Alex Fitch reviews some of the highlights of this year’s Sci-Fi-London Film Festival, which took up residence again at Stratford East Picturehouse and the BFI.
Best Friends Forever (Brea Grant, 2013)
An unlikely mash-up of Thelma and Louise (1991), Clueless (1995) and When the Wind Blows (1986), Best Friends Forever is a terrific, low-budget road movie which sees a pair of friends travel cross country from L. A. to Austin, Texas, oblivious to the apocalypse that is taking place around them. Written, produced by and starring Vera Miao and Brea Grant, the director, the film obviously relies heavily on the chemistry between the two leads. Luckily, they make for an endearing pair of travelling companions, unaware that the usual travails that beset unwary voyagers (being car jacked, breaking down, visiting remote rest stops) are now tinged with additional despair and calamity as news reports bring info about nuclear attacks on the USA.
Gritty cinematography and snatches of doom-laden radio on the soundtrack reflect the legacy of 1970s road movies, but with a refreshingly female-orientated storyline and lightness of touch. The film ends with a comic-book illustrated credit sequence that presages a possible Mad Max-style sequel, and the preceding mixture of slapstick and pathos that accompany Miao and Grant’s adventures make the trip fly by. On the basis of this first sojourn, I for one would be more than happy to spend more time in their company.
Watch the trailer for Best Friends Forever:
Birdemic II: The Resurrection (James Nguyen, 2013)
While Sci-Fi-London has screened some tremendous films over the years, including numerous gems that might never have seen the light of day otherwise, the festival also has the dubious honour of having screened two of the worst films I’ve ever seen in my life. Following 2002’s The Fall of the Louse of Usher (sic), a film I would like to see wiped from the face of the earth so director Ken Russell’s reputation can be preserved in his dotage, we now have a film so incompetent in its construction that it beggars belief that anyone wanted to commit it to film, assuming the preceding Birdemic I is even half as bad. Unbelievably, I found myself in the minority at the London premiere, as an audience filled with Birdemic fans whooped and cheered every clunky line of dialogue, woeful ‘special effect’ and inept editing decision. To add insult to injury, a film critic sitting next to me thought it was wonderful, which increasingly made me feel I was in a room full of people who were drunk, insane, members of a cult, or all three.
Certainly Sci-Fi-London has a regular and loyal audience for its MST3K screenings – all night marathons of B-movies which are heckled by onscreen comedians – but this cherishing of terrible films by audiences (pace The Room phenomenon) is inexplicable to me, particularly during a recession, unless somehow the postage-stamp budget is enough to justify the existence of such train wrecks. It would be churlish of me to point out the flaws in the 1980s video-game style CGI, the interminable opening scene or the ham-fisted edits of the cast (seemingly filmed on separate days), so I’ll leave the last word to a member of the audience who innocently asked the following of the director, at the Q & A after the film: ‘In the scene where the girl is attacked by a giant jellyfish, why is she taken away by what looks like a cartoon ambulance?’
Dark by Noon (Alan Leonard & Michael O’Flaherty, 2012)
Since the start of this decade, Ireland has produced an unexpected number of sci-fi films, following a history of next to none. These have included post-apocalyptic drama One Hundred Mornings (2009), comedy monster movie Grabbers (2012), UFO rom-com Earthbound (2012) and now time-travel thriller Dark by Noon. The latter closed this year’s festival and, as a low-budget local film that punches above its weight in terms of ambition and concept, was a good choice for this slot.
While ostensibly set in a futuristic Dublin, the film has a mid-Atlantic feel, mixing the grit and clenched teeth of Anglo-Irish gangster films and the post-industrial noir look of Blade Runner (1982). The second of this year’s ‘mid-apocalyptic’ films at Sci-Fi-London, following Best Friends Forever, Dark by Noon’s aptly oppressive atmosphere presages a terror attack on the city, which the lead character – a time-travelling eidetic savant played by Patrick Buchanan – tries to prevent from happening.
In the Q&A following the film, the movie’s directors, Alan Leonard and Michael O’Flaherty, talked about how this type of character might be seen as the origin of a new superhero (or villain), as well as how various cuts of the film exist, with the one shown at the festival probably not the one that will gain further release. With the cut shown, the interest in the intriguing plot and excellent production design is offset by a slightly obtuse narrative and somewhat one-note performances by all involved. With a bit more light shone into the darkness (in terms of both tone and plot clarification), sequels and longer cuts would certainly be welcome.
Dead Meat Walking (Omar J. Pineda, 2012)
Over the past 10 years, the phenomenon of zombie walks has become increasingly visible in metropolitan environments across the globe, as members of the public – with varying skills at make-up and choreography – meet up, dress as the living dead and lurch from one place to another in the glare of smartphone cameras and bemused onlookers. Dead Meat Walking tracks this meme from its early days at the turn of the century as an ill-attended gathering of half-a-dozen Canadians in Toronto to the improbable occasions of several thousand people gathering for zombie events in North and Latin American cities.
First-time director Omar J. Pineda frames the proceedings with a confident air and a very slick presentation for most interviews included in the film. Only the brief exchanges with zombie alumni – such as director/make-up expert Tom Savini, Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus and Night of the Living Dead co-author John Russo – seem grabbed in haste at memorabilia conventions, where the sound and picture aren’t quite up to the professional standard of the humble interviewees on the zombie walks themselves. As an introduction to a somewhat bizarre subculture, this is an essential opening salvo, with particularly good interrogations of Reedus and a senior Rabbi who see a parallel between zombie walkers and the disaffected Occupy/99% movements. Elsewhere, while the enthusiasm of everyone involved is endearingly obvious, it would have been great to have a psychologist’s opinion of the phenomenon to counterbalance the occasionally vacuous pronouncements of the walkers themselves, but then I suppose one shouldn’t expect great self-examinations from the shuffling dead, when their presence is more about spectacle than insight.
Watch the trailer for Dead Meat Walking:
Piercing Brightness (Shezad Dawood, 2012)
Armed with the desire to engage with local immigrant culture and people, and curious to explore Lancashire’s reputation for the largest number of UFO sightings in the UK, filmmaker and fine artist Shezad Dawood travelled to Preston to make a film that addressed some of these concerns. Following the artist’s first film, Feature, a beguiling mash-up of cowboys, blue-skinned aliens, musical numbers and funeral arrangements, Dawood tackles a longer length project and provides almost enough visual material and intriguing narrative ellipses to engage the viewer for the 75 minute running time.
Piercing Brightness premiered in a shorter cut called Trailer, which was about half the running time of the feature, as part of a retrospective of the artist’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford. Although perhaps better framed in the gallery environment than a traditional cinema, the shorter cut is almost entirely impenetrable, with its disparate and disjointed elements of Close Encounters, mass observation and skateboard culture. Additional dialogue in the longer cut gives us some insight into the lives of the participants, but this is a film primarily about the juxtaposition of images of the ‘kitchen sink’ North with flying saucers. As a provocation to more traditional films set in and around these subjects, the film has enough set pieces to engage viewers used to the alienating (pun intended) extremes of art-house cinema, such as that practised by Lukas Moodysson or Abbas Kiarostami. However, for more casual viewers of traditional sci-fi, to quote a member of the audience at the screening: ‘I had no idea what it was all about…’
Sado Tempest (John Williams, 2012)
A dystopian reworking of The Tempest featuring a Japanese alt-rock band isn’t the most obvious adaptation of Shakespeare, but speaking as someone who first enjoyed the Bard on screen via Kurosawa’s samurai interpretations of King Lear (Ran, 1985) and Macbeth (Throne of Blood, 1957), sometimes the most obscure translations are the best. Sado Tempest sees members of the band Jitterbug locked up in an inhospitable island prison for inspiring their audiences to rebel against a future government’s totalitarian regime. There, tortured and browbeaten by inmates and guards alike, the band are forced to record bland new ‘unreleased’ material to fill the pockets of record company execs who want to satiate an eager public who think their heroes are dead. If you’re wondering where the travails of Miranda and Prospero come in, this is all against the backdrop of a wild island inhabited by demons, once scoured by an apocalyptic storm, which threatens to return again…
This is a beautifully shot film with engaging musical numbers and a convincing dystopian environment. But for a sci-fi film, the fantastical elements are strangely subdued and the filmmakers shy away from parallels with the 2011 Tōhoku tsunami, both being elements that could have improved the saga immeasurably. The prison drama is captivating but the leaden pace undermines the film, which ironically is at its most memorable when a character quotes the original wording of Ariel’s song from The Tempest, rather than any of the new songs or poetry commissioned for this version.
Watch the trailer for Sado Tempest:
The Search for Simon (Martin Gooch, 2013)
A new British film that mixes travelogue and conspiracy theories to make a low budget sci-fi comedy isn’t the most obvious choice for a gala screening at the BFI, but as Sci-Fi-London’s first feature film (produced in association with the festival), it made a lot of sense as a PR opportunity. Filming on the fly necessitated director Martin Gooch be the main actor and he makes for a likeable, affable lead, even though he doesn’t have quite the emotional range to pull off the more dramatic scenes. The cameos by telefantasy actors Simon Jones, Sophie Aldred and Tom Price work well, even when the occasional stunt casting elsewhere – such as a reoccurring role for fantasy games author Ian Livingstone – kills certain scenes stone dead through the gravitational pull of wooden acting by non-professionals.
The plot – about a UFO obsessive looking for proof of alien life and his ‘abducted’ brother – toys with our expectations well, with a daft and incongruous robot in one scene offset by an excellent bit of CGI at the end. Overall, The Search for Simon is a bit of a mixed bag, no doubt due to the haphazard construction of the film, through footage shot before the script was finalised, crowd-funding that necessitated cameos by the public and a strange war-themed (but amusing) opening scene, but the charm of the production as a whole makes up for its handful of flaws.
Stress Position (A.J. Bond, 2013)
An accomplished, chilling collision between fact and fiction, this Canadian psycho-drama follows in the footsteps of other mutually assured torture films such as last year’s True Love and The Wave (2008), but with a freshness and relevance to reality television post-Guantanamo Bay, which made it one of the most notable films of this year’s Sci-Fi-London. Ironically, for a film screening in a sci-fi festival, the film isn’t science fiction (only a bit of futuristic set dressing hints in that direction). However, as much of the best speculative fiction provokes debate and works as satire of the present day, the controversial subject matter makes it an apt subject for inclusion at the festival, rather than perhaps a lesbian and gay film festival, where it might have been lost in the mix.
Filmmaker A.J. Bond – recalling a flippant conversation with his friend, actor David Amito – decides to find out how long each of them might last if trapped in a modern torture camp like Guantanamo. The rules are: no actual pain or injury to be inflicted, no bringing of families into the arena, and when the tortured gives up a secret code, the test is to stop. Trapping David in a high tech, white-walled prison, with a sharp edged, metallic, modernist sculpture in the middle, the experiment begins and A.J. starts ignoring the rules, one by one.
Stress Position is an intelligent, thought-provoking film, which can only become increasingly relevant as we cast everyone we know in the filmed dramas of our lives, as captured on smart phones and Google glass, uploaded to the web. Although the plot falters towards the end – after the more realistic battle of wits between the two for most of the running time, A.J. becomes the victim of more overt tortures like waterboarding, which seem contrived – the overall effect is a film you both want to see again because of its numerous admirable qualities, and never want to re-endure because the psychological tortures are so convincing and the verisimilitude too unnerving.
Strange Frame: Love and Sax (GB Hajim, 2012)
A fun sci-fi animated musical drama, Strange Frame wears its garish Metal Hurlant / bande dessinée influences loudly on its sleeve, which is no bad thing. While Luc Besson’s Fifth Element (1998) and Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010) have captured the anarchic spirit of European comics well, other examples such as Enki Bilal’s Immortal Ad Vitam (2004) have relied on an insufficient CGI budget to capture the lurid colour schemes and landscapes typical of the medium. Strange Frame lands halfway between these two directors’ achievements. Visually, the film is stunning, capturing a hallucinogenic Jovian environment replete with all manner of aliens, space craft and futuristic architecture, but the quality of the individual images is let down by the animation involved in making them move.
In terms of dynamism, this isn’t as low down the scale as South Park, but movement is somewhat jerky and unnatural, presumably because of a reliance on a flash animation rendering programme or similar. For fans of machinima or Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s work, this won’t be a problem, but it’s a shame that when nearly every other aspect of the production is terrific, it’s diminished by this element. In terms of the soundtrack: animation voice stalwart Tara Strong stars as the film’s object of desire Naia, surrounded by a host of familiar telefantasy stars such as Ron Glass, Juliet Landau, Claudia Christian, Michael Dorn and George Takei, while an infectious score mixes jazz and 1980s rock. As the demonic head of a record label, Tim Curry is perfectly cast in a role that recalls both Legend (1985) and inevitably The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), as much of the film is aimed at fans of his most famous film.
Overall: well worth a look for anyone interested in animation not produced by the mainstream studios, and one can only hope this film does well enough to warrant a sequel to allow the audience to explore this rich world further, albeit next time with perhaps more experienced puppeteers guiding the animation team.
Watch the trailer for Strange Frame: Love and Sax: