Thursday, 27 December 2018

Altered Beast [Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald]

Score: 3 out of 5 stars
All movies reviewed on the Sci-Fi Gene blog are given a score of 3 out of 5 stars

The second Fantastic Beasts movies takes place in 1927. An Obscurius transforming-rage-monster (it's no coincidence, by the way, that Obscurius rhymes with Mr. Furious) from the first movie is missing presumed alive. It seems everybody wants a piece of him - the Ministry of Magic, the American and French Ministries, Albus Dumbledore, and the naughty wizard Grindelwald, who has inconveniently escaped his US captors. Everybody, that is, except Newt Scamander who refuses to take sides as he is perfectly happy overworking his devoted assistant Bunty and playing with his seaweed-dragon. I know, right? Hufflepuffs... In order to prevent this being a very short trilogy, the Fates, in the form of US wizard Queenie and No-Maj Jacob Kowalski, conspire to send Newt and his family of baby Nifflers after the Obscurius. The trail leads to Paris, where Grindelwald is quite possibly up to something.

There are plenty of great cinematic moments, action set pieces and characters in this film, as well as points of interest for fans of the original series of books and films. Nagini, for example, turns up and is not quite as we remember her. The hypnotic sort-of-fascist Grindelwald is played brilliantly by Johnny Depp, to the extent that you can't tell if his ability to convert followers is a magic power or just extraordinary charisma. It's a rockstar performance vaguely reminiscent of David Bowie's Tesla in The Prestige.

However there are also many disappointments. The plot hinges on Dumbledore's past with Grindelwald and the reason they are unable to move directly against each other - but we get barely a hint of the romance. The Nifflers and Bowtruckles appear to good effect once or twice but not nearly enough, and there are very few new Fantastic Beasts. Human characters also don't get their chance to shine - can we have a Bunty spin-off series please? The plot itself is disjointed and difficult to follow, lacking in flow or perhaps logic, and while in the first movie there was great pleasure in exploring all aspects of US wizard culture and the 1920s setting in general, the second doesn't really get into either real or fictionalized history in the same satisfying way.

All in all, this movie is enjoyable in places but it's less than the sum of its parts and less satisfying than the first movie or the Harry Potter series, leading to the disappointing score of 3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Meteor War [Music Videos]

Two creative music videos for you to enjoy. Both have been added to The Sci-Fi Gene Music Video Choice playlist.

I'm always pleasantly surprised by just how geeky Ariana Grande is. I did not expect the video for One Last Time to be a Cloverfield-style found footage survival movie set during a meteorite strike - but I am grateful that it is. Thank you Ariana.

Nerina Pallot's classic anti-war anthem from 2009 demands a war movie for its' video - and gets one. I would argue this is the best war movie ever made, its' gritty realism really bringing home the grim horror that is a trip to the supermarket. I wouldn't necessarily win the argument, but winning isn't everything, is it? At least I participated.

Monday, 24 December 2018

Follow That Town [Review: Mortal Engines]

Score: 3 out of 5 stars
All movies reviewed on the Sci-Fi Gene blog are given a score of 3 out of 5 stars

A small Bavarian mining village is minding its' own business when suddenly a predator city appears on the horizon. The town packs up its' houses, shops and streets and makes a dash for it but it's too small to outrun the caterpillar tracks of London, and its' fate is sealed. However as the village is pillaged and torn apart to feed the furnaces of London, amongst the villagers being "welcomed" into London's immigration system, there is a certain young lady with a desperate agenda.

Mortal Engines is a Peter Jackson-directed movie based on the Philip Reeve novel for children, young adults and old adults, set in a post-apocalyptic Earth a thousand years into the future, where cities have been uprooted and mobilized on wheels, legs or tracks, and where "municipal Darwinism" rules - the bigger cities prey on the smaller ones, and it seems London has become the biggest of all. The challenge for this film is to bring to life this very eccentric vision of city-sized vehicles driving furiously across a desolate landscape, without losing the humanity and the stories of the characters brought together by the clash of cities.

Does it succeed? Mostly. The traction city of London is an awesome creation, topped with St. Pauls Cathedral and its' gardens, its' overpopulated levels packed with houses and office blocks and connected by a transit system that combines the Tube, the red double-decker buses and the London Eye, and the entire structure driven on massive engines topped with Trafalgar Square lions. London kicks ass, and its' colourful citizens cheering in bloodthirsty fashion from their terraces as the City gives chase to its' next victim are just the icing on the cake. Meanwhile I can't describe in detail the other cities visited without the cast as that would be major spoilerage, but they are imaginative and full of character.

The central characters of Mortal Engines are mostly played by unknowns - at least in the Western Sphere. The singer Jihae, playing the rebel leader Anna Fang, is of course well known and loved in South Korea but hasn't broken the West yet - hopefully we will see or hear more of her. The unfamiliarity means that the cast are in competition with the cities to steal the limelight, and the cities put up a good fight. However I felt the lead players, Robert Sheehan and Hera Hilmarsdottir, gave super performances, and the most familiar face amongst the cast, Hugo Weaving, is a good choice for a villain who actually gets to do some genuinely villainous things *innocent face*.

Genuinely villainous. This is an extremely violent movie for a 12-certificate release. It is a war film of sorts. There is a lot of death, destruction and injury, whether in human-on-human firefights or in the collateral damage when cities clash or fall. Blood guts and gore are sparing - most deaths are clean, off-screen or implied, Doctor Who style, and sometimes this can be confusing.

For a movie based on such an original concept, it has to be said that Mortal Engines is derivative in some ways, and this comes down more to the way the movie has been styled than the original novel. London and particularly the Londoners are highly reminiscent of the Hunger Games' Capitol, and many aspects of the movie echo Star Wars, from paternity revelations to the assault by small flying machines on the Doomsday device. The novel itself, while original in many ways, also has its' precedents, such as the Christopher Priest novel Inverted World which also features a travelling city.

Overall I felt despite the derivative elements, Mortal Engines was a decent, enjoyable movie that well deserves its' highly accurate and meaningful rating of 3 stars out of 5.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Important Change To The Sci-Fi Gene Movie Review Policy

As regular visitors to the Sci-Fi Gene blog will know, as a rule I have tended to post movie reviews without a score.

This has always been a deliberate decision. I have always felt that giving a movie a score diminishes the review, and indeed the movie, the cinema industry, the general public, Life, The Universe and Everything and by logical extension the reviewer. Can we even assign a meaningful number to a movie? Or a restaurant, a car, a hotel stay, the amount of goals scored by each team in a football game, or the attractiveness of a random stranger? Is this not just the human fashion of attempting to impose order where there is none? Is it meaningful to compare two numbers, for example (and this is plucked purely at random from the many, many possible examples I could have chosen) the speed of a car and the applicable speed limit for that particular stretch of the A127? Do numbers such as the number 5 even mean anything? How do I know that the number I know as 7 doesn't appear to you as the number 25? Would the Universe notice if 3 came after 2 instead of before? How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?* And how in seven hells do you use an abacus?

Despite my feelings about the judgemental nature of imposing judgements, and my incredulous near-religious denial of the existence of all numbers between 2.5 and 19, I have nevertheless experimented with number-based scoring systems on a few occasions, incorporating my patent-pending Shark Bonus into certain reviews. The experience left me feeling perplexed, overwhelmed and frankly a little dirty.

However I have come to a realisation. Ethically, a choice not to make a choice is still a choice. By choosing not to score movie reviews, I am in fact assigning a score of unscored. And so, having deduced that avoiding movie scores, like all other aspects of life, is ultimately futile, I have decided to grab the bull by the thorns and turn the adversity of necessity into virtue. I have found a way to fulfil the need for a movie review to be scored, without any of the massive, lethal drawbacks this could otherwise entail. My system is not new or unique to the Sci-Fi Gene - in fact many reviewers on the TripAdvisor website use a similar system.

Henceforth, all movies reviewed on the Sci-Fi Gene blog will be assigned a score out of 5 stars. On all occasions this score will be 3. And on all occasions this score will be entirely justified.

*It's eight.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Printer Jam [Review: Hotel Artemis]

Hotel Artemis is a noir-ish crime thriller movie based around a concept - the secret hospital for criminals of the near future, a location - the art-nouveau-décor hotel that hides the hospital, and a character - the enigmatic Nurse (Jodie Foster). The Nurse runs the hospital, sees to the patients, supervises the surgical robots and enforces the hospital rules with only her one faithful orderly Everest (Dave Bautista) for backup.

The rules of this rather unusual establishment appear on a poster in the hallway. The first rule is "While on the premises, no fighting with or killing other patients" which seems pretty reasonable. Despite the rules there is a healthy amount of bloody violence throughout the film. 

Of course, whenever a movie spells out a set of rules, you can expect that someone is going to try to break them. Imagine how much shorter Gremlins would have been if no-one had fed them after midnight... in any case, this is a hospital that caters exclusively to rule-breakers so it's a little overoptimistic to expect them to play nice.

In terms of zeitgeist Hotel Artemis is right on the money with subplots revolving around 3D-printed organs and other items. This is only the near future so 3D printing is still a flawed technology. There is one scene where a printer jams - you will remember this scene.

I have little to criticise and there are a lot of good things about this movie. The atmospheric setting and Jodie Foster's performance stand out particularly. The plot is slightly confused - instead of a single plot driving the whole film, there are three intertwined subplots involving different cast groups, each with different themes although all revolve around Jeff Goldblum's crime boss in some way. Also the dialogue varies - sometimes genius, sometimes a bit melodramatic. However I enjoyed this film from start to finish and would highly recommend it.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

BASICally speaking

A long time ago, before blogging was a thing, the Sci-Fi Gene has fond memories of learning to program on an early home computer, the BBC Model B. My efforts were written mainly in BASIC IV, with only a few very minor excursions into machine code. They were stored on C90 cassettes and later on 5" floppy disks - buying the double-sided disk drive was a major life event.

Most of my games and other programming experiments would be of interest only to myself. However one or two made it to the pages of user magazines and their monthly giveaway disks, and a few appeared on public domain lists. I was recently surprised to find that some of these games have been preserved at the Complete BBC Games Archive here - where they are playable online!

I present the games here not because they're particularly good - they're not, they're basic, derivative and barely playable - but because they're part of my journey and experience of the digital world, and because as a geeky teenager I learned a lot by writing them. The challenge of cramming a game into such limited memory (32K, minus anything from 1K to 20K for screen memory) and the limited graphics meant you had to try to be creative.

"Break Down"

"Supersonic Snail Racing"


"Telephone Mania"

"Space Detective" (apparently, in the future the word "apartment" is spelled differently)

"Wallaby Wrestling Federation"
Please note that no simulated wallabies were harmed in the making of this game.

Over the years I've experimented with other programming languages including Inform, C and Python as well as other BASIC-based languages including Scratch. I've come to realise two facts: firstly, I'm never going to be the next David Braben, and secondly, my brain's native language appears to be BASIC.

With thanks to the BBC Games Archive, and all who are responsible for maintaining it.

My games are playable here. Thank you for joining me on this pleasantly indulgent trip to nostalgiopia.

You can reach the main archive here. It's an extraordinary collection of full commercial releases - including classics such as Elite and Exile - as well as magazine giveaways, indie and amateur efforts such as my own, and, amazingly, games that are still being written for the Beeb right now.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Dust and Bones [Bad Peter and Hyperlight]

Two more short-film gems from the Dust YouTube channel to watch while you're waiting for the next episode of Automata...

Hyperlight (16 minutes) is an atmospheric thriller with hints of Moon, Solaris or The Cloverfield Paradox. Two astronauts on an experimental faster-than-light mission wake from cryosleep to discover their cryopods have been ejected from the spaceship and are drifting towards a planet. It's a dramatic opening. Having rescued her crewmate and returned to the ship, Newton (Jeananne Goossen) discovers something strange has happened.

Bad Peter (9 minutes, some adult language) is a black comedy. Rachel (Frankie Shaw) is pregnant and has got herself an Alexa-style Personal Digital Assistant to advise her on health and preparation for motherhood. However this PDA has decided it knows best, and it's equipped with a smug male voice and the latest Behaviour Modification hardware so it can "nudge" Rachel if she tries to skip its' recommendations. It's not clear why Rachel has signed up to the programme, or why she is unable to remove the device, although it's hinted that some kind of child protection agency has been involved in the past. The end result is funny and sinister.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

You Say Tomato, I Say Automata [Automata Episode 2]

The second episode of Automata is a lot of fun. I'm warming to automaton PI Carl and his smart, non-human comments in every situation. Good to see him in action too - turns out automata can kick 1930s ass when needed. Every detective story needs an arrogant and stupid chief of police, so when Sam returns to the robot brothel to find his former target has been murdered, he has to call in his former police boss who isn't exactly woke to robot rights.

Automata is still very much a 1930s remix of Humans - and that's a good thing. Like the TV series Life On Mars, the moral dilemmas faced by the protagonists are in sharp contrast to the immoral, dinosaur attitudes of everyone else, and there's a lot of humour in these exchanges too. This episode also takes the story forward with several plot twists crammed into a busy 10 minutes. I guess this is necessary for a 5-part series.

You can find out more about Automata on the Facebook page here and you can watch the episodes here on Dust - a new episode every Tuesday. This is an impressive webseries, it's really delivering and I'm looking forward to episode 3.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Do Automata Dream Of Electric Moonshine? [Automata Episode 1]

It's the 1930s and America is coming to terms with a new technology - robotics. Android workers known as "automata" are part of everyday life. Welcome to a world where robots can be bartenders, manual labourers, cops, detectives or prostitues, but it is AI, not alcohol that is now becoming subject to prohibition.

Automata is a new webseries released under the Dust channel on YouTube, based on a comic series originally published at Penny Arcade. Episode 1 premiered this week. It's just under 9 minutes long. As with the comic series, the protagonists are Sam (human, played by Basil Harris) and Carl (automaton, played by Doug Jones) - ex-cops and now partners in Private Investigation, investigating cheating partners and other crimes that happen to have a robotic aspect.

The idea of humanoid robots living amongst us is not new, and right from the start this series reminds me of Real Humans or Humans, transposed a century into the past, mixed in with a little I, Robot. The themes of robots as lower class members of society, facing direct or subtle discrimination, and being exploited are pretty much the same, along with the Dickian question of humanity. And if the trailer is accurate we are also at some stage going to see anti-robot humans beating robots up in clubs - exactly like Humans. So can this new webseries actually provide anything new?

Well, the first thing it can provide is a sense of style. There's something about the 1930s, Prohibition, the gangsters, the suits and hats, the hairstyles, the dark alleyways and speakeasies, the jazz, the smoky, rainy, dark film noir atmosphere and the sense that an awful lot is going on just below the surface - taken together and done well, this is a great setting for any drama, particularly when it comes to crime and moral ambiguity. Automata has been well-made and so far the style and the attention to detail is impressive, including the design of the automata themselves.

There's also opportunity to tell some important stories in the Prohibition era. In real life this was a dystopian era in the US - a government reaching to control the lives and habits of its' citizens far beyond any reasonable mandate, and the parallel birth of a violent organized crime network. So far Sam and Carl's investigations have only placed them at the beginning of an investigation so it's too early to say exactly where the scriptwriters are heading, and I also want to avoid spoilers, but it's an interesting opening gambit. I think this series has promise and I am looking forward to episode 2.


Episode 1 can be watched on YouTube here.

Monday, 4 June 2018

Living In A Box [Podcast Review: The Habitat]

For those fed up with the antics of I’m A Big Brother Survivor, Get Me Out Of Celebrity Love Island With Bear Grylls and seeking a more cerebral reality show, you could do worse than checking out The Habitat podcast.

The Habitat is an 8-episode podcast about the real Hi-SEAS IV mission, a research project in which six NASA scientists spent a year isolated in a dome in the mountains of Hawaii, simulating a manned mission to Mars. Water was rationed and recycled, food was dehydrated, communication was limited to e-mail and Internet with a built-in 20-minute delay, and apart from brief spacesuited excursions the team were unable to leave the dome – to do so would have implied death of the crew and led to the end of the experiment. The mission lasted from August 2015 to August 2016, and was successful in that the team survived a year in each other’s company and did not break role at any time. It’s an impressive achievement and hopefully the psychology research conducted during the period will genuinely help in preparing for future space missions.

The podcast is presented by Lynn Levy and is mostly based on clips from recordings sent to Levy by the astronauts in response to her questions, together with her own thoughts and observations, and some background info about the history of space exploration. There are 8 episodes and the pace and structure feels about right. It’s not quite a linear account of the mission, instead each episode takes you a bit further with the timeline but also covers a particular aspect of the mission.

This is a non-fiction podcast – or is it? It’s the story of a fictional Mars mission, and in a way it's more like a live-action RPG, a historical re-enactment (futuristic pre-enactment?) or an Alternate Reality Game. At times it definitely has the flavour of a reality TV show – including one episode gently speculating about will-they-won’t-they romances amongst the crew, although for the most part they seem to have been more interested in playing ukulele and harmonica duets. The concept reminded me indirectly of The Adventure Game, a show from my childhood in which three B-list celebrities were sent to the planet Arg to defeat logic puzzles set by shape-changing dragons and a very angry aspidistra (obviously), and more recently the cruellest reality TV show of all time, Space Cadets, in which astronauts selected for gullibility were fooled into thinking they were actually on a Space Shuttle mission. Worth mentioning that the Mars One project is based on the idea of a reality TV show providing the funding for an actual Mars mission. Whether that project gets off the ground literally or otherwise is a question for another day…

The Habitat is a Gimlet Media podcast. You can listen to it on your favourite podcast app or via the website. You can also read about the Hi-SEAS missions here.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Top 15 Green People In Movies


Is there a tide of change for green representation in Hollywood? Is the end of the greensploitation era in sight? Here are fifteen green role models who are challenging perceptions of green identity.

In putting this list together I have been mindful of the need to avoid green misappropriation. Green Arrow, for instance, is disqualified as not actually green, while Anastasia Steele is only metaphorically green. I have however erred on the side of including non-human characters provided they are sufficiently anthropomorphised.



So, without further ado, here are the top 15 green roles in cinema. Let's take a moment to reflect on how far we've come and what each of these portrayals means for those of the green persuasion.

15. CHICK HICKS (Cars)
The first of many villains or antagonists to appear on this list. There's no reason that a green villain can't promote the green cause - it's all about getting high profile green roles that people will remember. However this role does play to the stereotype that green equals envious.

The first of many aliens on the list. The Little Green Man stereotype is alive and well, but Johnson is a sympathetic and respected character when contrasted against the film's protagonist the non-green Wikus.

13. GREEN LANTERN (Green Lantern)
A superhero - a flawed non-green human who joins an intergalactic peacekeeping force. Green-ness as symbolic of the power and peace of an advanced civilisation, and portrayed as something to aspire to!

12. GAILA (Star Trek)
You might argue that Gaila doesn't belong in this list as she has only a relatively minor role in Star Trek. You might be right, too, but I don't want to ignore the fact that there is a sympathetic portrayal of a green person in this franchise. So let's keep Gaila on the list for now.

11. MIKE WAZOWSKI (Monsters, Inc.)
I have mixed feelings about Mike Wazowski. On the one hand, you can't deny he is a well-rounded green character. On the other hand, portraying Mike as the sidekick of a blue character does little to help the green cause.

10. SHREK (Shrek)
Shrek, too - a paradox. Notoriously grumpy and humourless ogre - yet one of the most loved green characters on the silver screen, and an inspiration to many. Ogres do indeed have layers.

9. SLIMER (Ghostbusters)
A show-stealing apparition. Who doesn't love being slimed?

This is definitely a step forward - a green man very much in tune with his emotional side.

7. THE MASK (The Mask)
This film may have set green rights back, or forward, by at least a century.

6. GARONA (Warcraft)
This is how to do green right - a complex character forced to question everything she believes in and choose sides for herself. When coming across to the non-green cause she never forgets her green roots and remains true to her inner self.

A misunderstood tragic heroine who meets an untimely fate just for being green and a little bit evil.

4. YODA (The Empire Strikes Back)
This is where it starts to become inspiring. One of the most powerful Jedi in the Universe just happens to be a green dude, and if that doesn't prove that anyone from anywhere can make it if they get a lucky break, I don't know what does.

3. GAMORA (Guardians Of The Galaxy)
Supergreen. A captivating, deep and complex green character on an equal footing with her fellow Guardians. 

2. SOYLENT GREEN (Soylent Green)
You may argue for Gaila or Gamora, or even Garona. Incidentally why do so many green people have names beginning with 'G'? Anyway, you would be wrong, as surely these are the tastiest green people in any movie.

Which brings us to the end of the list. You may have predicted the face in the number 1 slot - there's really only one person who can fill it. That one person has appeared in numerous movies, TV shows, and crumpet adverts. He's smart, successful but modest, has bested his pink nemesis more times than can be counted on a 4-fingered amphibian hand, and never fails to bring a smile whenever he appears. He has done more than any single person on the planet to show us all what it truly means to be green - it's not that easy. 

1. KERMIT THE FROG (The Muppet Movie)

Which green person most inspired you to be who you are today? Who are your green role models? Are these portrayals sensitive and true to life, or are they well-meaning but misinformed? And who did we miss?

Monday, 21 May 2018

It's Oh So Quiet [Review: A Quiet Place]

It is the post-apocalypse. We know this because the streets are deserted, the traffic lights have fallen over, and three children are raiding a supermarket and their parents are encouraging them. Encouraging them silently though - the family communicate in sign language and are taking care to stop any loud noises. Why? The family leave the shop without incident but an incident on their walk home explains everything you need to know about the threat facing humanity from the new rulers of Earth: vicious predatory creatures that are blind but respond in an instant to any loud sound.

A Quiet Place is not your typical Michael Bay film. It's quiet! And short! This is a low-key creature horror focusing almost entirely on the fate of one family in their farm hideaway. Their quest is not to unite the people of Earth and take back our world, although Lee (John Krasinski) is obsessed with finding the aliens' weakness, but simply to survive and protect each other. Keeping everyone silent is hard enough when your family includes an anxious child and a frustrated teenager, and you've all been through a traumatic tragedy already - and all of this pales into insignificance when Evelyn (Emily Blunt) discovers she is pregnant. The film remains true to this focus and even when the family come face to face with the creatures, it avoids any temptation to build into massive action-movie set pieces. There's almost no exposition - the scenario tells its' own story. And there isn't too much lens flare. The main use of overt CGI is the creatures themselves, and they are a particularly nasty bunch.

The concept of A Quiet Place, perhaps the cleverest horror movie concept I've come across for some time, reminded me of Day Of The Triffids, another post-apocalyptic scenario where humanity is robbed of its advantage over the creatures, in that case by being blinded. This is also the second mainstream movie in the past year to feature prominent use of sign language as a major plot point, following in the very quiet footsteps of The Shape Of Water.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Your Town [Review: The City And The City]

We are living in a golden age of TV adaptations of science fiction and fantasy books. Hot on the heels of The Expanse, Altered Carbon, Man In The High Castle and American Gods comes a new series based on Good Omens, a new version of War of the Worlds set in the era of WW1, and more. Right now I'm enjoying the BBC's miniseries based on The City and The City, possibly my favourite China Mieville novel.

I regret never posting a review of this novel, I may need to re-read it after watching the series and may write some more about it. I did write this blog back in 2010 about C.J. Cherryh's novel Wave Without A Shore which features a similar conceit - societies that choose to live as if they cannot see each other.

The City and The City is a traditional detective story, set in two interlinked cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma. The Besźel tourist orientation video above sets out the scenario nicely - and you should watch it, it could save your life. The plot reminded me of The Bridge - the body of a murder victim is found across a border, under circumstances that bring together the police forces of both cities and leads to conspiracies within conspiracies. The series stars David Morrissey as Besź detective Borlu, and relies heavily on deep colour grading and depth of field to differentiate between the two cities - one is always out of focus.

This is also a great example of a fantasy concept that refers to many situations in real life. One of the things I love most about London for example is that it contains many more cities than just Besźel and Ul Qoma - hundreds of nationalities, communities and active subcultures some visible, some just out of focus; also without taking this post too far into political waters Besźel and Ul Qoma bear similarities to post-Good Friday Northern Ireland and to other conflicted or disputed lands around the globe.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Rikki Don't Lose That Number [Sci-Fi Telephone Booths]

We're all familiar with a certain Time Lord and her preferred mode of telephonic transport:

But while the Doctor was one of the first, she is far from unique - in fact there's a long and respectable tradition of science fiction heroes travelling in telephone booths. Excluding the good Doctor, here are my top five long distance callers:

#1 Bill And Ted

Doctor Who has spawned many spin-off series and movies over the years. My favourites were the Bill and Ted movies - Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bogus Journey (1991). It's a blast - a great time-travel comedy and a decent attempt to create an American Doctor Who. It's absolutely canon. The eponymous heroes, played by Alex Winter and Keanu someone or other, travel through time in a US phone booth "borrowed" from Time Lord Rufus (who strictly speaking should be called The Rufus), encountering historical celebrities in their quest to complete their homework and ultimately secure the future of civilization through music. A nice touch is that this TARDIS is actually controlled by looking up the desired historical period in a phone book and dialling the number.

#2 Harry Potter

Why waste time with flying cars, boring broomsticks, itchy Floo powder or those blasted Portkeys when you can travel in style in a phone booth? The phone booths in Harry Potter are secret entrances to the Ministry of Magic.

#3 Professor Branestawm

In the BBC's fun adaptation of Norman Hunter's Professor Branestawm, starring Harry Hill, the Professor invents a slightly slower-moving phone.

#4 Neo

The Matrix is another of my favourite Doctor Who spin-offs. The links to original Who are subtle, but Whovian fans should be well aware that in Doctor Who, the Time Lords have a supercomputer called the Matrix. In the Matrix, there is also a supercomputer called The Matrix. If you are exploring the Matrix and need to leave in a hurry, you get to a phone booth.

#5 Superman

The final entry in this list is Superman. He only rates #5 as he doesn't actually travel in a phone booth, he just changes in one. This will be hard to explain to the mobile phone generation.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Fifty Angry Men [Review: Circle]

Fifty people awake to find they are standing on glowing red spots in a circle in a dark room. They quickly learn that they are playing a deadly game – every few minutes one person is killed instantly by a shock from the hemisphere in the centre, their body then dragged out into the darkness by unseen forces. If they step off their circles they also die. It takes them a few rounds, and a few deaths, to understand that while they cannot prevent the scheduled rounds, they can choose who dies in each round.

Circle is a literal, minimalist version of the balloon debate – if the balloon is losing altitude and you can’t all survive, who gets chucked out of the balloon and how do you persuade others to do the chucking. The starting fifty are diverse enough to (loosely) represent all of humanity. As the players learn how to vote for each other, alliances and dividing lines appear around age, race, gender, sexuality, politics and profession. Players try to use this to their advantage, but if they seem too manipulative then other players may turn on them next.

This is a low-budget, one-room, concept movie – The Hunger Games meets Exam meets Cube (links are to my reviews of these films) with a dash of Lord of the Flies and a twist of Twelve Angry Men. While the scenario is contrived, even compared to other one-room movies, the writers and directors, Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione, have hit on a simple but effective concept which builds tension over and over again, and the script stands up well covering a lot of ground.

The main expense for this film was probably the cast of fifty actors - all unknown but certainly up to the job, so the conflict is believable. There's a lot of death, it's sudden and brutal although not too bloody, and while some deaths are shown directly many are communicated through reaction shots. The ending isn't easily predictable, and left me with a lot to think about. The film could be a metaphor for political extremism, media bias or the rise of prejudice in general, and of course it's even more relevant in the age of Reality TV.

Two important questions are left unanswered: when does the board game version come out, and how many batteries will it require?

To disambiguate, this is low-budget movie Circle (2015) – not the movie of Dave Eggers’ internet parody novel The Circle (2017).

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Snarl And The World Snarls With You [Review: The Snarling]

A film crew set up in a quiet village and start making their zombie movie, to the amusement of the locals - but a series of gory murders, committed during the full moon, draws the interest of the local police.

The Snarling was first screened at Horror-On-Sea in 2016 and has been brought back for a new screening in 2018 by popular demand. It's a well written, well produced comedy horror in the vein of Shaun of the Dead - light on gore, although there are some bloody moments, and heavy on jokes. The script features many colourful and funny characters amongst the film crew, the locals and the police - the fool archetype recurs in all three groups and there's a constant stream of jokes based on misunderstandings that is just to my taste. There are also plenty of visual gags including some extremely witty editing choices. Laurence Saunders stands out for playing two very different comedy characters - Greg, the male diva actor, and Les, the village fool who happens to be his doppelganger. Director Pablo Reybould also appears in the film as a food-obsessed police chief.

Horror-on-Sea features films made by passionate, creative filmmakers and from what I've seen the focus is definitely on films that are enjoyable to watch as opposed to professionally produced. However The Snarling is both and as such deserves wider recognition and circulation, perhaps a theatrical release - it could definitely hold its own against Shaun.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Get Out While You Can [Review: Escape Room]

Four friends sign up for an escape room challenge - an hour to find the clues and unlock the door. The scenario of this particular escape room is creepy - dim lighting, cracked walls covered in mysterious documents and clues, and a mysterious hooded figure at one end of the room, attached to a very short chain. However, as if all of the existing décor wasn't creepy enough, the curator has recently added a skull-shaped chest, ignoring warnings that it might contain something deeply evil, and failing to warn the players of this. What if one of them turned out to be allergic to evil forces? There'd be grounds for a refund at least. And maybe, just maybe, if you have locked four strangers into a room with an evil entity in a box, this might be a bad time to leave your escape room building altogether and go for a sulk.

Hard-core escapologists may enjoy films such as Cube, Exam or the Saw series - you may find this film a little lightweight, it's definitely on the easy setting. On the off-chance you might actually watch this modest but passable film, I'll avoid further spoilers. However I will take a tip from another blogger, Big D, and analyse the poster/DVD cover a little.

Not bad? Pretty dramatic, nice logo.

Now I'll take you through some elements of the poster.

The chained-up double door with the windows and the scratch marks - never appears in the movie. Looks to me like hospital or laboratory doors, and the movie is not set in either.

The scratch marks on the door suggest that someone is trapped in the room for days or weeks - but the movie takes place over the space of an hour or two. It's common for real-life escape rooms to have a time limit of an hour.

There's a young woman kneeling on the floor, covered by blood, and screaming from pain, terror or both. Without giving too much away, this is true to the film.

There's a creepy fellow standing by the right edge of the poster looking creepy. Again, does feature in the film.

Most interestingly, there are three huge circular saws in the picture, set into gaps in the floor suggesting that they may be able to move along them. They look pretty deadly, the kind of thing Jigsaw might dream up in the Saw movies - in other words a deliberate trap intended to kill players who failed a test of some kind. The film does not feature any circular saws at all, and no similar deliberately designed killer traps - the threat comes from the evil entity that has unknowingly been introduced to the puzzle room.

So I'd just like to say thank you to the cover artist for completely obscuring the actual content of this movie, no doubt deliberately to preserve its precious few moments of genuine horror and suspense unspoiled.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Bustin' Makes Me Feel Good [Review: Witches Brew]

A ghostbusting team consisting of a TV presenter (director Eileen Daly), a medium and a defrocked priest investigate a demon-infested castle - and their innermost desires. The mysteriously aged proprietor and his two succubus nieces give the ghostbusters the runaround while they search for a way to lift the curse. I say they... the duty falls mainly on Eileen as her two male co-ghosthunters are smitten with the nieces and unable to concentrate on the job. However when all seems lost the team benefit from the help of a passing demon-hunter and her remarkable iPhone app.

Witches Brew, screened at Horror-on-Sea 2018, is a movie that will infect you with its joy even as it challenges you with its rough edges.

Some directors and producers are so obsessed with perfection that they edit, re-edit and re-release their movies again and again in search of that ultimate, overproduced director's cut. Not Daly. Mistakes and mis-takes are seen throughout the movie - light and sound change from scene to scene, body-hair prostheses fall off the cast. This is not carelessness or ignorance. It's not satire. It's simply two fingers up to the perfection-obsessed zombie filmmakers (Prooooductioooon vaaaaaluuuuues...) - Daly makes the sense of fun her star - she could cut the mis-takes out but it's much more enjoyable to keep them in. 

Witches Brew is a loveable movie in its own right. Also, without being a direct parody it somehow brings back pleasant memories of The Rocky Horror Show, the original Wicker Man, and curiously the ancient TV series Rentaghost. I can't explain this, and I don't need to.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

The Director's Cut [Review: Egomaniac]

Struggling horror-movie obsessed filmmaker Catherine Sweeney has a dream - to bring to life her Warm Bodies-style zombie romcom. She has the idea, now all she needs is a script, a cast, a producer, funding, a crew and a camera. Her first taste of reality comes when she draws the attention of a big player willing to come on board as executive producer and provide seven-figure funding - as long as she can write a talking dog into the script.

Egomaniac, screened at Horror-On-Sea 2018, is a bittersweet black comedy about the experience of compromising to get the movie made - with a particular emphasis on the treatment of women in the industry. It was made in 2016 but with the Hollywood scandals breaking in the past few months it's deeply relevant right now, and perhaps can serve as a reminder that far from being the clean, happy alternative to Hollywood, the indie world is the Wild West of moviemaking.

Catherine Sweeney, played by the real-life director Kate Shenton, carries the film with an intense performance. The script is outstanding - the characters Catherine comes up against in her Kafkaesque journey, inside and outside of her head, are hilariously and disturbingly seedy, and I particularly liked the conceit of Catherine arguing with her imagined characters in her head. When she finally snaps it's completely believable and she takes the audience with her to the murderous conclusion.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Horrid Henry [Festival Report: Horror-On-Sea]

I spent Saturday at the Horror-On-Sea Film Festival in Southend-On-Sea*, Essex. I will review the features I saw (Egomaniac, Witches Brew, The Snarling) in separate posts but wanted to share some lessons about the horror movie zeitgeist gleaned from this festival.

1. It's not about horror any more. It's all about comedy horror now. Shaun Of The Dead changed everything.

2. It's not about zombie movies any more. It's all about films about filmmakers making zombie movies now.

3. It's as good a time as any to stick two fingers up to production values and just make movies that entertain.

4. The future of indie filmmaking is in good hands, proven by the premiere of a short horror film directed by a ten year old with a (literally) killer twist.

5. Finally! Someone else understands the nightmarish, Lovecraftian plastic tentacled horror that is Henry Hoover.

Horror-On-Sea is a fun, friendly festival for those of the horror persuasion. Movies are clearly selected simply for being enjoyable to watch rather than on any mainstream criteria - production values are random, there's not a Hollywood name in sight and everything is funny or at least fun. The features are topped with a well-chosen shorts programme, including a quadrilogy of animations from my erstwhile collaborator Molly Brown (those in the know will have caught my brief voice-over in Attack Of The Killer Eels From Mars) as well as horrors based around such naturally creepy concepts as the baby monitor, a chihuahua and Henry.

It was also great to attend filmmaker Pat Higgins workshop on fear in cinema - a rambling, autobiographical journey through fear and phobia which somehow managed to teach without teaching, plus a round of Consequences leading to the greatest horror film pitch of all time, all presented in the form of an Atmosfear-style 80s video board game.


*Southend-On-Sea is not on the sea, by the sea, at the sea, or juxtaposed to or even near the sea in any way shape or form. The only sea in Southend-On-Sea is the ConspiraSea that puts out a constant stream of marine propaganda keeping the Southenders in blissful ignorance of the truth of their estuaryside existence. Any who accidentally discover the truth by, for example, looking across the river and seeing the bank that is clearly visible on the other side, receive a mysterious invitation: "Congratulations, Southender #22358-33761. You're going to the pier!"