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April, 2009:

Fan Films and Ultra Low Budget Movies

There’s a thriving “Fan Film” community on the Internet, and some of their output is very good indeed.

I almost said “surprisingly” good, but that would be a disservice to the people who make these. I just read a report about the fan film “The Hunt For Gollum” ( BBC News ) and, watching the trailer, you could almost believe it was a Peter Jackson production. Even their lead actor looks like Viigo Mortenson (Aragorn).

So, I started browsing. And there’s a lot out there.

These films are typically independent movies made on a microscopic budget. The people involved tend to give their time for free, and all help and support is organised via the Internet. Costs are incurred mostly for equipment and makeup / costume / special effects. Luckily CGI shots are much cheaper to make these days with talented amateurs able to contribute for home – just see Star Wars: Revelations .

These are movies by fans for fans. The quality can vary dramatically but the fact remains that its amazing they get completed at all. The legality is a little dubious, but most have the understanding – if not the blessing – of copyright holders as long as they are non-profit.

There’s a big directory of fan films at FanFilms.net . Here you can see homages and tributes to everything from Ghostbusters to Buffy, via MacGyver, CSI, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and even Sonic The Hedgehog! Predictably, it’s the more popular franchises that are attempted – so there’s quite a few Star Wars, Star Trek, James Bond and superheroes like Spiderman and Superman.

It’s worth noting that a lot listed above are unfinished, in production, or just plain – I hate to say it – bad. But hey, they’re created for fun, or for love of the original. Many are student movies, some are amazingly professional with quality actors contributing, and you can see most online. Running times vary, but it seems 0:30 to 1:00 are the norm.

Other sites worth checking out are:

ComicBookBin.com

Indie channel at Spike.com

Atom Films Originals

And of course a search at Google or more specifically, Google Video will throw up a lot more, including specific sites catering for, say, Indie Fan Films and StarWars Fan Films .

Finally, some more choices? Try these:

Starship Farragut (Classic Star Trek)

Escape From City 17 (Half Life 2 – Yay!)

Moonraker ’78 (Bond)

The Greatest Fan Film Of All Time (Lol)

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card – Review

Ender's Game Cover

Ender's Game Cover

Ender’s Game is one of those classics of Science Fiction that I had never got around to reading, but now I’m glad I did.

The story is set in a fantastical future in which the human race is struggling to avoid overcrowding and is just getting over a war with a race of insect-like creatures nicknamed the “buggers” which happened decades before.

I can’t avoid spoilers in this review so please do not read any further if you haven’t read the book.

In this future, families are limited to two children, and the army authorities also get to pick the best of these children in anticipation of a future clash with the buggers. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is a third child, from a family that specifically had genetically superior children to aid this war effort. All three Wiggin children, Peter, Valentine and Ender are highly intelligent but only Ender makes the grade to join the space army. Ender readily agrees as he his tormented by Peter and never feels close to his parents – only Valentine holds him there.

What follows for most of the book is Ender’s training at Battle School, a space-station specifically built to train future pilots and commanders. Already his potential is confirmed, from a device Ender has to wear while young, but the Army are looking for someone who is both highly capable, ruthless, and able to act under pressure. Peter failed his test as he was too cruel, and Valentine is too compassionate, so the hopes of the Army lie with the six year old Ender.

Ender’s training is brutal. Still only a very young child, he is deliberately kept isolated and pressurised throughout his sessions. He has to deal with bullys, and deliberate manipulation from the teachers in his training school. He is for example moved early to the next class, and expected to fit in and perform with students far older than him. Or he is deliberately given praise, knowing the other students will resent this.

Ender Series Boxset

Ender Series Boxset

Most of the training takes the form of games. One game, designed to stress the mind, is played alone by students who access their private terminals and play games of logic and knowledge designed by computer especially for the student. This game uses the subjects subconcious to create tests and trials. The other game takes the form of a war game, with teams of students battling it out in a zero gravity environment called the Battle Room, where a commanders control of his troops is tested.

Ender studies hard. He starts as a lowly soldier in a team that doesn’t want him there. And just as he makes a friend or two, his teachers move him to a new team, where he is leader, with a batch of neophytes as his soldiers. These deliberate moves by the teachers keep coming, but Ender manages to hang on, even if he becomes jaded and withdrawn along the way.

Ender quickly proves his worth defeating every team thrown against him. Soon he is fighting a battle every day, then two a day, fighting both exhaustion and students much older and more experienced than him. This goes on until his teachers cannot push him any more. He remains at the top of the leaderboard. The youngest ever to graduate, he is quickly sent on his way.

As you can expect Ender brilliantly survives all these obstacles, making some friends, and more enemies, along the way. The manipulation by his teachers, especially Colonel Graff, goes deep into his personal life. Ender actually kills a student who bullies then attacks him, and that is covered up as the student is said to have been sent home. Another time his sister Valentine, the only person he truly loves, is sent to convince him to carry on with his training. By this time Ender is the only student capable of beating the buggers in the upcoming war.

In the last part of the book Ender is sent to the commanders training school many light years away. Here, he is told he is being taught advanced techniques against the buggers, with the old hero Mazer Rackham, the only person to ever defeat the buggers, teaching him. He learns about the buggers, that they operate as one within a hive-mind, and that they quickly learn from any strategies used against them. He is also taught about the Ansible that allows instantaneous communication, and about the ships that were sent against the bugger homeworld, to attack the buggers before they attack us.

Ender is pushed to the extremes here, and ends up having blackouts, nightmares, and sleepless nights in succession. He is deliberately kept alone but he refuses to give in, commanding his pilots – his old fellow students and friends – via many simulations on the computer against the buggers. He never sees them face to face and Mazer keeps on making the simulation harder and harder, but Ender wins out.

Eventually, at the very last battle, Ender is faced with insurmountable odds. Even the people in the room with him, who he is told are there for his final exam, gasp at the strength of the bugger army. Ender takes the only route out, sending his pilots against the planet on his computer screen, destroying it with advanced weaponry. There is silence, then a round of applause.

It is quickly explained to Ender that all his time in the commanders school was real, The battles he fought in the computer simulation were real, using fleets of ships sent out decades earlier against the bugger homeworld and surrounding areas. The final planet he destroyed in his final “examination” exterminated the buggers, saving humanity.

Ender doesn’t see it like that. He is struck with remorse by the fact he has wiped out an entire species. But back on earth he is a hero. With the bugger threat eliminated earth returns to its old warlike ways, a battle between nations, and Ender is confined to the training school (which he now knows is an converted bugger asteroid). He never really forgives himself for the death he has caused but at the very end of the novel there is some redemption.

While on an ex bugger planet with a ship full of human colonists, including his sister, he finds the last remaining bugger queen, left especially for him. The buggers had reacted to his mind through the Ansible – using his original game-world as a template to create a copycat area on their homeworld, awaiting his arrival. They expected to wiped out and set their last remaining queen. Ender senses that the buggers were not a warlike race, were not out to attack humankind. They, with their hive mind couldn’t understand any human behaviours, means of contact, or emotion and humans in kind couldn’t understand the buggers. The two races were so far apart each never new the other. Ender sees his chance to right the wrongs he has caused, takes the sleep young queen, and sets off.

There is an interesting history to this book, revealed in the authors introduction to the second in the series, “Speaker For The Dead”. It seems Enders Game was originally a novella, and SPFTD a stand alone novel. However, with Orson Scott Card struggling with his plot he thought about using Ender as a character, so the novella was rewritten as a novel with the a change in plot to allow the followup.

There are many layers to the story. On one level, it is a coming of age story of a child genius pressurised into winning against the odds. On another, it’s a story of the warlike nature of mankind. It can be seen as a war story like Starship Troopers, or a story that shows the futility of war. There is also a big subplot, where Ender’s equally intelligent siblings become political conspirators – “Demosthenes and Locke” – using the net to remain incognito. The world outside the training schools is never developed fully but enough is revealed about this Earth of the future to interest you in it’s fate. After all this is a story of Ender, and the rest of the world takes second place to that.

Personally I found this novel exciting , entertaining and involving. There are quite a few more to go and in some ways the story really begins in the next. Ender’s Game is one of those novels you just can’t put down, and while it might be blatantantly aimed at SciFi fanboys to some extent it IS quality entertainment, and can surprise you with some deep ideas and emotional turns along the way.

This book was first published in 1977 and has won both the Hugo and Nebula awards and is considered one of the classics of the genre. There is even an Ender’s Game speciality comic from Marvel and an Ender’s Game movie has long been promised.

Rating: 9/10 – An exciting and thoughtful look into the world of a small boy who survives his brutal training and manages to save the world.

Wikipedia Link – interesting information on the origins of this novel, it’s plot and structure, and the adaptations being worked on.

Bad Science Review – Ben Goldacre

There are a lot of misconceptions in science – mostly fueled by the mass media. Some of this is just plain wrong, while others can even be dangerous.

Most of this pseudoscience – that is, theories that are cloaked in scientific-sounding explanations or extrapolated from honest research but misinterpreted. Some of this has seeped into the popular consciousness.

For example, detox diets and antioxidant supplements – both plainly don’t stand up to scientific critiscism. Others, like the furore over the MMR jab, have already been retracted yet continue to convice some.

While I was never – let’s say naive – enough to fall for all the science stories you hear, I did believe a lot that was assumed to be common knowledge. For example, the antioxidants, and certain vitamins help with certain ailments. Mostly, it has to be said, gleamed from the newspapers and other outlets. After all, you’d expect your newspaper of choice to at least check the facts, even if you have a healthy wariness about the usual fear mongering articles.

Bad Science , a newspaper column, website, and book by Ben Goldacre has been a godsend. In it he shows how many popular medical beliefs are pure hokum. For example, the various alternative treatments. While I never believed in Homeopathy and the like I thought Nutritionism was a valid science. Turns out I was wrong. There are honest researchers in the nutrition field, but today’s nutritionists who prescribe various supplements, vitamins and minerals as the cures for the worlds ill are far from honest. Turns out it’s mostly down to the placebo effect.

Just look at Gillian McKeith as one example, since Goldacre really attacks her. Or Matthias Rath – who worked with the South African Government to deny effective HIV/AIDS treatments to sufferers. And there are others, like Patrick Holford of Biocare.

Bad Science – whether you read in print or via the webssite, is an eye opener. But you should not take it as truth – as you would be making the mistakes that Goldacre advises against and trust the word of one man. Luckily, today we have the World Wide Web and from a few mouse clicks you can see the truth. Unless of course the entire WWW is biased…

Bad Science delves into the truths behind clinical trials, blind and double-blind, the placebo effect, and bias. This is great background knowledge for the detailed exposes that follow – including the aforementioned McKeith and Holford, the Brain Gym, Fish Oil supplements, and many others. Some of this is straightforward, some less so, but it’s always informative and entertaining.

I also recommend ” Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear ” – a great book about the truth behind fear and risk, scaremongering, and much more. Or ” Irrationality “, a more thorough look into the errors behind certain statistics, experiments, and trials. Then there’s ” Quirkology: The Curious Science of Everyday Lives “, an entertaining book about psychological experiments and the very intriguing ways in which we all think and act. These all show how easy it is for a dishonest scientist, researcher, or businessman to cook the figures. The problem is, unless you frequently read journals and seek out the original studies you’d never know. We rely on journalists, magazines, and TV shows to condense and circulate the information.

While it’s pretty obvious after you’ve read these books that it’s easy to cheat the data whether voluntary or not, and you might not be so aware of the many statements that are taken as fact that are simply unproven. The bulk of the book is taken up with explanations of how proper studies are conducted, published, and peer-reviewed and all too often the alternative therapies fail at this first hurdle.

The answer, if there is one, is not to believe anything. Have a healthy sceptiscism about these things. And if you are ever prescribed some therapy or medicine, want to buy some gadget, or are excited by some new discovery, research it’s benefits, side effects, and read the trials. And be sure to read both sides of the argument to avoid any inherrent bias you might hold.

This is the new edition of Bad Science by Ben Goldacre. It includes the bonus chapter on Matthias Rath, which couldn’t be reported on in the original edition since Goldacre was the subject of a court case by the good scientist at the time. You can also read that chapter at BadScience.net

Please note: The links in this review lead to amazon.co.uk but the widget below will be of use to US readers who use amazon.com

Crank 2: High Voltage review

Warning: This movie is not for everyone. But if you like super-fast paced deranged insanity, you’ll love this.

Take one part OTT Japanese action flick (think Takeshi Miike), mix in some 70’s exploitation and Grindhouse, throw in a dash of 80’s hard guy, and add a pinch of visceral blood and guts. Only then will you have some idea of how balls to the wall crazy Crank 2 is! Crank was tame by comparison.

Chev Chelios – played by Jason Statham who simply inhabits the role – drops from an aeroplane and lands, destroys, and bounces off a car (the very end of the first Crank). From that he has his heart removed by some Chinese organ-thieves and is in a race against to time to get it back. In the meantime, he has an artificial heart which needs constant supplies of electricity to keep it going. That’s the gimmick in this film – like Crank, where needed constant adrenalin to keep a poison from killing him. Cue Chev getting his shocks from high voltage power lines, an ambulance defibrilator, a car battery, a police stun gun, and even body-on-body friction in one memorable (if long) scene where he has hardcore sex in the middle of a horse racing track!

Along the way Chev bumps into a crack whore played by Bai Ling, a man suffering from “full body tourettes”, and many bad guys – mostly Chinese but there is one puerto rican group out to get him too. He ends up in a brothel, and a porn actors strike (spot Ron Jeremy), all the while getting his electric jolts. Helped by his doctor (Dwight Yoakam) who dispenses medical advice Chev must eventually find the 100 year old chinese Triad boss Poon Dong – played by David Carradine of all people – who has stolen his heart.

The fast cutting and camera work in this film will not suit those of a sensitive nature, and that’s before we get to the sex and brutality. But it delivers the goods for those who like this kind of thing. It’s unadalturated fun for it’s audience and it doesn’t make any move to even attempt to appeal to anyone else. It knows what kind of film it is and doesn’t care or pretend to be otherwise. That’s good.

There are some asides during the movie, such as a flashback to Chev’s childhood interview on a daytime TV show (think Jerry Springer). Here, is Mother is even played by Geri Halliwell. Then there’s a scene where he fights his opponent in giant form like a Japanese monster movie. He even, not long from the start, oils up a shotgun and sticks it up a mans backside while threatening him!

Statham knows his audience and plays up to it. This is in some ways similar to his Transporter franchise, but any action fans of those movies might be advised to watch Crank first to see what they’re getting into to. The writer/directors Neveldine and Taylor have aimed this purely at the video-game playing ADHD generation. Don’t bother trying to base this in any concept of reality.

I don’t know if there’ll be a Crank 3, I guess it depends on the takings from this one, but I hope there is. The ending is vague on this matter but considering how Crank finished there’s every possibility.

Rating: 8.5/10 – astonishing amount of insane depravity!

IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes