It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

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Best SF Films

Last week, the American Film Institute released several new lists of top 10 films, including one for science fiction. And on his blog on AMC, the always entertaining John Scalzi commented on the list, pointing out that the most recent film on it was released in 1991. So he decided to create a list of Top Ten SF Films Released since 1991, and asked people for suggestions. Here’s my list (in order of year of release)…

1. Delicatessen, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro (1991) – it’s hard to imagine how a post-apocalyptic black comedy featuring cannibalism could be, well, funny. But this film certainly manages it. The inhabitants of an apartment block in a Paris after some unspecified disaster regularly invite new tenants to take empty flats… so they can kill and eat them. Ex-circus performer Dominique Pinon is the latest such victim… but he manages to evade his fate.

2. Until the End of the World, dir. Wim Wenders (1991) – when I first saw this back in 1992, I thought the 1999 it depicted was the most plausible I’d seen on film. Having watched it recently, I can see why I thought so and why it wasn’t so prophetic after all. Wenders has said he intended Until the End of the World to be the “ultimate road movie”, and that it is for much of its length. I blogged about it here. I still want to see the 4 hour 40 minute version, though.

3. Abre los Ojos, dir. Alejandro Amenábar (1997) – César, a wealthy playboy, is hideously disfigured in a car crash caused by a jealous ex-girlfriend. But doctors use a new surgical technique on his face, and he regains his former good looks. And the love of his life. Except everything seems a little different and not quite right… An unsettling film. It was remade by Cameron Crowe as Vanilla Sky, starring Tom Cruise. Beware of expensive Hollywood imitations; go for the original.

4. The Fifth Element, dir. Luc Besson (1997) – okay, this is a supremely silly film. Which is where much of its charm lies. A vividly technicolour space opera, it owes more to French sf comics such as Métal Hurlant than it does to Star Wars. This, of course, is actually a good thing. On the other hand, thinking too hard about The Fifth Element is probably not a good thing – although, to be fair, it holds up better in that department than Star Wars does.

5. Starship Troopers, dir. Paul Verhoeven (1997) – the book is a thinly-disguised fascist political tract, so the only way to make a film of it would be as a satire. And that’s just what Verhoeven did. Perhaps it turns into a bit of a mindless bug hunt towards the end, but it skewers its satirical targets entertainingly – the adverts exhorting young people to sign up for the Mobile Infantry to kill bugs are a hoot.

6. Dark City, dir. Alex Proyas (1998) – a man wakes up in a bathtub, with no memory, and there’s a dead body in the other room. And the city outside is a dark and claustrophobic place which, bizarrely, changes each and every night. Despite initially appearing to be noir, Proyas piles on sufficient strangeness until the film can only be science fiction. It ends entirely appropriately.

7. Donnie Darko, dir. Richard Kelly (2001) – a troubled teenager survives a jet engine crashing onto his bedroom when a giant rabbit calls him outside and tells him the world will end in 28 days 6 hours 42 minutes and 12 seconds. The rabbit subsequently urges him to commit various acts of violence and vandalism. This is one of those films whose plot only becomes clear as the film progresses. But it all makes a clever kind of sense in the end.

8. Avalon, dir. Mamoru Oshii (2003) – better known for animé, Oshii made this live-action film in, of all places, Poland. In Polish. With a Polish cast. It opens in a VR war game, and the special effects are jaw-dropping. The plot – a hunt for a “hidden level” in the game – is not as eye-opening as the visuals, but neither is it some dumb First Person Shooter.

9. Primer, dir. Shane Carruthers (2004) – this starts off relatively straightforward: a pair of geeks inadvertently invent a time machine. But each time they go back in time, they’re co-existing with their earlier selves… and if they go back from that point… Two-thirds of the way into the film and there are several pairs wandering around, and several narrative threads following their exploits. A very clever film, and not a little mind-bending.

10. Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow, dir. Kerry Conran (2004) – this was one of the first films released with entirely CGI-generated sets and backgrounds, but that’s not what makes it so remarkable. Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow is an homage to old pulp science fiction and Saturday morning serials – not just the H Rider Haggard / Edward Bulmer Lytton plot, or the fantastic future of the past production design, but also all those shots so familiar from noir films: the policeman blowing his whistle, the heroine in the telephone booth, the running shadows thrown across buildings…


Old Rock Stars Never Die…

… they just end up playing gigs in Holmfirth. For those of you who don’t know the place, Holmfirth is where they film Last of the Summer Wine, a sitcom about three wily old codgers which has been running on the BBC since 1973. And Holmfirth is where I saw a band from my youth, Blue Öyster Cult, perform live last night.

I was a big fan of BÖC during my teens, and last saw them live in 1988. Twenty years ago. Sadly, they haven’t done much since then – they were dropped by their record label, released three albums a decade later on an independent label… with whom they subsequently fell out. And so are now without a recording contract once again. But they continued to tour. Or rather, some of the original members of the band continued to tour.

I forget how I discovered BÖC were playing the UK. I remembered being surprised they were appearing in Holmfirth – as well as the more usual venues in London, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow. But Holmfirth is an easy drive away, so I decided to go see them (and persuaded Craig to accompany me and provide transport). I didn’t really know what to expect – this is a band that formed the year after I was born, and whose original members are now in their sixties.

But you know what? They were bloody great.

The evening didn’t start well. Craig wanted to test his free GPS – and it soon proved it was worth every penny he’d paid. It randomly decided that we really wanted to visit a field somewhere near Hepworth, rather than Holmfirth. And then it would utter directions like “drive straight for a while,” “drive some yards”, and “turn slightly left”. We actually took a wrong turn shortly after entering Holmfirth – which took us directly to the venue. The GPS had suggested some other roundabout route, which was a mile longer.

The venue was weird – a cinema built in 1912 and currently being refurbished. No seats, a fancy gold proscenium arch and balcony, scaffolding and bare brickwork. I’d ordered the tickets on-line, to be picked up at the “box office”. Except they claimed I’d cancelled the payment. Which I hadn’t. So I went to get more cash from the ATM so I could pay for them. Only to be told when I returned that they’d made a mistake. I hadn’t cancelled my payment. Someone else, a Mr Hassal, had. And they’d got confused. As Craig pointed out, the hassle with the ticket sales had been caused by confusing Mr Sales with Mr Hassal…

Happily, BÖC were definitely on form. Only two of the original group remain: Eric Bloom and Buck Dharma. The set-list was a trip down memory lane. Pure rock nostalgia. The most recent song they played was ‘Shooting Shark’ from 1983’s Revölution By Night.

When BÖC started out in 1967, technology couldn’t deliver studio-quality sound on-stage. So bands would play extended “live” editions of songs – something to make the concert experience stand out. That was certainly the case last night. The highlight of the gig had to be ‘Then Came the Last Days of May’ from Blue Oyster Cult. It’s a classic song, but last night it was even better. When it came to the solo, Richie Castellano took the lead. I wondered if Buck Dharma no longer had the chops to play it. But no, after five minutes of scorching guitar-work from Castellano, Buck Dharma took over. And delivered another five minutes of superb soloing.

Other fan favourites – ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’ and ‘Godzilla’ – were also greatly extended. In fact, during ‘Godzilla’ the band left the stage, giving Danny Miranda five minutes to solo on his bass. Which was then followed by the obligatory drum solo from Jules Radino. (Danny Miranda, incidentally, also plays bass for Queen + Paul Rogers, so we were treated to a quick instrumental Queen medley.)

Other tracks performed included ‘Harvester of Eyes’, ‘This Ain’t the Summer of Love’, ‘Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll’, ‘Career of Evil’, ‘Black Blade’, ‘Unknown Tongue’ and ‘Burnin’ For You’. It was all bloody good. (Even Craig admitted as much, and he was born nearly 10 years after BÖC released their first album.)

Best gig of the year? Too soon to say yet. But it was certainly the best one of the year so far. I don’t care how old they are – if BÖC are back touring in the UK next year, I’ll go and see them. Again.


Let’s Get Canonical

I work with databases – I was a Database Administrator, now I’m a Database Architect. And I’ve always told the developers I work with that I’m responsible for the integrity of the database not the integrity of the data.


Incorrect data really annoys me. Especially the sort which has a canonical source, is only wrong because some moron mis-entered it, and then that wrong data has proliferated across the Internet. If you look down to the right, you’ll see a selection of books from my collection on LibraryThing. Books are an excellent example of the kind of screwed-up data I mean. LibraryThing pulls its book data from several sources. And some of it is just plain wrong – mispelt, inaccurate, incorrect… And yet it would be easy enough to check. Just look at the book itself.

Frank Herbert did not write Threshold The Blue Angles Experience. He wrote Threshold: The Blue Angels Experience. The author of Tom Strong Book 6 is not “various” but Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse (well, they’re the two that get top billing on the cover, although others did contribute).

It’s not just books. It’s CDs too. Whenever I buy a CD, I rip it to MP3s so I can listen to it at work and on my Yeep. And yet half the time I have to go and correct all the mispelt song titles. The Black League did not record a song called ‘Better Angles (Of Our Nature)’ but ‘Better Angels (Of Our Nature)’.

It’s not difficult to get it right. You don’t see books in Waterstone’s with mispelt titles. Or CDs in HMV or Zavvi like that.

In fact, I don’t see why there can’t be a single canonical source of such data – which would be the publishers, of course. It’s in their interest to ensure it’s correct. After all, how can you order a book or album if they’ve entered the title incorrectly? So why can’t the publishers – the content providers themselves – publish correct data about their products, and allow free access to it by the likes of LibraryThing, GraceNote or It’s not that difficult…

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A Blatant Attempt To Fill Space

I’ve been a bit crap lately about posting here. Partly because I’ve been busy, but also partly because I’ve not been able to think of anything to write about.

Last week, I spent four days in Stuttgart for work, and I considered writing about that. But then I realised there’s not much you can say about Germany we don’t all ready know – it’s cleaner than the UK, it seems an all together nicer place, and it has a public transport network that puts the British one to shame…

Oh, and travelling through Manchester Airport was a nightmare. I’ve yet to be convinced that bottles of water are a danger to any aircraft. Or that all those queues serve any useful purpose – other than pissing passengers off, of course. As far as I’m aware, no X-ray machines or metal detectors were put in place in the London Undergound after the 7/7 Bombings.

Strange, isn’t it, that the people who make up these stupid laws are not themselves inconvenienced by them.

Anyway, I have in the past been asked to post more “funny stories” here. The following incident isn’t “funny”, but you might find it mildly entertaining. And thought-provoking. Or something.

It was in the late 1980s. I was studying at Coventry University. One dark winter’s evening, I was on my way home from the centre of town. My route took me between the two cathedrals – the new Basil Spence one, and the shell of the old one (photo by Tornad; taken from Wikipedia). As I passed the entrance to the old cathedral, I happened to glance in…

And saw a naked woman sitting on a big white horse.

Coventry, of course, was where Lady Godiva‘s famous ride took place.

As more of the interior of the cathedral came into view, I saw large spotlights and a camera crew. And I noticed that the woman wasn’t actually naked. I never did find out what was being filmed. But at least I wasn’t hallucinating. Nor was it the ghost of Lady Godiva I’d seen – I wouldn’t have liked to have suffered the same fate as Peeping Tom.

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Why Am I Still Doing This…? Part 1

Well, I’ve now had a couple of weeks to regain my sanity after I finished watching the 50 films in the Sci Fi Classics 50-movie pack… So it’s on to the second 50-movie pack, Nightmare Worlds.

Alien Contamination – this Italian film pretty much transplants the plot of Ridley Scott’s Alien to Earth. A tramp freighter from South America drifts into New York harbour, its crew all dead. In the hold are strange alien eggs… which cause people to explode messily. The detective in charge, with the help of a secret government organisation of scientists, tracks down the surviving astronaut from a Mars mission. Together, they travel to the ship’s origin… and discover the other Mars astronaut, who had faked his own death and is now growing and distributing alien eggs for his alien masters on Mars. This film was entirely ordinary.

Alien Species – a trio of prisoners are being transported by sheriffs, when a fleet of UFOs attack Earth and force them off the road. The prisoners escape, and hide out in a nearby cave. Which proves to be the headquarters of the invading aliens. Initially watchable, this film quickly descended into silliness. The cave sets look fake, the aliens looks fake, and ten minutes in, the story began shedding plausibility and intelligence by the second.

Atomic Rulers of the World – a Japanese Starman film, and as such resembles all the other Starman films. The alien council of the Emerald Planet look like the deranged imaginings of the insane brother of the inventor of Teletubbies. The plot: Starman saves the Earth from human invaders from the planet Mirapolia.

The Alpha Incident – A space probe returns to Earth and brings with it a dangerous micro-organism. While being transported by train, a sample of this micro-organism is inadvertently released by a criminally stupid train guard. Five people are exposed, and promptly confined at a remote train stop while scientists rush to find a cure. This was as dull as it sounds.

Attack from Space – another Starman film. This time the Spherions are out to conquer Earth. Of course, Starman defeats them. Happily, they don’t make films like this any more.

Beast of the Yellow Night – a man sells his soul to the Devil after being saved from certain death. As a result, he turns into the titular creature at night – not just on yellow nights, I should add; whatever a “yellow night” might be – and kills people. This film couldn’t quite make up its mind what it was supposed to be – horror, thriller or family drama. The poor transfer made it even harder to figure out.

Warriors of the Wasteland – an Italian post-apocalypse movie. And if there’s one thing we now know about the Apocalypse from all the films on the subject, it’s that the Goths will inherit the Earth. Well, they’re not quite Goths in this one – the eponymous warriors wear white, for one thing. (Which means we also know Persil will survive the Apocalypse.) And they’re a bit too camp to be Goths. But, essentially, this film is Mad Max meets the Camp White-Clad Goths of the Wasteland. And he kills them all.

Werewolf Woman – this one is about a woman who turns into a werewolf. Of course. Actually, she only thinks she turns into a werewolf. Except she does at the end. Along the way, she meets and seduces numerous men, and then kills them. This is one of those movies where you get exactly what the title leads you to expect. In fact, the film’s alternative title Naked Werewolf Woman probably tells you more than you need to know…

The Nightmare Never Ends – an old Nazi hunter is killed, and the detective investigating the murder begins to obsess about the man’s death. The Nazi hunter had been tracking a notorious war criminal, a louche young SS officer, who doesn’t appear to have aged in the 35 years since WWII. Unfortunately, the title better refers to the film itself than it does to its plot…

Counterblast – a Nazi scientist escapes to England at the end of WWII, and murders and takes the identity of a British scientist returning from Australia. He continues to work on the biological weapons he had been creating for his Nazi masters, with the intention of using them to usher in a Fourth Reich. But it all starts to go wrong… This B&W British film from 1948 was actually quite good.

All the Kind Strangers – Stacy Keach is driving through deepest darkest Tennessee when it sees a young boy walking by the side of the road with a heavy bag of shopping. He stops and offers the kid a lift… which subsequently involves a long drive down a dirt track and across a creek… to a house where seven kids (ranging in age from late teens to under ten) live alone. They do have a “mother” – but she’s actually a woman they’ve kidnapped and forced to play that role. And so they likewise force Keach to become their father. There was a halfway decent story buried in this film – which isn’t at all sf or horror – but it didn’t deserve 74 minutes.

The Day the Sky Exploded – Earth is bombarded by asteroids. Which is sort of like the sky “exploding”. Cue lots of running around, explosions, buildings falling over. I don’t actually remember there being much in the way of a story in this film. Deep Impact it’s not. Happily, neither is it Armageddon.