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My time at Sci-Fi London, part 4

A Change of Plan

I had planned to only see two films on the final day of Sci-Fi London, both in the evening. But my plans for the daytime were scuppered by the weather, so I decided to add an extra item to my festival agenda and head in early. The pub quiz was tempting, as was an extra screening of Radio Free Albemuth… but the decision turned out to be quite easy in the end, because of one of my (very few) complaints about the festival.

Attempting to find out more about what the deal was with the quiz just left me at a page telling me to register my team. As a newcomer to the festival and the only one of my crowd to attend, I knew exactly nobody else at the festival. When the only option for a social event is to say who else you’re doing it with… and you don’t know anybody else, that’s a nice hefty barrier to participation. So I bought a ticket for Radio Free Albemuth instead. Not a great hardship, as it’s a film I’d wanted to see earlier in the week anyway.

This seems like a good time to bring up a small gripe about the festival, but first, I should clarify: I enjoyed the festival immensely. I just had the feeling I was missing something.

There was clearly a social side to the festival that just seemed totally opaque to me. I knew things were happening, but information about it all was remarkably absent… and there was remarkably little provision for folks who weren’t already involved in that side of the things to get involved. If you weren’t already a part of the in crowd, there didn’t really seem to be an on-ramp to change that. It’s difficult to mingle and socialise whilst watching films… and when not watching the films, everybody just seemed to vanish. Having a couple of places near to the cinema called out as “meet here between films” venues would help a great deal… the cinema foyer didn’t really cut it as a social venue much of the time, although I did spend a bit of time chatting with folks at the t-shirt stand later in the weekend!

Film 6 – Radio Free Albemuth

First, a confession: I’ve not read Philip K. Dick’s original book. I have read VALIS, which is a different variation on the story, but not Radio Free Albemuth itself. So this film was going to be both a bit familiar and a bit unfamiliar. I’m never entirely sure what to make of PKD’s work, but I found this film to be both enjoyable and engaging… and quite a bit easier to follow than VALIS.

The semi-autobiographical story follows Nick Brady (a fictional friend of PKD) as he deals with what he believes to be transmissions from an extraterrestrial origin, transmitted to him via a satellite in earth orbit, and setting him against the opressive political climate of a dystopian USA.

Apparently this film was shown at a previous Sci-Fi London as a test screening, and the version shown this year was the completed version, following changes made after those test screenings. Of course, not having seen the previous version, I can’t make a comparison… but given the quality of this version, I’m guessing it paid off.

So whilst I’d still like to have been to the quiz and got involved with the social side, I have no problem with having chosen to see Radio Free Albemuth instead.

Film 7 – Exit

I’m still not sure what to make of this australian film just yet. I know I liked it, but I think a lot of it is open to interpretation… and I’ve not finished forming my interpretation of it just yet. This won’t mean anything to non-gamers, but I got definite hints of Unknown Armies from it. It’s certainly a film about obsession and it certainly shows how obsession can damage people…

The general premise is that there’s a growing number of people who’ve come to believe that their city is a maze, and they’re stepping away from their normal lives to open as many doors as they can, hoping one of them will be the exit. They see their normal lives as just more dead ends in the maze, illusions to be overcome.

Exit is certainly a thought provoking and immersive film, though. Even without being 100% sure of what the final outcome of the film was (although I have theories), the film is still visually (and musically) impressive and I recommend it highly.

Film 8 – The Sound of My Voice

I’d been quite intrigued by this film since it leapt onto the programme at the last minute. It focusses on two would-be investigative journalists who attempt to join a secretive cult to infiltrate, document and expose it. The film opens as, after months of work, they are finally brought into the cult and meet Maggie, the cult’s charismatic messiah figure. What they weren’t expecting was for Maggie to claim to be from the future.

One of the things I really liked about this film was that it didn’t provide all the answers… it leaves a lot open, whilst also still providing a pretty solid conclusion.

Now, this is a film that’s virtually impossible to discuss without spoiling it, so I’ve hastily added a spoiler-block mechanism to my site. It might take a short while to get the kinks out – bear with me if this goes a bit astray.

First set of spoilers – concerning Maggie herself, her story and how some things could make more sense:


[spoiler]One of the things I was initially left a little cold by was when an investigative agency of some kind (I’ll run with FBI) gets involved… because, the way the film pans out doesn’t seem to fit with why and how they would have become involved. At one point, the lead FBI agent mentions that Maggie has held other identities, and has lead other cons, but escaped… and that in each case things have lead to a request that a child be brought to her.But then I realised that the “from the future” and “con artist” personas didn’t have to conflict. There’s no reason she couldn’t be both. After all, she herself says “I’m from the future, I’m not a saint“.

Another possibility that would make reasonable sense is that, as with the child she claims is her mother, the other children in other cities may well have been people she knew in the future.

All of the above could be true, without conflicting with her identity as a visitor from the future.[/spoiler]


Second set of spoilers – concerning outstanding questions about Abigail Pritchett:

[spoiler]This lot is very much a “things left relatively unexplained” kind of deal. I’m going to leave aside the film’s brief revelatory moment right at the very end (which I think was very nicely handled and excellently foreshadowed) and instead ask one question: What was the deal with Abigail. She’s shown as a strange child at the best of times – but the creepy weird structures she was obsessively making from her building blocks struck me as somehow important. The film never dwells on them, so she could just be an odd kid… but it struck me as too big a deal to not be relevant.[/spoiler]

Then there’s her bedtime injections. I got the impression that she was meant to be a child with some health problems, but injections between her toes? That seemed a bit odd to be left mostly unexplained.

(Frivolous edit: especially when the injections were delivered by none other than Dr. Thaddeus Venture himself [aka: James Urbaniak], another fictional character known for dubious parenting!)

So there you go, some spoilery questions and things I was pleased to be left wanting to know more about…

Festival Verdict?

I paid under £70 to see eight films and a pile of short films.  I’ll be going back, I think!

My time at Sci-Fi London, part 3


This time I cut my time even finer, and arrived with about 15 minutes to spare before the start of the shorts programme… only to find that it had changed screens and been delayed by an hour. Oh well. I sat and read for a little bit and had a brief chat with the person behind the t-shirt desk. I set an early high score on her “name the associated film” challenge by getting all but one of them. I only missed a single t-shirt movie connection – which was apparently Blade Runner related. I’ll have to rewatch the film and see where it comes up, because it’s one of my favourite films and I didn’t recognise it even when told. Oh no, what a hardship. I’ll have to watch Blade Runner again.

Blink of an Eye: Shorts Programme 1

I’ve seen two sets of “shorts previews” at Eastercons in the past, and have enjoyed both of them thoroughly. When I decided I was going to go along to see things at Sci-Fi London, I was determined to take in at least one of the three sets of shorts. Sadly, I only managed to fit one into my schedule… but I did manage to see a few more through the festival and in the previously mentioned previews at Eastercon. If I can remember and identify those, I’ll add comments on those afterwards.

Short: Decapoda Shock

I saw this one at Eastercon, and didn’t even slightly mind seeing it again. A glorious tale of human space explorer mutated into crab-man-thing, returning to earth, fighting conspiracies and winning the day… with a rather nice macabre sting at the end.

Short: The Attic

This one was rather sweet, and not in a cloying way. It’s a story of a man and his estranged young daughter finding each other through the power of music, as inspired by a Ziggy Stardust like figure who may or may not live in the attic. I liked it, but must admit that I found it a little sacharine at times.

Short: Dr. Glamour

Another that I’d seen at Eastercon, this one is a glorious musical number that’s best described as one part steampunk, one part cthulhu, one part rocky horror. I must confess that, fun as it is, I much preferred the silent-movie style first part. Don’t get me wrong, the rest of it’s good and fun, but the first part (especially the moment that the male & female leads first really notice each other) is quite, quite glorious.

Short: This Is Not Real

I don’t really know what to make of this one, so I’ll just say it looked good and that I didn’t hate it. Then I’ll move on.

Short: Vessel

I saw this one at Eastercon too. It irked me a bit there, and it still irks me a bit now. It plays like it’s setting up for a “sting in the tail” kind of deal, to deliver a cautionary tale… and then there isn’t a sting. It feels like somebody forgot to add a story.

Short: Alchemy and Other Imperfections

I really, really liked this one… although I will admit that I’m making a deliberate choice to interpret parts of it (a memory that the female character is trying to remove from the male character) in a charitable way. If taken a different way, I’d find it more questionable. I prefer to be charitable in this instance… and either way, I can’t fault anything else about it.

Short: Robots of Brixton

I want to like this more than I do, but the references to the brixton race riots felt a little bit heavy handed to me. Either way, it’s an impressive piece of work… and I can’t fault it for having a message to it, and sometime heavy handed messages are needed. I also can’t fault the general production or the talent that went into it. It’s certainly powerful and memorable.

Short: Infinite Loop

Imagine Primer or Timecrimes, but instead of a time machine, use the bathroom of a student flat, and complicate the plot with a third flatmate who just wants a shower. Add a pot-plant as a handy macguffin and you’re golden. All good fun.

Short: Bobby Yeah

What. The. Shit. I repeat. What. The. Shit.

It’s like a creepy, psychosexual body-horror nightmare made of intestines and toenail clippings with an excellent dirty bass soundtrack. In fact, it’s not like that at all. It IS that.

There’s a trailer over here. It doesn’t do it justice. I want to get to another screening just to sit with my back to the screen and watch the audience reactions.

Other Shorts

As mentioned earlier, I caught a few other shorts.

Short: W.A.

This is entirely based on a very, very bad joke. It’s great if the audience are prepared to groan along with the joke at the end. When I saw it at eastercon they did, but this time they didn’t… which is a shame. (seen at eastercon and before a sci-fi london film)

Short: 8:31

Set in the last moments of light before the sun is due to go dark forever, effectively ending life on earth, a man and woman race to the hospital as she goes into labour. (seen at an eastercon preview)

Short: Blind Spot

I can say nothing here without spoiling it, but I found it excellent. Some of the physics in the background events slightly ropey, but that nitpick shouldn’t distract anybody. It’s just something that’s bugged me in so many films that now I can’t see it without it having a “gah!” moment. (seen before two sci-fi london films)

Short: How to kill your clone

A nice idea for a short, and it looked very good… but it felt muddled to me to the point of labouring it’s joke too much. As a short, I think it needed to be just a little bit shorter. (seen before a sci-fi london film)

Short: ERROR 0036

Automated call centres & helpdesk runarounds. We’ve all been there. I’ve certainly been there. I’ll even admit to having been on both sides of the call, although I always tried to be more helpful than the examples here. (seen at an eastercon preview)

Film 5 – The Last Push

The Last Push was the fifth film I saw at the festival, and it was on it’s second screening… which was packed.

First, a shout out for the lead actor. This film is essentially carried by one guy – Khary Payton – who’s more usually a voice actor for cartoon and video game work. He carries it very well indeed. It’s quite a subtle performance at times, as he’s playing somebody who’s generally fairly taciturn to begin with, and has the traditional astronaut calm about him.

Second, a shout out for the set. It’s perfect. It’s realistic, appropriate and claustrophobic whilst having just enough space to let the plot move. The rest of the cast, small though their roles were, were also universally excellent.

Third, the plot. It’s not really a spoiler to say that the exploratory mission to jupiter’s moons doesn’t go entirely as planned… but the way it doesn’t go to plan is excellent, thoroughly plausable and very nicely handled indeed.

In case you’ve not worked it out already, I loved it. So far, I’d call this my highlight of the festival… and it’s up against some stiff competition.

My time at Sci-Fi London, part 2

Day Two

I didn’t turn up quite so ridiculously early for my second day at the festival, partly by design, partly because I travelled in to London with friends and partly because the trains were utterly screwed. Still, I grabbed a nice veggie thali at Govindas (I’m not veggie, but still like veggie food) and then hurried down to the venue for film #3

Film 3 – Sol

My first film of the day was Sol – based around the “Sol Invictus” challenge, in which several teams of academy students from various colonies get dumped (via “slipgate”) on a random unknown world with equipment to set up a camp and study the heavens. Their goal: be the first to locate sol and send a message requesting pickup. The winning team get to go on to join the ruling class. The implication is that it’s very much a dog-eat-dog kind of contest, and that some of the teams are not above just killing the others to ensure they win.

Of course, things don’t go entirely to plan. The film opens with an accident at the slipgate. Virtually none of the competitors (or their equipment) make it through – and it’s outright stated that they probably died en-route.

My guess going in was that this was going to be a bit “lord of the flies in space” – and I wasn’t far wrong, although things don’t get quite as bad as that. The locations are good, and the performances from the cast of twenty-somethings and younger, are at worst servicable and at best sho real promise, even if some of the cast don’t get a chance to show much range.

I only have one real complaints about the film, which was that it strayed rather too much from “show, don’t tell” for some of the local wildlife. I can entirely understand why (budget), but that’s largely because the way it was handled pretty much yelled out “we don’t have the budget to show this stuff, so we won’t”. I wouldn’t have wanted full on CGI gribbly things (I rarely want that), but I wouldn’t have minded a bit more than people running around panicking whilst weird noises happened. The chronicler (the person who’s role on the team was to record everything and provide a lot of the viewpoint) being told “nobody should have to see that” wasn’t an adequate cover.

Still, as it goes, it’s a pretty minor complaint. I found the film watchable and enjoyed seeing it. For a young cast and (I’m guessing) a young set of filmamkers, it’s something they should be proud of.

Film 4 – Hell

I’d been lead to believe that Hell was going to be a nightmarishly bleak film… and I have to say that I don’t agree with that assessment. It was a harsh environment, with the sun having got brighter (hence the name – which is german for “bright”, and this is a german film) and the planet having got hotter and dryer, but I never got the impression that things were totally hopeless. There was always something else that could be done, or a problem that could be addressed. That said, that’s a disagreement with how the film was billed – I have very few disagreements with the film itself. In fact, I thought it was thoroughly excellent. I’m sure I’ll pick holes in it on a second viewing (and I want a second viewing), but I still really liked it.

The cast were universally excellent (although I’m sure that somebody who speaks german will tell me they sounded stilted and awkward – as an english speaker who can only kinda-sorta follow german I wouldn’t know!). The cinematography was stunning. The costuming and attention to detail in terms of setting and props was masterful.

But for a film billed for it’s bleakness, there was an awful lot of hope in it.

If you get a chance to track it down, do so.

My time at Sci-Fi London, part 1

What The Day Was About

Today I went to see some films. I’ll be going to see some more films tomorrow, and again on Sunday, and again on Monday. I’ll be seeing eight chunks of filmed science fictional entertainment in all. I don’t say “eight films” as one of those chunks is a series of shorts. I’d have liked to get to see more of the shorts, but my two different budgets limits (the “money” budget and the “hours spend in dark rooms” budget) wouldn’t really permit more.

I went in fairly early as I wanted to go and find the new (note: not actually new) location of Gosh Comics, and sure enough, I found it. Picked up a few more TPBs. I really do need to get rid of some that I soured on after buying the complete collection to make room (Y: The Last Man – good comics, but rubbed me up the wrong way).

Anyway. The main events – the films. I’m going to see these as part of the 11th Annual Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film (aka: Sci-Fi London). I like watching weird and wonderful SF films, and don’t often get the chance to do so. I’d had my appetite whetted a bit at Eastercon by a preview screening and a few of the shorts films, and decided I needed to get out and do something that was non-stressy… so booked for the previously mentioned eight slabs of film entertainment whilst the opportiunity was there. The festival’s been running all week, but the earlier films all either clashed with other things I was doing or were at times that were awkward to get to after work or get back from once they’d finished… So I just booked today off work and an treating it as a four day weekend.

Today I saw the first two of my eight. I was quite early for both because I figured that was better than being late, especially as the programme says “no late admissions” and that the times listed are start times. The routine seems to be to show a quick short before each film, then the festival director gives a brief intro, then they launch straight into the film.

Film 1 – Extracted

First up was “Extracted” – starring recent genre TV stalwart Sasha Roiz. I’m glad I picked this one to start with as I thoroughly enjoyed it. It had its UK premiere on Wednesday night, and this was the second showing. I almost didn’t pick this as one of my eight chunks, but changed my mind to include it (instead of one of the shorts programmes) at the last minute. I’m very glad I did. It’s a very well made and well put together psychological SF piece focussing on a man who’s developed a technology to step into and work through peoples memories to repair their past traumas, but who accepts funding from people who put it to other uses.

There’s nothing startlingly original about a “going into somebody’s memories to see if they’re guilty” plot, but this one handles it pretty well. It keeps it tight, and has some interesting and new twists along the way. I don’t want to say too much, but I doubt it’s much of a spoiler to say “things don’t go as planned”. I’d certainly recommend this one pretty widely – it’s not exactly a thrill-a-minute action ride (which is good – I’d have been bored if it was, probably) but it is well put together and a fine example of this particular trope.

The performances were of a universally high standard – unusual in low budget SF films, in my experience. Not just from the previously mentioned Sasha Roiz, but from everybody else as well.

The film kept the tension up and mostly managed to avoid dragging in the middle. I also, as somebody who works in software development, find the cause of what went wrong to have a certain resonance to it.

Recommended, and if I can ever find it, I’ll be picking up a DVD.

Film 2 – Cycle

The second film of the day was Cycle.

Beyond that, I have no idea.

No, seriously. I have no idea. It’s a 70s SF & psychedelia inspired / 80s synth soundtrack bleak weirdness headfuck. In motion captured CGI. With, amongst other things, a weirdly subdued party with disco lights. In spacesuits. At the end of the world. Maybe.

I think I can kind of see what it was trying to do, if I squint a bit and turn my head sideways. It was stylishly done, and the only thing that yanked me out of it occasionally was the delivery of the dialogue, which I suspect was largely delivered by the hungarian CGI designers and animators. It wasn’t badly delivered, but it was certainly oddly delivered. Then again, I think oddly off-kilter was clearly one of the design goals.

I’m not sure what to make of it yet. I might need to watch it again one day to try to parse it.

Either way, I don’t object to having paid to see it, so it’s not a failure. There was a lot of interesting stuff going on visually and the soundtrack was pretty mighty, so it’s got that too.

Still to come

Tomorrow I’ll be seeing Sol and Hell. On Sunday I’ll be seeing Blink of an Eye: Shorts #1 and The Last Push. On Monday, Exit and Sound of My Voice. They’ve also snuck an extra screening of Radio Free Albemuth in on Monday, which I had been interested in earlier in the week but unable to attend. If there are seats still available and my brain chemistry isn’t going to go all mad science as a result of too much time in the dark, I may get a ticket for that too. I’ve heard it’s very good.

A Film I Wanted to Love… and DID!

Today, I went to see a film. It’s a film that I really wanted to love, and which film critics really wanted me to hate. Sometimes I love it when things turn out my way and the critics turn out to have been watching a totally different film.

The film: John Carter.

It’s GREAT. Go see it.

If you’ve not heard of it it, it’s based on a series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs that fit into the genre known as “Planetary Romance”. People will often call it science fiction, but it predates the SF genre, having been written nearly a century ago (the first book was written in 1917).

It seems the critics have their knives out for this one, but largely speaking, it seems that they’re just not paying attention. Either that, or they’re panning it because they don’t like the genre. I’m not going to say it’s a masterpiece, but if you like the genre, you’ll *love* this film

It nails it. The cast are good. The effects are appropriate. The story is solid and doesn’t drag. The action is good, and unlike most modern action film fights, they told the story of the fight, rather than just showing a series of jump-cut set-pieces.

If you’re aware of the books, and are staying away because it’s just called “John Carter” instead of “John Carter of Mars” or “A Princess of Mars”, stop being an idiot and go see it. The title change, whilst a bit weird, actually makes a lot of sense in the way that the film pans out.

If you want a good, solid action / adventure film in a Planetary Romance genre? Go see this. Go see it now. Don’t just go and look at Rotten Tomatoes, as it’s clearly populated by folks who don’t get Planetary Romance. The kind of people who’d have panned Star Wars because it was “silly”.

The fact that everybody who’s voice I respect in the field of SF or Planetary Romance seems to have got on board with this and loves it should tell you something.

I gave it a shot, and loved it. I’d like to see more of this kind of thing, and I’d like to see it done as well as this has been, and as respectfully of the source material.

So there.

(I’m about to crosspost this to a couple of other places. If you see it multiple times… well, that’s how it goes!)

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