Saturday, 28 October 2017

Tanis Through The Looking Glass [Podcast review: Tanis]

I've worked my way through series one of Tanis, a podcast from the producers of Rabbits. The presenter, Nick Silver, is on the trail of a legend called Tanis. He's attracted to the mystery surrounding Tanis - he doesn't know what Tanis is, it could be a person, a place, an idea, a god, a magical force of some kind. He's assisted by fellow producers and interns, a hacker friend (sorry, Information Specialist) and various other characters who come forward during the investigation.

Although fictional, Nick's investigation involves many real-life characters, events, mysteries and legends. It's a meandering journey that begins with real-life British magician and cult leader Alastair Crowleigh and his American ally, rocket scientist and part-time alchemist Jack Parsons, and continues backwards and forwards through ancient and modern history, taking in numbers stations, famous historical serial killers, and the fairytales of Baba Yaga. Meanwhile a network of corporations, cults, research groups and secret agencies gradually rise to the surface and the stakes become higher.

I mentioned that Rabbits was a tale in the vein of The X-Files - this is even more true of Tanis. Nick Silver even sounds a little like Fox Mulder. The plot develops very slowly and in a pleasantly psychotic way, it's the podcast equivalent of a wall covered in newspaper clippings highlighted and connected with pins and string. Tanis feels smarter than Rabbits and better paced, although both shows sometimes get confused as to whether they are broadcast during the investigation or put together in the aftermath. I now need to listen to series two and catch up with the current third series.

You can listen to Tanis here.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

How Deep The Rabbit Hole Goes [Podcast review: Rabbits]

Rabbits is a podcast presented by journalist Carly Parker, who is looking into the disappearance of her friend Yumiko. The trail leads Carly into contact with players of a mysterious and sinister Alternate Reality Game believed to date back to ancient times, and to a series of clues related to contradictions about her own past. What is Rabbits? Who are the Men in Grey? How many steps are there to the Lighthouse? And what is a Welshman's tiara?

Why tell this story as a podcast? Serial established the investigative format - enthusiastic, gutsy, female journalist recording her interviews and findings in a search for the truth, and this format has become popular as a result. In the case of Serial the format allowed the investigator to share her findings with her listeners and recruit them to help her solve a (real life) mystery. However for a sci-fi or fantasy investigative story it's the perfect format, a logical follow-on from The X-Files and a way of developing a slow-burn plot arc while building suspense and atmosphere.

Rabbits tries to create the impression of a secret world underlying our own, set against a background of videogames and ARGs. So the format turns this from a story about ARGs into its' own ARG - during the broadcast images and cuttings were posted on the website and listeners debated the puzzles on Internet forums and searched the Internet for clues. And searching led to some fascinating finds - not least because Rabbits works in references to obscure rock bands, videogame Easter eggs, historical codes and puzzles, and real historical figures such as Byron Preiss, author of a fantasy novel The Secret, which included picture clues to the location of hidden treasures - only two of which were ever found.

Rabbits brings to mind literary treasure hunts such as Byron Preiss's The Secret and Kit Williams' Masquerade, as well as books or films such as The Da Vinci Code, The Ninth Gate and Ready Player One - a book that shares Carly Parker's affection for classic videogames. The Da Vinci Code mixed reality, fiction and speculation cleverly giving the impression that it could have been true - only on closer inspection does it become clear that only the first few clues on Langdon's journey are real. The theme of ARGs blurring the boundary of reality features in classic Michael Douglas film The Game, while Iain Banks' The Business tells the story of an ancient organization hiding in plain sight. Some of the mysteries of Rabbits also bring to mind horror movies and in particular The Ring. And of course there are ongoing ARGs such as Ingress, and related games or activities such as orienteering or geocaching.

When I started to listen to Rabbits I found it slightly slow and repetitive, with a lot of deliberate recapping and some quite contrived cliffhangers. I also found the adverts breaking into the broadcast incongruous, although no more so than typical TV adverts. And yet I got the Rabbits bug - by the end of the first episode I bought into the characters and the mystery and wanted to continue listening to see how deep the rabbit hole went. The episodes are long - varying from 20 minutes to almost an hour, the story is complex and the reveals are well-paced. There's some nice sinister backing music too.

You can listen to or subscribe to Rabbits here. Rabbits is produced by the Public Radio Alliance who also make two other mystery podcasts - The Black Tapes and Tanis. You can also read an interesting review and discussion of all three 'casts on The Cultural Gutter here. It's not clear whether all three mysteries are linked, although the podcasters sometimes refer to each other suggesting that they might at least be playing out in the same reality.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Take On Me [Review: Victoria]

This German film tells the story of a few hours in the life of a young Spanish woman, Victoria (Laia Costa) , living in Berlin. While out clubbing she befriends a young man Sonne (Frederick Lau) and his dodgy Berliner friends, and is drawn into a robbery that doesn't go entirely to plan.

I'm trying hard to review this film without focussing too much on its most unusual feature. Victoria is a fascinating character - smart, brave, open-minded and generally bigger inside than out. Laia Costa is amazing to watch, and when you take into account how the film was made, this is an extraordinary performance. She appears happy-go-lucky, and in a way she is, but this persona is her escape from a background that turns out to be extremely sad, and by the end of the film you've seen her make some extraordinary choices, and go through an entire lifetime of emotion and experience. Similarly her new German friends appear to be happy car-stealing rascals but they also have a past, and perhaps this is why Victoria and Sonne don't seem too worried by societal rules - perhaps they've grown up thinking society doesn't owe them all that much.

How this film works is OMG THEY MADE IT IN ONE TAKE! OK. That's true, but perhaps it's more significant that it's in real time, which in turn gives it an authentic feel, and it's written and filmed in the early hours of the morning, relying on natural dawn lighting to create a metaphorical journey from darkness into light - a reversal of Sh
akespearean writing where plays were written to incorporate natural evening light fading to darkness - particularly apparent in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Macbeth. This is fitting - there's a little of Romeo and Juliet in this film.

The international nature of the film is also interesting - Victoria and Sonne are Spanish and German and only have limited knowledge of each others' languages - dialogue is partly German and partly English. Watching these two try to express their feelings to each other in broken English is quite touching.

However the one-take thing isn't trivial either. This isn't a music video, it's a feature length movie of over two hours, with a plot that moves between several external and internal locations all over Berlin, some frantic driving, some action scenes including a gun battle, and intense and draining performances from the main characters - and it's all shot on a handheld camera in one take. Seems legit too, there are very few genuine cut points and the momentum seems to continue even at these times, there's also plenty of online material about the making of the film - much of it directed with the director inside the boot of the car.

Victoria is a film worth watching for more than just the one-take spectacle - it's a beautiful, authentic drama about loyalty and friendship between strangers.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Shine On [Review: Crazy Diamond]

Crazy Diamond, the fourth Electric Dream, takes us to a near-future of rising sea-levels, eco-homes perched on precarious, crumbling cliffs, and Jacks and Jills - synthetic humans grown from human and pig DNA and implanted with a QC - a quantum consciousness. Ed (Steve Buscemi) works in a facility that makes the QCs, but dreams of leaving his limited life behind and sailing away on a voyage of discovery, taking his wife Sally with him. He meets a Jill (Sidse Babett) who has a failing QC and a plan for something that could change both their lives, but is quite illegal.

Ed is the archetype PKD everyman - didn't I tell you to get used to this? - living day to day, holding down a job, dreaming of a voyage into the unknown but only half-believing that it's possible. He's capable of overlooking small illegalities such as the seeds home-grown by Sally (Julia Davis), but larger crimes as proposed by the Jill throw him into conflict between his dreams and his wish to do the right thing.

Some of the back story for this episode can be deduced from the setting - the eco-homes, wind turbines and electric Beetles all point to a post-oil world, with rising sea levels causing coastal erosion and destroying homes. However there are some gaps. It's not clear why food is decaying more quickly, or why the sell-by date is enforced so enthusiastically by the refuse collector. There's a sheet of metal under the ground to prevent people growing their own, apparently to protect the local economy - but why does this make sense?

More significantly, it's not clear why the synthetic humans and their QCs were created, or why they are needed in this society. They're not servants like the synths of Humans or indeed the replicants of Blade Runner. Or at least they're not all servants - the tour guide showing a group of visitors around the QC facility tells them that Jacks and Jills are living amongst us all, then reveals his own status as a Jack. It's possible that they are needed as a result of decreasing fertility hinted at by Ed and Sally's failure to conceive - and taking this along with the food issues I wonder if the writers aren't just thinking of a world that has run out of oil but one that has also been poisoned by pollution.

It's also unclear exactly what the synthetics are - more or less capable than humans? More or less intelligent? Do they actually share human emotions or are they something different? Jill turns out to be capable of some shocking acts, apparently driven by desperation due to her own short shelf-life.

Sally confides in a woman with a pig's head and trotters, Sue, who works as a security guard at the facility, but it isn't clear why this is - the other Jills all look human. She might be an earlier model Jill, or a different type of Jill created specifically for the work, or maybe a Jill from another facility. Sally and Sue's chats do reveal some anti-Jack and Jill snobbery and patronizing attitudes - in one scene Sally is overcome by some form of middle-class guilt while Sue's parting comment is "I'm bred not to take offense."

This episode owes a great debt to Blade Runner - in particular the central character who is a synthetic femme fatale reminds me a little of Rachel from the original film. However there are other influences here too, not least the air ducts and waste pipes in the eco-homes straight out of Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

This was another good episode, mainly down to excellent casting. The Electric Dreams series seems to have attracted some of the best actors, and the three leads here are no exception. However while there's some good worldbuilding, and it's OK to leave some mysteries for the viewer to think about, this time I feel the episode didn't quite provide enough hints.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The First Holographic Wives' Club [Addendum: Blade Runner 2049]

Some more thoughts about Blade Runner 2049: in particular what's happened to all the women in 2049? While I loved many aspects of this film, it does appear to play fast and loose with the Bechdel Test, with no qualifying conversations between female characters, and a lot of submissive stereotypes in a world where the major corporations still appear to be run by men.

Warning: spoilers follow.

Sylvia Hoeks plays Luv, a high-end replicant who is a detective, hunter and fighter with enhanced strength and intelligence and a license to kill - who is chief exec Wallace's personal assistant. Ana de Armas plays Joi, K's holographic wife, a mass-produced consumer product, perhaps a future Alexa. Both are stunningly beautiful as their characters - that's a fact not a judgement - while also being efficient at their roles, in very different ways. This is clearly a world where women are seen as pretty things to look at while they work. Other female characters include several prostitutes and a woman trapped for life inside a sealed room.

There's only really one exception - one female character who isn't defined mainly by a submissive relationship to men, police lieutenant Joshi played by Robin Wright. She's a smart, determined professional woman in her own right, defined by her job, her moral stance, and by the few moments when she lets her hair down and gives away a few hints of personality. She's a great character and it would have been good to see more of her.

I like to be generous about this kind of thing - there might be individual films where there is actually a point to having gender inequality on show. I do find it hard to buy into dystopian scenarios where there is perfect gender equality even while everything else is FUBAR and poor people are forced to fight to the death and othersuch. It's not always bad writing. I came up with some possible explanations for the gender issues in Blade Runner 2049:

It's bad writing. Maybe the screenwriters were too busy writing the plot twists and Harrison Ford's dialogue and didn't make the effort to write in better female characters. However I'm not sure. I'd have to say that the writing in many places is good. The relationship between K, a synthetic human, and Joi, a holographic A.I. with no physical presence, is original and fascinating and raises many questions of its own. Luv is
an enigma - possibly driven by repressed anger, or something else? They're not the one-dimensional characters they seem at first.

Perhaps it's a question of focus. The story is shown from a male perspective - it's K's story, and in this materialistic society his interactions are going to be with women. Had the story been shown from a female perspective, perhaps in this world we might have seen a male A.I. assistant or prostitutes.

Perhaps it's deliberate. This is 2049 but it's an alternate 2049 leading on from the original film, and in many ways a future that's a continuation of the 70s and 80s, and so we should expect to see the 80s patriarchy alive and well along with other 80s icons such as Atari.

To take things further, perhaps this is the point - this is what happens if the patriarchy continues and the world is led by men - we allow global warming and all the other catastrophes to happen, leaving the rest of the world to go to shit while we're busy inventing flying cars.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Do Androids Cry Over Electric Sheep [Review: Blade Runner 2049]

What stands out about the world of Blade Runner 2049? Firstly that it's really, really FUBAR. The pollution smog is just the start of it - Los Angeles an expanded city surrounded by favelas and then giant dykes keeping out the rising sea level, another famous American city a radioactive wasteland, Wall-E style refuse dumps, children extracting metals from old circuitry in giant orphanages, the human population fed by millions of acres of protein-maggot farms. The Off World Colonies are a distant dream for a lucky few. And it doesn't appear to be a great time for women generally - more on that story later.

Secondly, give Gosling's character a helmet and this would be Judge Dredd. The LA setting is completely Mega City One (the cheap-n-cheerful plastic version from the 2000AD comics, not the boring Stallone movie version). Gosling might not have Dredd's stature but he's the same no-nonsense dispenser of justice, at least when it comes to running down old Nexus 8 replicants. This is perhaps a real influence - Dredd first appeared in 1977 so may well have influenced both films.

Thirdly, the writers have mercifully avoided another 35 years of boring film buff conversations by revealing early in the film that Ryan Gosling is a replicant. This will also come as no surprise to anyone who saw "Drive."

I enjoyed the atmospherics of this film. Over and over again we are taken to a landscape that isn't just bleak and evocative but also tells a story. I also enjoyed watching a melancholy, thoughtful movie with a slow-burn plot and a languid, ponderous pace, a real contrast from action cinema even though it's not devoid of action. And K's flying Peugeot is iconic.

The cast is good - the decision to bring Harrison Ford in late as a kind of supporting character allows the rest of the cast to breathe and makes this an ensemble film rather than a Ford vehicle. Smart move as later in the film Harrison still steals every scene he's in. Robin Wright, Sylvia Hoeks and Ana de Armas all stand out.

I did think the plot was a little simplistic - even with the twists, this isn't as complex a film as the original Blade Runner, and the moral ambiguities aren't quite as troubling. There's still a lot to think about - the idea of replicants is developed further from the original film, typical Philip K. Dick themes of reality or human identity are challenged and subverted, with the emphasis on self-deception, and there's a side plot about an A.I. entity that leads to one of the film's saddest moments. And why are so many characters pictured crying?

The Frisco Kid 2049

Friday, 6 October 2017

What's The Frequency, Kenneth? [Podcast Review: The Message]

In this sci-fi podcast, linguist and podcaster Nicki Tomalin blags her way into joining a team of cryptographers as working on a recording that just might be the first ever received communication from an extraterrestrial source.

The Message is short and action-packed, with just eight episodes all under 15 minutes. The plot goes nuclear fast, with new developments, twists and levels of threat in each episode. I initially thought too much was given away in the second episode but I was wrong - there was plenty more material to come.

There's never a point where The Message could be confused with reality - it's too intense and melodramatic, but as a radio play it works well, with some decent writing - the cryptographers on the team have well thought out characters and backstories, the team dynamics are also interesting including the odd relationship between the two team leaders, and the voice acting is consistently good. The Macguffin at the heart of this story is only partly believable but if you can't suspend your disbelief a little then you have no business listening to a sci-fi podcast.

The story will appeal to fans of books or films about first contact and alien messages, whether optimistic as in Arrival or Contact, or horror-tinged - Fluency, Alien etc. The Serial-style podcast format works well with the story, and also paves the way for several of the twists, often playing tricks with the format.

You can listen to The Message here.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Last Train To Transcentral [Review: The Commuter]

This review may contain some spoilers: please ensure your swibbles are fully functional.

The third Electric Dream is a slice of coffee-and-walnut flavoured insanity served with hot chocolate and marshmallows. Ed (Timothy Spall) is a station manager living and working in drab and dreary Woking. An encounter with a passenger (Tuppence Middleton) trying to buy a ticket to a station that doesn't exist leads Ed on a journey to a town unlike any other. Heaven? A quantum leap into an alternate reality, or back in time? An escapist fantasy?

I am enjoying the strong sense of location in these adaptations - not least the fact that of the first three, two have been set in the UK. Superficially Electric Dreams is an anthology of stand-alone stories. However three episodes in I'm starting to think about the connections and trends in this series.

Thoughts so far: There's a trend of increasing dreams and visions. The Hood Maker has Ross's vision of the river, The Impossible Planet has the visions of the bicycle and the lake that run through the story and foreshadow the ending, and The Commuter is full of dream-like events. The Commuter also has a further layer of unreality - from both Macon Heights and the reality of his own attic, Ed finds his way into a strange, light-filled dimension that seems to lie beneath both realities.

Along with the increasing visions, there's a trend of decreasing logic. The Hood Maker has a story that makes pretty sound logical sense if you start from the existence of the telepaths. This first episode may however be an exception. The Impossible Planet makes sense to start with, but the visions and ultimately the ending defy logic. Macon Heights is a place of dream-logic - repeated events, idealized people, sudden transitions and so on. It also leaves too many questions if you try to think about it logically - for example, why does the passenger ask Ed for a ticket in the first place? And who are the people who help the returning commuters get back on the train in the evening?

The Impossible Planet and The Commuter both pose the Matrix dilemma in different ways. Which would you prefer to live in - an unsatisfactory real world, or a better fantasy?

In another respect, though, The Commuter is the most real of the three. It's set in the present day, more or less, and in a recognizable, everyday world at least for those of us who live in the UK and use the rail network. There's a family struggling with mental illness, and later with sadness and loss.

All three episodes so far have been of outstanding quality, and I'm particularly impressed by the visuals which once again are stylish and unique - due to the uniqueness it's hard to put any of these episodes into context, but the sense of a perfect, fantasy town that's just a little sinister is right out of The Truman Show.

Overall: yes. I think definitely yes.