the pirates. In other news, Rafe Dunbarger, somewhere between Blackadder's friend Flash and Rimmer's alter-ego Ace, takes on the ISC conspiracy in the boardroom. So for the most part this reads less like a space opera and more like an episode of "The Apprentice."

I thought this novel was the weakest of the series so far - in particular, while the conspiracy plot moves forward there's very little character development and this is a shame. Ky's personal journey of discovery, as she comes to terms with the fact that she likes killing people, has been fascinating to follow through the earlier novels, and other, lesser characters have also developed in interesting ways. As I've pointed out before Elizabeth Moon isn't afraid to allow her heroes to learn by their mistakes.

Fans of ship to ship combat will be bored silly until the final third of the novel but will then thank their lucky stars they persevered: the plot builds towards a classic space battle between four fleets, once again Ky and her allies are outnumbered but the scale of the battle has increased by an order, and once again it all comes down to intelligence rather than brute force.

Friday, 16 September 2011

It's Only A Paper Moon [Review: Apollo 18]

Has the found footage genre had its day? Apollo 18 might be a good point to stand the genre down. True, at time of writing it has a meta-review score of 28% over at Rotten Tomatoes. True, it tells an unoriginal and highly predictable story within a lazy, generic Military-Government Conspiracy (TM) frame. True, it was launched at a press conference where dumb claims were made about the providence of the footage. Yawn.

In its favour, this is one of the few found footage films where the basic premise makes sense. Most FF films require the presence of an obsessive filmmaker or videographer: look, if some fifty-storey tentacled sea-beast and it's crab-like spawn are pursuing you through New York as the skyscrapers collapse around you, and you are actually sane, would you a) drop everything and run, or b) keep hold of fifty kilos of professional film equipment? What better way to show your girlfriend how much you love her than to stand there and video her while she is being attacked by demons

It is logical that an Apollo moonship would carry lots of cameras, and that the astronauts would film everything. The film has purportedly been edited together from a collection of sources by a mysterious conspiracy website: so thankfully there's no attempt to tell the story in real time. Different film sources have different colours and looks, plus some are hand-held while others are fixed, remote controlled or motion-sensitive: so there's much more shot variety, and slightly less nausea-inducing shakycam (even so, you may still wish to take your preferred travel sickness pill before viewing.) It helps. Performances are good although not Oscar-worthy, sets and visuals are authentic. While Apollo 18 might not be the best advertisement for the future of the space programme (that would be Space Camp, obviously) the film really does bring back the magic and high drama of the Apollo missions: for me this was more of a draw than the horror element.

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch.) I enjoyed this film but I concede it could have been better.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

"2007" Update Part VII: Delete Default Cube, Add New Cube

Up late working in Blender on the 2007 video. The challenge is to stop the project getting unmanageably complex - as you can see from my current timeline I'm succeeding beautifully. 
If caffeine was also a free, open-source download then the world would be perfect.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Bred For Speed

I started this animation in Cinema 4D back in 2009, and posted some work-in-progress stills here and here. At the time I was working on using complex textures, and also I was a long way from anything human - I still am! but wanted to do some soft-body animation. It's been left on the shelf for the last year or two as I've taken on other projects mostly in Blender.

I've returned to C4D recently to complete and render the last few shots, using Blender just for the final edit. There's not really a plot except in the sense that a football match or any other sporting event has a plot.

I'm reminded that, while it's not free (far from it!) even the ancient edition of C4D that I've been using has a really intuitive interface (the opposite of Blender although things are improving steadily) and some powerful features. I have one or two more unfinished C4D projects on my hard drive - it's tempting to return to them too when I get the chance.

Friday, 2 September 2011

White Collar Boy On The Run From The Law [Review: The Next Three Days]

"What kind of criminal drives a Prius?"
"A socially responsible one?"

The Next Three Days stars Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks. Lara is convicted of murdering her boss on what appears to be extremely strong evidence. John, her husband, is convinced of her innocence and as appeal after appeal fails he puts together a plan to spring her from jail.

Crowe's character is attempting to escape his and Lara's fate, so The Next Three Days is science fiction. This is also a jailbreak movie but instead of hardened criminals or captured soldiers there's an ordinary man - an English Lit lecturer - trying to do something extraordinary for love.

In addition to Crowe and Banks who are excellent, Liam Neeson and Olivia Wilde have smaller but memorable roles. Meanwhile Crowe gets to make crazy diagrams on walls again, something I loved in A Beautiful Mind. See below for details of the other central cast member.

The film also provides a helpful tutorial on prison breaks including how to make a bump key, and how to force a car lock using a tennis ball. The plot relies on luck slightly too often but this is still an extremely enjoyable fantasy. The subtle influence of Don Quixote is a nice touch, as is the fact that one of the main characters is diabetic. However not everything is quite so subtle.

Did I mention the car? For two thirds of this movie Crowe is seen driving a black Toyota Prius in almost every shot. The car is as central to the plot as John himself, it gets shot at and damaged, and many of the Prius' most interesting features are showcased: for instance, in one scene it reverses into a short child. This is plausible given the poor rear visibility, but surely the child would have been visible on the rearview camera?

On second thoughts, I'm sure Russell Crowe can park without a parking autopilot so maybe he only has the T3 trim. The camera lingers lovingly over the Toyota logo, and in case you missed it all, there's the exchange above between two policemen puzzling over the Prius' presence at the scene of an attack. Product placement? I don't know what you're talking about.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Freight Night [Review: Cargo]

The Swiss film Cargo is set in a future where the Earth's ecosystem has collapsed and humans live in orbiting refugee camps. Anna-Katharina Schwabroh stars as Laura, a ship's doctor who takes a berth on the Kassandra which is preparing a run to a robotic supply station. It's a long voyage and the crew take turns at the watch while their crewmates are in cryosleep - but guess what: Laura starts to feel she is not alone. I've never seen Schwabroh in anything before but she is perfectly cast: very human, strong in some ways, vulnerable in others.

The Kassandra is a great addition to the claustrophobic spaceship sub-genre, from Laura's first day at work as she struggles to get through the half-working airlock to the obligatory Nostromo or Event Horizon coridoors to the massive automated cargo vault. Laura's predicament and her decisions to wake other crew members lead to mistrust and arguments between them.

Anna-Katharina Schwabroh as Laura

Cargo attempts a complex plot with lots of mysteries, twists and reveals, a few of these are too obvious and there are slightly too many different ideas or sub-plots. On the other hand this complexity does distance the film from many other science fiction films which are often based entirely around a single concept.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

It's a mini adventure! [Review: Arrietty]

"The Borrowers" by Mary Norton, the origin of the film Arrietty, is a much-loved children's novel from the UK. I have no idea how it fell into the hands of director Hiromasa Yonebayashi: without generalizing too much it seems Japanese animators have good literary taste.

The Borrowers are Little People living in the floor and wall spaces of a house and "borrowing" what they need. For some reason in my house they seem to need a lot of biros. Little People are found in the stories and legends of any country where alcohol is readily available. The film is about a 13-year old Borrower child, Arrietty, whose coming of age trip into the world of the Human Beans goes awry when she is spotted by a young Bean who is not asleep.

The UK release of this film features some of the best voice talent you could hope to find, led by Hanna's Saoirse Ronan as Arrietty. None of which was any consolation to me as I found myself unexpectedly watching the subtitled release instead. Still, if you have to watch any film in an unfamiliar language, it might as well be a Studio Ghibli film: no translation is needed for ivy leaves in the rain.

The artwork of this film is simply beautiful and beautifully simple. Arrietty cuts a dashing pose in her red dress, clothes-peg hairclip and pin sword: it's been noted elsewhere that, alongside Rapunzel in Tangled she is one of the very few female leads in children's animation this year.

The film does make good use of the centimetre-scale setting, interestingly this is less about Arrietty's father Pod making steampunk contraptions from cotton reels and safety pins (although he does do this) and more observation of fluid dynamics - tea, poured from a doll's house teaset, forms giant droplets. The Borrowers are always tiny and vulnerable and so their dilemma on being discovered by the Human Beans is real and affecting.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Voyage At An End

The Space Shuttle Atlantis landed safely, ending 30 years of the Space Transportation System. In addition to the research and engineering achievements the programme has opened up international collaboration in space.
With seven novels, eight films and rather a lot of Lego tie-ins the Harry Potter saga draws to a close. Thanks to Harry, Luna, Dobby and Neville reading is officially cool once again. Amy Winehouse passed away at the age of 27. It's no exaggeration to say she had an extraordinary talent as a singer, a unique voice in British music.

Endings have been on my mind this week. There's no direct connection between these three stories and I don't want to make this too contrived - it's just that while each of these endings is sad in a different way, there are also aspirations for the future and real achievements to remember and celebrate.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Baja Honour [Review: Hunter Prey]

Hunter Prey opens to a scenario not unlike Pitch Black: a spaceship crashes on an inhospitable world, the survivors include a prisoner, the last of its kind, captured by the army who destroyed its homeworld. The guards quickly realise that the prisoner has escaped and must recapture it.

Comparison with Gareth Edwards' Monsters is also appropriate: this is another indie sci-fi movie with a small cast and crew and ultra-low budget, powered by enthusiasm and goodwill, and shot on location in Mexico. Before making Monsters, Edwards directed a winning Sci-Fi London short; Hunter Prey director Sandy Collora gained a following from an impressive Batman fanfilm. Whereas Monsters relies heavily on subtle CGI, Hunter Prey is more traditional with much more use of costumes, prosthetics, make-up, props and models. Almost everything is on camera.

Hunter Prey takes a scenario that is superficially very simple, and develops it into a more complex plot: there are twists and surprises, a fascinating Sleuth-style cat-and-mouse dynamic between the runaway and his main pursuer, and another interesting relationship between the pursuer and his portable computer. While each alien is almost incomprehensible to the other, there are enough similarities that they are able to goad, challenge and learn from each other, in doing so gradually revealing the galactic events that have brought them together.

There are one or two missteps including a directorial cameo which is undeniably cool but lacks the gravity of the rest of the film, but on the whole this movie is excellent. It's more than just watchable, with characters and conflicts that draw you in. Everything comes together in this film thanks to excellent pre-production. It's not only the script and backstory which are very well thought out, but also the costumes and creatures and the choice of location. Shot on a Red camera against the yellow dunes and deserts of Baja, there's not a single scene in this movie that isn't just beautiful.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

"2007" Update Part VI: First Impressions

A re-shoot took place for the "2007" performance roll a week or two ago and I've started post-production. There are several artistic and technical changes, including upgrading the project to HD, with live footage taken on an HD-DSLR. Here's the shot I'm working on at the moment, with a frame from the earlier version for comparison.

[Produced in Blender 2.57]

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Oh! Vatta Lovely War [Review: Engaging The Enemy]

The third Vatta's War novel finds Kylara Vatta travelling to a series of amusingly provincial worlds as she seeks to put together a privateer force to strike back at the pirates. Each planet has its own eccentricities such as Moscoe, where there are millions of by-laws and regulations to enforce basic politeness standards, and crimes are tried in front of the Tree Lord in a mock forest court. Anyone appearing in this court must be dressed appropriately or face the penalties - "it is extremely rude to appear with an uncentered stripe."

This is the least action-heavy of the novels so far, although the plotting and scheming is more devious than ever and the plot does build to a climactic and inevitable space battle. Also, for all the light-heartedness, there are some deeper themes being developed. It's not enough to make Ky always the underdog, she is also allowed by the author to make some seriously bad judgement calls, alienating would-be allies and not necessarily winning all her battles. Stella Vatta is developed as a major character and the rivalry and personality clashes between Ky and Stella are deep and bitter even though they must trust and rely on each other.

Elizabeth Moon seems to be developing some ideas about capacity for violence through the books: Kylara has a genetic predisposition to enjoy killing, but this is separate from morality. Ky remains a very moral and caring character if somewhat on her own terms. It turns out certain other Vattas have also had this secret tendency, turning some into effective secret agents and others into psychopaths.

When the space combat scenes unfold they are good, although lacking the sense of large-scale tactical reality found in David Weber's Honor Harrington series - the appeal here is again Kylara's scheming that snatches victory (of a sort) from the jaws of defeat.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Holy Wood Part II [Review: Me Cheeta]

Me Cheeta is the autobiography of chimpanzee Cheeta, presented here as the co-star of the original Tarzan films alongside lifeguard-turned-actor Jonny Weismuller. It's ghost-written by James Lever, making it precisely as authentic as 90% of other Hollywood autobiographies and arguably better researched, although there is a tendency to downplay the fact that in real life Cheeta was played by a series of chimps.

I don't usually read autobiographies of any sort - if I did I'd have probably enjoyed this spoof even more, but it's a strong comic novel in it's own right.

This is a one-joke novel, but the joke itself has enough complexity to sustain the plot - Cheeta at the end of his career is looking back knowingly on his innocent beginnings, always enthralled by humanity, and the more he is exploited, the more he loves us. It's the perfect frame for a series of stories about Weismuller, David Niven, Maureen O'Sullivan and the rest of the set. The No Reel Apes campaign to end use of live apes in cinema is name-dropped from time to time although Cheeta himself is scathing. "That's what CGI is, Don, just men in suits."

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Holy Wood Part I [Reviews: Day Of The Locust and Moving Pictures]

Nathanael West's short, bleak novella Day Of The Locust is narrated by a hard-up artist working as a scene painter in Hollywood, doomed to a life of unrequited love and unrecognized talent. The object of his affections is the typical actress-in-waiting, turning tables and sometimes tricks to get by in the absence of the "big break." The craziness of Hollywood is laid bare - in a defining, dream-like scene, the narrator walks through an elephant's graveyard of discarded props.

Terry Pratchett's Discworld is not actually a disc but a lens - through it some aspect of the real world is brought into focus, usually for the purposes of ridicule. In Moving Pictures, the Discworld alchemists discover a celluloid-like material that enables an entire industry to spring up overnight, but the hypnotic power drawing people to Holy Wood to seek their fortunes hints at the revival of an ancient evil. The new opportunities turn Discworld society on it's head: suddenly trolls are in huge demand, and seller of sizzle Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler finds his skills are perfectly suited to the role of movie mogul.

Both novels turn on the exploitative nature of the movie industry. This is still true to some degree even today, but arguably that's nothing compared to the outright abuse of the "Golden Age Of Cinema" and, when modern day scriptwriters or other movie professionals go on strike, it's worth remembering that this unionisation might be the only reason things are even slightly better.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Ai Weiwei Released

I previously wrote about Sunflower Seeds and artist Ai Weiwei's disappearance here. Yesterday and today BBC News has been reporting his release.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

How To Review A Book

I think it's fair to say that many of the reviews on this blog are not technically "reviews" but more "responses" - I'm not trying to provide a Which? Dystopian Novel service but to write honestly about my own reaction to what I've seen or read, and where it takes me. So I fail on two counts - I've been held up on occasion for failing to give a score out of 10 (thank you Actress Confessions sweetie) but nor am I writing traditional literary analysis.

It's good to learn, grow and develop, so here are some ideas about how to write more in-depth book reviews, together with an example drawn from a classic piece of utopian-dystopian fiction. This is neither comprehensive nor ecumenical: I intend to draw on some, all or none of these points in future and would be interested in other approaches to reviewing as well.

What is the book about?

The novel is set in an eco-friendly future where, possibly due to genetic engineering "even the trees are happy." The protagonist, either the engineer of this society or some kind of mascot, becomes restless and walks beyond the boundary of the known into an unfamiliar forest, where chance discoveries bring him face to face with a genuinely miserable person - at which point he must make the most important choice in both their lives.

What does it achieve?

The story develops a highly optimistic philosophy: universal happiness can be achieved but misery must be acknowledged and confronted rather than excluded.

How does it achieve it?

The setting is simply presented as fact: the workings of Happyland society are never revealed. As Arthur C. Clark almost said: "Any novel about sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic realism." The hero is the archetypal Happy Man, and his nemesis the Miserable Man he meets at the foot of the staircase is identical in every way apart from his unexplained melancholia, so is clearly an unconscious facet of the Happy Man's psyche as well as fulfilling a scapegoat role for the Happylanders.

Place it in context:

This novel is the first and most familiar in a long-running series: while each book ostensibly takes as its focus a new protagonist, the Happy Man recurs throughout and through his relationships with other archetypes develops several longer story arcs. The series has had a positive reception over the years with several television adaptations and a second, feminised spin-off series to offset the male dominance of the canon.

Enforced happiness is a common trope within the utopia-dystopia science fiction subgenre. This novel draws heavily on classics such as Brave New World and has in turn influenced subsequent visions of the future: Equilibrium (2002) Demolition Man (1993) and The Happiness Patrol (Doctor Who, BBC, broadcast 1988) are particularly indebted. The latter is an inversion of the basic plot with the Happy Man replaced by the sinister Kandy Man who kills through excessive joy. Symbolic elements of this story have also been influential on their own: the spiral staircase separating the Happy Man from his Miserable counterpart is "borrowed" to great effect in GATTACA (1997.)

Give an honest reaction:

There's often a tension between optimistic and dystopic science fiction. This novel clearly falls into the first category. I enjoyed the plot with it's many twists but felt the optimism went a little too far, with the ending even hinting at totalitarianism. Is absolute happiness either achievable or desirable? In this society, even though the Miserable Man can be welcomed, he does in the process have to abandon his misery altogether: there's no room for either legitimate misery or for the blues. The Happiness Patrol at least ends on a different, more satisfying harmonica note.

You can buy "Mr. Happy" by Roger Hargreaves at all good bookstores.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Infinite Number Of Monkees Part II: Moon Child

There is one reason I am willing to forgive Micky Dolenz for his creation of Metal Mickey and it is this.

Luna, first broadcast in 1983 is one of the strangest sci-fi series ever to be fired from a CRT gun towards a phosphate glass screen.

Where to start? The date is 2040. In the Efficicentre, possibly the last human city after some pollution apocalypse, cloned humans live together in randomly allocated family units. You will be "obliviated" if you lose your e-passport and Luna comes dangerously close to this fate in the first episode. "Technotalk" is spoken, a language not unlike Orwell's Newspeak but designed to be easier for computers to digest. And teapots are outlawed. It's a dark, dystopic, brightly coloured, child-friendly sitcom: the bureaucracy of Brazil and the sinister social control of 1984 meet The Wonder Years.

This show was one of the defining memories of my diminibeing years, yet for a long time I thought I'd dreamed it. While the series apparently still exists in archive, it's never been repeated or released.

Where can you watch it? You can't. Certainly not here.

I was extremely happy to see Luna again. Not everything has aged well - the wobbly old-school Doctor Who-style set for one, and some of the gags are equally wobbly. But I think you'll agree that Luna is still very watchable, and the tone, the essential weirdness and 72 Batch 19Y's indomitable spirit all shine through. With thanks to the Lunaviron fansite.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Infinite Number Of Monkees Part I: Pedal To The Metal

If you had an infinite number of Monkees, and an infinite number of typewriters, then, given paper, ink ribbons, lots of WD-40 and sufficient time, would they eventually come up with some truly classic sci-fi television?

I was recently reminded by a fellow blogger of the many talents of Mickey Dolenz, the voicebox of The Monkees and the man responsible for:

"The four kings of EMI are sitting stately on the floor
there are birds out on the sidewalk and a valet at the door
he reminds me of a penguin, with few and plastered hair
there's talcum powder on the letter, and the birthday boy is there."

You may also have noticed Mr. Dolenz' recent cameo in Mega Python Vs Gatoroid. More importantly from a cultural perspective, he was the creator of this.

Metal Mickey is a progamme I remember from my childhood as being embarrassingly bad. Of course I was probably too young to pick up on the subtext, or to appreciate the subtle nuances of irony. However I have to acknowledge the iconic status of Mr. Mickey (the metal one.)

Mickey's quest to understand human emotion is a crucial sci-fi narrative that has perplexed Johnny Five, Marvin, the Terminator, DATA, O11iver and other great fictional robots. Mickey's LED heart is also echoed by GERTY's emoticon screen - could they be related?

Friday, 10 June 2011

Bad Girls Go Everywhere [Review: A Good Man Goes To War]

The Doctor's finest hour? Or his greatest fall?

The Doctor, backed by a rag-tag crew of companions and allies, takes on a powerful military-religious establishment to rescue Amy and baby Melody. Naturally the entire set-up is a trap ready to spring shut, and the evil Madame Kovarian is a serious threat. The Doctor is on the warpath, more violent than ever, at one point destroying a Cyberman fleet just to persuade their leader to cooperate with Rory. However the main story is the cat-and-mouse interplay between the Doctor and Kovarian.

This episode provides a lot of answers, not just limited to the story arc - in fact these are the least surprising twists. The Doctor's full name is finally revealed, at least for those of us who read Gallifreyan. I have been waiting for this since 1963 which is in itself an achievement since I wasn't born until the following decade.

The script is also full of red herrings and misdirections - is it wrong of me to say that I was disappointed to learn that Professor River Song is not a later incarnation of the Doctor? (This would have implied that relationships of this type are quite OK for Time Lords.) Madame Vastra and Jenny are a joy to watch and definitely spin-off material, and there are some truly memorable, utterly bonkers moments.

Rory (to Sontaran Commander Strax): "You're a warrior!"
Commander Strax (dying words, to Rory): "I'm a nurse."

In addition, it's clearer than ever that Moffat is bringing a much darker tone to Doctor Who: non-human deaths are emphasised, characters are given fake deaths over and over again, and interrogation, torture, humiliation, and slavery are constant companions. The new monsters are extremely sinister and the so-called Headless Monks are no exception.

Amy's treatment in this episode and, it turns out, the whole series, has been particularly cruel and there's an ongoing discussion about treatment of women in Doctor Who over at io9. OK. It could be worse - at least these days they don't get asked to do this [1:45]

[The Time Warriors, Sarah Jane Smith's first appearance.]

As a whole, A Good Man Goes To War was a daring and horrific episode, a real classic Doctor Who moment. But I don't buy the statement that this battle is the Doctor's finest hour, or his greatest fall - for all the climactic music it's still just another verse in the legendary ballad.