Poltercast: The Battersea Poltergeist (2021)

Ghost stories are a genre well suited to the audio format: they are, after all, about things going bump in the night. Fear is often generated more by what we imagine, how we fill in the blanks, more so than what we see with our own eyes. As such, BBC Radio’s The Battersea Poltergeist is a good fit for radio – and podcast, which is the format in which I listened to the series. Who wouldn’t want to hear all about ghostly goings-on while preparing dinner?

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #23: The Guardian

Okay, to get this out of the way first: no, this entry in our weekly Six Damn Fine Degrees feature is not about the centre-left British newspaper famous for its idiosyncratic spelling abilities. Instead, it is about the main antagonist of several instalments of the classic series of computer role-playing games Ultima, a transdimensional being of immense power bent on conquest, a villain to match the likes of Marvel’s Thanos, DC’s Darkseid or the First Evil from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Or, as some fans of the Ultima series like to call him, the big red muppet.

This was the face that emerged from my screen when I started to play Ultima VII.
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A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #43: Meanwhile, the war was happening elsewhere…

As Edwin Starr asked in 1970: “War, huh, yeah! What is it good for?” Hollywood has known the answer to that one for a long time – war makes for very lucrative movies. From the trenches of the First World War to the urban combat of the Iraq War, there are many, many movies ready to show us combat, heroism, excitement and horror – more often than not veering close to, or outright crossing into, propaganda. The genre of war movies – even if we could spend many podcast episodes just trying to find a useful definition of what exactly makes a war movie – is often used to make a statement about one thing or another: nation and patriotism, masculinity, class, ideology. While we talk about all of these things with our guest Laura Binz, we look at an atypical example of a war movie (and one that Roger Ebert famously walked out of): the Italian film Mediterraneo (1991) by director Gabriele Salvatores, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1992. Is there such a thing as a war movie when the war only takes place far, far away?

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The Corona Diaries: Raptured away

We’ve had this before: video games can be many things, but one thing they are particularly good at is escapism. A video game can be extremely effective at taking you out of your current situation, when you need something of a getaway.

So, after replaying Journey and finding it an exceedingly solitary experience of quite limited escapist value during these pandemic times, what do I do? I go and replay Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (2015), in which the player walks a Shropshire village that is deserted – but everywhere there are traces of the people who are gone after a mysterious epidemic has struck. Oh, and the world has ended.

D’oh!, as the kids say.

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Tell me who you are, so I can tell you who you are: Alias Grace and Ex Machina

Over the last couple of weeks, we watched the 2017 Netflix series Alias Grace. It is a smart, stylish adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, with strong writing by Sarah Polley and direction by Mary Harron (of American Psycho fame), and the acting is impeccable, especially when it comes to Sarah Gadon as the Irish maid Grace Marks who may or may not have helped murder her employer and his housekeeper. The series handles tone and genre well, navigating between historical drama, dry black comedy, true crime, gothic horror and deft commentary on gender, class truth and fiction.

And about halfway through the final episode I thought that Alias Grace isn’t all that different from that film with the robot.

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A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #42: The Complicated Women of Pre-Code Cinema

… or how the Code Ruined Everything. Welcome listeners! For our March episode we will look into the cinema of the 1930s, before the Motion Picture Production Code was enforced in 1934. Just after the roaring ’20s and through the Great Depression, there was a space for stories and characters which would ultimately be lost to Hollywood. A space where there was an opportunity for a different kind of part – especially for women. Where rather than just virgin or vixen, there was room for something in between: something more interesting, more human, and so much more fun! Tune in as Alan and Julie explore what makes pre-code films, and the characters who inhabit them, so special!

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A Journey through Worlds of Wonders: Three Films by Karel Zeman

At the very least since I first watched Star Wars recorded off ITV onto a Betamax video tape, I’ve had a keen interest in special effects, and in films that use special effects to create unique and different worlds and beings. In this respect, though, the last twenty years or so have been something of a disillusionment: while CGI visual effects have become more and more realistic and indistinguishable from reality, they only rarely recapture one of the things I enjoyed most as a kid. See, the kind of special effects I’ve enjoyed most were never about verisimilitude, at least not first and foremost. A fantastic world is made believable and engaging by the imagination going into it more than by the number of pixels and shaders. And sure, I prefer a well-made green screen effect providing the illusion that those kids on broomsticks can really fly to a bad green screen effect aiming for the same thing and failing, but the special effects that stick most in my mind are the ones that transport me to a different, more interesting world – and that can be achieved by miniature spaceships suspended on threads you can make out if you look closely.

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #18: Toby Jones

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

You know how sometimes there are these strange cases of cinema serendipity, where within a year you’d get not just one but two big films about, say, asteroids heading for Earth and teams of astronauts sent on a mission to destroy them. Or CGI comedies about ants. Or biopics about legendary Scottish freedom fighters.

Perhaps the strangest of those pairs of ‘twin films’, as the phenomenon is called on Wikipedia, is the 2005 film Capote and 2006’s Infamous, both of which told the story of Truman Capote’s writing of his 1966 book In Cold Blood. Capote received wide acclaim and won its lead actor Philip Seymour Hoffman an Academy Award. Infamous, though, was barely noticed – beyond the comparisons to the film released earlier. And this extended to the actor who played Infamous‘ version of Truman Capote: Toby Jones.

The Two Capotes
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The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Pilgrim: revisiting Journey

In 2012, a game called Journey was published on the PlayStation 3. It was pretty much the consummate indie art game: there were no puzzles, no boss encounters. Heck, you couldn’t even shoot anyone. What you could do is control your avatar, a figure in a red robe, to walk around the desert dunes. You could jump and even fly, in very limited ways. And you could sing. And as you crossed the desert, you could bump into other robed figures and communicate with them – by moving around, jumping, flying and singing. Whoever you were, and whatever you were hoping to achieve in this desolate yet beautiful landscape: you were not alone.

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The Corona Diaries: Parallel play

Mid-February in the Swiss capital: as the pandemic grinds on it’s definitely getting to me more. Differently from many, it’s not the relative lack of social contact: I’m not the most social animal at the best of times. I would even say it’s been quite good for me and my wife that we’ve both been working from home for much of the last year, which means that we don’t just see each other in the morning when we’re still tired and in the evening when we’re tired again. I have been seeing a friend once a week for coffee, but beyond this I don’t acutely miss going out and meeting people in larger numbers than what I can count on one hand; I can get most of the social interaction I need via Skype, Zoom and Tabletop Simulator – the latter of which allows us to rule at the boardgame Pandemic during an actual pandemic. What times we live in!

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