Reality is the playground of the unimaginative
Home Of Superheroes, the Supernatural, Swords, Sorcery, and Star Stuff

Sunday, 30 September 2007

Six Of The Best With CRISTIAN MACHT

Fan-turned filmmaker Cristian Macht recently unveiled his eagerly awaited documentary on Star Wars fandom - The Force Among Us - to very positive reviews.

The film looks at 21st Century fans, their journey, their story, their way of life... and aims to show that us "geeks" are just like everyone else!

Born exactly two years before Star Wars first opened, Cristian has found his life forever intertwined with the Saga and so to actually become part of it perhaps was destiny.

1) How did you first discover Star Wars, and what made you realise it was going to be more than just another film to you?


Well, like everyone one, I was a fan from the first time I had seen it in 1978 and then grew up on it. I was born on May 25 (1975)! And then, like everyone else, in 1984, Star Wars was over. It was GI Joe and He-Man and all the other post-Star Wars stuff.

I was not interested in the Droids cartoon and I remember seeing the Ewok TV show and thinking: "Man, it's just not the same. "

So fast forward to October 1991 (about seven years later), I was on my way to bed and I had found an old Betamax copy of The Empire Strikes Back. I call this my "rediscovery period". It was like a time machine, it took me back and brought back some really great memories.

Then, in 1992, I was a 17-year-old boy going through some real life stuff and dealing with my father's death (who passed in 1982) - The Force Among Us is dedicated to him, it's at the very end of the credits.

I had used Star Wars as a tool to help me "relive" and "revisit" the good times I had spent with my father; I spent a lot of family time watching the films and playing with the toys. So, in 1992, when I was feeling at a loss and all alone, Star Wars was there for me as a tool and comfort.

I then started collecting the vintage toys and realized I was a lot like Luke Skywalker and his dad... so now I had a personal connection to the film.

I truly feel like God had placed Star Wars in my life to help deal with the loss of my father. So since 1991 Star Wars has been more of a movie to me, it has been a good friend.

(2) What made you decide to start work on The Force Among Us documentary?

It was Cortney, my sister's, idea really. I was feeling a bit depressed after my whirlwind tour of2005. I had attended the Episode III red carpet event in Los Angles, flown to London and attended the UK red carpet premier (where I met George Lucas and got his autograph) and then a week later I was in Tunisia.

So in March 2006 (almost a year later) I was wondering what the hell I was going to do with my "fandom" - I did not want to relive the early 1980s - and that is when my sister said: "Why don't we make a film?"

It's kind of the American Dream really: a brother and sister sitting in a pub on a cold night in March and then they decide they should make a film and actually do it.

I have been in the music/entertainment biz forever - it's what i went to college for, so it was not an unrealistic transition.

(3) How did you go about finding all the fans and experts around the world to interview?

Well, to be honest, a lot of people in the film are friends and family. I just did not want that to be obvious! of course, we put out a casting call on The Force.net and Rebelscum.com and some people were introduced to us along the way. It was fate, man, just like me being born on May 25 and my last name in German meaning "force" (LOL).

(4) Obviously there was a lot of travel, and other expense, involved in the production of your documentary. How did you fund it and do you have any idea how much it actually cost in total?

I had to put my Star Wars collecting on hold (LOL) - no, really. The production is valued at $100,000.00. The expense was also spread out over the year. I remember watching a business special on CNBC about saving your dollars - it's all about doing without the crap you don't need. So I started spending all my money on the project.

Frank Yario's company Video Acumen had everything to do with getting the "Machts' vision on to the screen". We all pulled together as a team, something very rare in this business.

Frank is my wife's cousin and he knew I was a creative person and wanted to get into the film business eventually, so he trusted me and had a lot of faith in us. Again, that American Dream story.

I think a documentary about how we made the documentary would be even more interesting than The Force Among Us itself. A lot of sacrifices were made in making this film and we wanted to charge $10.00 for the DVD, but the production cost was too great of a loss to recoup. That is also why it is important people should not steal movies, especially from independent film makers - they should support the project by buying a DVD.

(5) Did Lucasfilm, or anyone directly involved with the Star Wars Saga, have any input into the film, or have you had any subsequent feedback from them?

No, except Dan Madsen [former Star Wars fan club president] was interviewed (he of course is no longer with Lucasfilm). Dan has talked to Rick McCallum [producer] about the film as well.

We wanted a film about the fans, which is why people from Lucasfilm were not interviewed. We did contact Lucasfilm about interviewing George and they replied and told us he was busy with Indy 4 [Indiana Jones And The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull].

My friend was at Skywalker Ranch and was getting a tour and they mentioned the film! Their legal department has seen the film as well. They know what we are doing, they support it in their special way.

Mary Franklin [Lucasfilm Fan Event Specialist] has been great to us - we were both guests at Celebration 4 and Celebration Europe this year; a fans dream come true: to be walking around Celebration with a VIP pass and not waiting in line!

The fact we have a legal department help us avoid any "imperial entanglements", if you will (LOL). I think if I called the Ranch up and told them who I was and I wanted to visit them, they would take care of me.

(6) What is your most treasured piece of Star Wars memorabilia, and what is so special about it?

It has got to be my George Lucas autograph I got in person and the set pieces I brought back from Tunisia... for obvious reasons!

Saturday, 29 September 2007

It's What Coffee Tables Were Invented For... (Chapter Three)

Hot on the heels of The Marvel Vault comes another mighty book/replica artifact feast of nostalgia: The Star Wars Vault - Thirty Years of Treasures From The Lucasfilm Archives.

If at all possible, The Star Wars Vault is an even more magnificent work of art than its Marvel predecessor. To start with it is bound like a book, rather than the slightly clumsy ring binder, although still quite fragile to deal with because of the replica documents, stickers etc, inserted into 'pockets' in double-thickness pages throughout the 128-page, oversized book. It also, sensibly, comes in a hardy slipcase.

Secured inside the front cover of the book are two CDs featuring 15 audio samples, ranging in length from one minute to half an hour, covering cast interviews and, frankly strange, radio commercials from 1977; the soundtrack for the Disney parks' Star Tours ride; excerpts from the audio tour of the Magic of Myth exhibition; a behind-the-scenes documentary about the Star Wars radio play and 15 minutes of the first episode; Carrie Fisher singing a song from the Star Wars Holiday Special; and a revealing Q&A with George Lucas from Celebration III.

There are several audio clips featuring the thoughts of George Lucas (many also giving love to the real hero of the Star Wars universe - sound engineer Ben Burtt) and it is always worth remembering that no matter what some may say about the Prequels (and particularly Jar Jar Binks!!!), this is George's universe and we're just invited to play in it. What George says is gospel.

[That being said: Han still shot first!]

As good as some of the Expanded Universe material may be, the only aspects of the Star Wars universe that are truly canon are the films Lucas wrote (which I guess includes The Ewok Movies... although I think he's disowned The Holiday Special); so even Tartakovsky's stylish Clone Wars cartoons aren't 100% secure and could be superseded by the forthcoming 3-D animated Clone Wars series or the live action TV show.

However, all these items are still covered in this meaty examination of the Star Wars phenomenon from young George's fascination with fast cars and Flash Gordon, through the production of all six films, various audio, cartoon and literary spin-offs, the merchandising and action figures, right up to Celebration IV a couple of months ago to mark the 30th anniversary of the first film's release.

Along the way, the reader gets an interactive experience, a true time machine, through the inclusion of replica prop documents, such as "build-your-own landspeeder" kits, transfers, mini posters, music scores, an animation cell from the Droids cartoon, invitations to various premiers, tickets, stamps etc

Even the fans get their due with chapters devoted to fan films and the costume-making excellence of the 501st Legion.

This is, pretty much, the ultimate resource for followers of the Saga and just goes to highlight the global impact the films have had already on pop culture and the entertainment industry.

We can only speculate where the Star Wars franchise will go in the next 30 years...

Friday, 28 September 2007

Star Wars - Clone Wars: Volume Two (2005)

Clone Wars: Volume Two picks up where Volume One left off and leads directly into Episode III: Revenge of The Sith, charting as it does the Separartist's daring kidnapping of Supreme Chancellor Palpatine from his home on Coruscant.

This volume of the DVD collection features the five 12-to-15 minute episodes of the third and final season of Tartakovsky's anime-style TV series.

As with the first volume, these episodes are a mix of the silly and the sublime peppered with nice touches like the introduction of C3PO's gold plating, Anakin's knighthood, a host of spectacular (and chaotic) large scale space battles and Padme sporting a series of hairstyles that foreshadow her daughter's.

It is wonderful to observe, in hindsight, the crafty corruption of Anakin Skywalker by Darth Sidious - all the temptations and bad choices he is manipulated into taking (it wouldn't surprise me to discover eventually that it was Sidious who somehow engineered the kidnapping of Anakin's mother by the sandpeople) - and Sidious' influence over both sides of the Clone Wars, so no matter who won he would arise triumphant to control the Galaxy.

Of course, the main storylines of this film are the triumphs of the alien/cyborg General Grievous, here a much larger and more agile creature than we see in the live action film until he is brought down to size by a last minute crushing attack from Mace Windu, and Anakin's "test of spirit" - a hallucinogenic, prophetic vision of his impending fall to the Dark Side - and single-handed assault on a giant, secret Separatist/Techno Union base.

Combined with Volume One, these cartoons make a solid companion piece to the true Saga Episodes and, if nothing else, have led to the creation of some great merchanise, action figures and wargames miniatures!

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Film Night: A Beautiful Mind (2001)

The ultimate way, in my opinion, to see a movie for the first time is to go in knowing as little as possible about the plot.

Up until about two weeks ago all I knew about A Beautiful Mind was that it appeared to be about a troubled mathematician at an American university in the '50s, had something to do with code breaking and possibly some sort of political intrigue.

That was until I heard (or maybe read) somewhere that it was all in his head. I could have screamed. I realise this film was out six years ago and the Statute of Limitations on "twists" had probably passed, but until I discovered there was a "twist" I didn't even realise there was one!

But once I started to watch the film it appeared director Ron Howard wasn't making much of an effort to conceal the signposts to this revelation. So when John Nash (Russell Crowe) has his delusions exposed half way through the film - rather than at the end, as I had been expecting - I suddenly realised that this wasn't a traditional Hollywood film.

The bulk of the film is actually about Nash's attempts to come to terms with his schizophrenia and stay out of the mental hospital; through his own willpower and with the support of his loving wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly). The mathematics is wonderfully esoteric and over my head, but is purely a McGuffin to move the story along.

Russell Crowe's performance is a million miles away from his role in Gladiator and shows a depth to his acting that you just wouldn't expect if the limit of your Crowe exposure is Gladiator, LA Confidential and Romper Stomper.

A Beautiful Mind
is a surprising, powerful, true story of a brilliant man's battle with mental illness, told in an honest - not mawkish - way that rightly earned itself four Oscars (namely Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress).

Next week: Freaks.

Star Wars - Clone Wars: Volume One (2003)

This two-volume DVD collection of stylish animation - directed by Genndy Tartakovsky and heavily influenced by Japanese anime (a particular love of George Lucas) - serves as a lead-in to Episode III: Revenge of The Sith.

This first volume takes a picaresque journey around key battlefields of the war, spotlighting various slices of action, over-the-top Jedi mayhem and clone trooper carnage.

Clone Wars: Volume One seamlessly edits together the 20 three-minute chapters of the first two seasons of TV series into a single film.

A few of the elements it introduces are rather silly, like the near-indestructible, superpowerful amorphous blob in armour that is the millenia-old bounty hunter Durge and the invisible robots that harass Yoda and Padme, but this is balanced by really cool new characters like the Sith apprentice/Dark Jedi Asajj Ventress.

It is her lengthy, athletic, lightsaber duel with Anakin Skywalker through the jungles and temples of Yavin IV that stands out as the highlight of the film - how cool would it be to see this recreated in live-action? - and is probably the best duel in the entire Saga.

Whether George Lucas considers any of these creations as canon remains to be seen - perhaps they will appear in the forthcoming 3-D animated Clone Wars serial (but I seriously doubt it, as that show's creator has gone on record saying that George Lucas has told him and his team to "forget everything" they might have previously heard about the Jedi and the Clone Wars).

What, of course, Clone Wars: Volume One will mainly be remembered for though is the introduction of the sinister General Grievous in its closing minutes, setting him up to hog the limelight in Volume Two.

Every Cloud...

Mere seconds after discovering an amazing new 28mm Chinese wuxia line of figures from Black Hat and mentally adding them to my SELWG 2007 shopping list, I noticed the following message on Black Hat's website:

CANCELLATION NOTICE

It is with profound regret that South East London Wargames Group (SELWG) announce that the SELWG Show, scheduled to take place on Sunday 21st October 2007 at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre in London, is herby cancelled.

This is due to the fact that asbestos has been found in the roof area of the main hall and the building has been closed for health and safety reasons.

We have tried to identify other areas within the centre that we could have used to allow the Show to still be held. Unfortunately there are no other suitable areas and we very reluctantly have to acknowledge that our Show will not be able to take place.

Thank you

Chris
McNeil
SELWG Show Organiser

There is a mournful thread discussing this loss from the gaming calendar at The Miniatures Page.

To say I was gutted is an understatement. Because Nick and I also missed A Whiff Of Grapeshot at Firepower (The Royal Artillery Museum) a couple of months ago, that means we will have only hit 50% of our usual wargames shows this year (namely, Cavalier and Salute).

On the other hand, it does now free up that weekend in October for Rachel and I to attend the London Movie Comic Media Expo at ExCel, which is pretty much the closest I'll get to an American-style convention. Not only are there already a couple of Heroes cast members attending, but also two of my favourite actors from The 4400 (namely Billy Campbell and the legendary Jeffrey Combs).

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

HEX Update...

Nick came round to see me yesterday and not only did we discuss the English Civil War wargame he has planned for us next week, but he also dropped a few hints about the Hollow Earth Expedition roleplaying game he is planning.

Rather than using classic American pulp as his inspiration, Nick is - quite understandably - using British pulp; so expect more Richard Hannay than Indiana Jones. He's also moving the period setting slightly back, so our game will be set in the Edwardian era rather than the Depression of the 1930s.

He didn't give anything away about the back story or set-up of the campaign, except to promise a mix of intrigue and adventure. I don't even know if the "Hollow Earth" itself will even feature...

The plan is to create characters sometime next month, then have our first game in November and then play every two months after that.

I'm looking to 'roll up' a mad scientist (in direct contrast to the combat-orientated/gun fetish characters that dominated my early role-playing years) and later this week Nick's going to discuss with Clare her possible character. He summed up the party requirements as "a fighter, a magic-user, a rogue and, maybe, a cleric".

I'm taking the "magic-user" slot, but that means we might need to find one or two extra players. Hopefully Pete might be interested and as Steve - who now lives in Surrey - has volunteered to drive down once a month for the Formula De games, perhaps he might be tempted down again by a once-every-couple-of-months' roleplaying session!

I have a nervous excitement about this game; knowing - in a sense - that this is my last chance to recapture the gaming glory of my youth. I have every confidence that Nick and the other players will deliver, but if I make a pig's ear of this then that will pretty much shatter the roleplaying dreams and aspirations I have nutured over the last few years. So, no pressure then!

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

DVD of The Week: Heroes - The Unaired Pilot (2007)

One of the great extras in the American import DVD box set of the first season of Heroes is the 73-minute pilot episode, previously unscreened on television.

About 50% will be familiar to fans of the show, but major changes have been made around the character of the telepathic cop, Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg), not only does he have a different wife and FBI contact, but the whole Sylar/murder sub-plot has been exorcised from his storyline and replaced with a rather cliched and 24-like Islamic terrorist plot.

Spinning off from that we have a previously unseen 'gifted' character, Ahmed, who has Nuclear Ted's powers from the main show and has ties with the terrorist cell that derailed the train Odessa (where Claire did her "running through fire" trick).

He is also - it is revealed in the commentary - an old schoolfriend of Matt's, but as he disappeared from the show when it was aired, this was never explored and viewers of the pilot are just left hanging on the reveal that the policeman and the "terrorist" know each other...

Sylar is still in there, but as a shadowy figure in a trilby hat, which - in retrospect - isn't as unnerving as Zachary Quinto's portrayal of the key antagonist.

An interesting piece, this unaired pilot does make me wonder where Tim Kring would have taken the show if he had stuck to this original premise, rather than moving Sylar to the forefront of the show.

Of course, he made the right decision, Islamic terrorists are already becoming the lazy choice for lesser writers as the "go to" villains in TV and cinema; an option doesn't require much thought and plot justification (much as the Communists were in their day and before them the Nazis).

Other new elements mainly revolve around changes in dialogue, young Micah running running away from home and Isaac the artist seemingly sawing his own hand off while trying to go cold turkey.

Mainly, though, watching this just whetted my appetite for Season Two to start airing over here as soon as possible (it began in the US yesterday), but the BBC has first run rights on the new season, so it won't begin airing until they've finished Season One.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Star Wars Film Night: Attack Of The Clones (2002)

After the resounding disappointment of my first viewing of The Phantom Menace, my expectations were considerably lower for Star Wars: Attack Of The Clones.

Which was lucky! For almost every eye-popping Yoda versus Dooku duel, there's another soggy burst of the unconvincing Anakin and Padme romance; for every speeder chase through the urban canyons of Coruscant there's a silly videogame-style battle through a droid factory; but at least the balance has shifted back in the general direction of the awesomeness of the Classic Trilogy.

Where The Phantom Menace scored with me (as well as the thrilling podracing) was the scenic splendor of the various planets the characters visited (Tatooine, Coruscant and Naboo) and Attack of The Clones also does well there, adding to the core trinity with the incredible waterplanet of Kamino and the rocky wastelands of Geonosis.

As with the other Prequels, I have grown to love and appreciate this film for what it does offer and, like a good little fanboy, I try to mentally retcon any parts I don't feel are true to my vision of the Star Wars universe.

There are still several strange plot holes in George's script, ranging from minor issues (like why make the bounty hunter Zam Wessel that Obi-wan and Anakin chase a "changeling" when she never actually uses her shapeshifting abilities?) to major questions that never get answered (why does Mace Windu say the Jedi's ability to use their powers is declining when this is never mentioned ever again; and why do the Jedi immediately adopt and trust the clone army when they were clearly created under very suspicious circumstances?)

But these are geeky questions for hardcore fans who are really into the metaplot, and don't detract from the chases, stunts and kick-ass lightsaber action and full-on battles that make the final act of this film so good for any audience.

The old fans aren't left out though with nice touches like Obi-wan's detective work, insights into Coruscant's nightlife and the working of the Jedi Academy, and - of course - the introduction of Jango and Boba Fett, the coolest bounty hunters this side of Dog.

Rachel enjoyed tonight's slice of Star Wars and said she was looking forward to Episode III.

Next week: Revenge of The Sith.

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Revenge of The Slitheen

The latest spin-off from the multi-media juggernaut that is the reborn Doctor Who began on children's TV this afternoon: The Sarah Jane Adventures.

The antithesis of Torchwood, this series is aimed directly at a younger audience and wears its colours in plain sight: the Doctor's old assistant is "ably" assisted by three teens (her adopted son, a girl who lives across the road - the show's POV character - and their roguish schoolfriend).

This two-part story (the first part shown on BBC1 and the second followed on the CBBC Channel) featured, as if the title wasn't enough of a giveaway, the "farting" aliens from the first season of Doctor Who.

While I can appreciate using a recognisable, but ultimately not too threatening, alien from the main show, it was a shame these silly, flatulent creations were the antagonists of choice; reducing what was a solid, child-friendly show to a juvenile level it didn't need to scrape to.

Away from the "amusing" noises and "funny" smells, The Revenge of The Slitheen was a good story about the alien family coming to Earth to seek revenge for the disappearance of their kin, with an elaborate scheme to "turn out" the sun, so everything would die and they could salvage the planet's resources.

Gareth Roberts' script was peppered with Easter Eggs for the fans - such as mentions of other families from Raxacoricofallapatorius as well as The Judoon - and gave the young actors solid material to work with, replacing the annoying Kelsey (Porsha Lawrence-Mavour) from the pilot with Clyde (Daniel Anthony), thus making the prospect of a full series with these characters seem more appealing.

Of course, the main appeal to the older fans is the ever-wonderful and perky Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, a stalwart of the Doctor Who universe who seems to accept her role in this fantasy world better than any of the other main performers through the years, teaming up with several Doctors as well as being a mainstay of documentaries and spin-off audio dramas.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

At The Fleapit: Death Proof

Who'd have thought that Death Proof would be Quentin Tarantino's first chick flick? But it turns out that Rachel enjoyed this tale of a scar-faced stuntman who gets off on killing young women with his 'death proof' car more than I did.

One of my main problems with the film is that Tarantino seems to have turned into a parody of himself, abandoning plot and character development for long scenes of women talking trash amongst themselves (his dialogue certainly lacks the wit and sparkle of "the old days") followed by high-speed car chases.

But it comes to something when the muscle cars are hotter than the chicks... and, to be honest, most of the characters in Death Proof are so two-dimensional that you can't help but be drawn to the cars (not that I know anything about cars).

What passes for a story in Death Proof is a group of girls in a bar - talking endlessly - then getting trailed (and killed) by Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell stealing the first half of the film).

Mike ends up in hospital. There is a strange sequence with the sheriff from Kill Bill. Mike gets out of hospital 14 months later and pretty much tries to do the same thing again... only this time the girls turn the tables on him.

It's not exactly the Bride's world-spanning quest for revenge (from Kill Bill) or a multi-layered tale of interesting, interlocking underworld characters (Pulp Fiction), but neither is it a million miles from the self-indulgent yawnfest that was Jackie Brown (although at least there are several incredible car chases in Death Proof) or the bewilderingly mediocre Kill Bill Volume II.

Tarantino has been doing the British chat show circuit for the last couple of weeks, but this only highlights the fact that at the moment, as a filmmaker he is a great raconteur, talking a better film than making one.

A particularly harsh review on Radio 2 this morning said he had obviously made a film that he wanted to see, but did he have to inflict it on the rest of us?

An homage to the '70s grindhouse movies, the movie comes complete with scratches, black and white sequences, missing frames etc - but the novelty of these gimmicks (which will mean nothing to 90% of today's cinema going audience anyway) soon wears thin and thankfully Tarantino also seems to pretty much abandon them by the time the second half of the film kicks off.

Death Proof isn't boring, as Rachel's enjoyment of it proved, but it's very light-weight and insubstantial for an auteur capable of much better (Kill Bill Volume 1, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction).

It still manages to be creepy in parts and gruesomely violent in others, but you can't escape the feeling that it's really the work of some other film maker who has tried to make a film in what he thinks is "the style of Quentin Tarantino".

Pulp For The Ears...

Jeff Mejia has seen me right again. He seems to have a sixth sense for finding just the right website or podcast to catch my attention at just the right time. This week, over on his excellent website - The Lair of The Evil DM - he was promoting a new podcast, Dial P For Pulp.

Produced by David Drage, from Aberdeen, Scotland, this is a near perfect podcast straight out of the gate.

The first episode, the only one published so far, opens with a mission statement and explanation of how listeners can contribute to the show; this is followed by a well-balanced review of Hardboiled Cthulhu - a short story collection which aims to blend hardboiled fiction with HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos - then an interview with artist Tom Roberts about his work on the forthcoming book Doc Savage: The Lost Radio Scripts of Lester Dent; and rounding off with the first in a series of readings from pulp classics (this episode featured Red Shadows, a Solomon Kane story by Robert E Howard).

Immensely professional, with no sound problems, and at a 45-minute duration easily digestible in one sitting, Dial P For Pulp will be a monthly podcast... although I'm not sure I can wait a whole month for my next dose of Solomon Kane!

It seems odd that this celebration of such an icon of American literary style would be produced by a Brit, but David appears to know his material and has promised to include some British examples of the genre (e.g. The Saint, Raffles or Richard Hannay), but to be honest I'd be quite happy to stick with Lovecraft, Howard, Dent and Co.

Friday, 21 September 2007

The Force Is Strong In This One!

It may be a month and a half until my birthday, but stumbling over a genuine Master Replicas Force FX lightsaber in Woolworths on Thursday was too good an opportunity to miss.

And it was half-price... and it's always difficult to think of something for mum to get me!

There were only two and Woolworths isn't known as a haven of high-end collectables, so it was a bit of a dilemma.

I didn't have the money to afford this myself, so I headed up through the town to Rachel's office (where I was heading anyway) and consulted her about this as "birthday present from mum".

The Master Replica FX saber is the saber that "Darth Vader" had at our wedding and Rachel and I had a chance to duel with. Surprisingly, it didn't take too much to convince Rachel that this was a birthday present I couldn't live without.

Although I own several of the cheaper, plasticky "play" sabers, this is the real deal - sculpted metal grip, humming light blade that extends and shrinks when it is switched on and off, the works!

Of course, I had to try the saber out (to make sure it worked); so last night I slotted some batteries in the hilt, turned it on and was instantly transported to a galaxy far, far away.

This is simply the coolest Star Wars item I currently own. But it's back in its packaging now and will be opened properly on my birthday in November.

And as it comes packaged with its own display stand it will take pride of place in my new games room... if we've moved in by the time I turn 41.

Charlie Jade: The Big Bang

The latest issue of SFX arrived today with a preview disc of FX's new science-fiction thriller: Charlie Jade, which premiers on October 5.

The first thing that strikes you about this pilot episode is that more effort appears to have been put into the style than making the content accessible to the casual viewer.

What might not be so obvious, but becomes clear as the episode heads into its third act, is that the action takes place on three parallel Earths: The Alphaverse (a dystopian future), Betaverse (which seems to be our Earth) and the Gammaverse (a more idyllic and verdant Earth).

An evil corporation (aren't they all?), called Vexcorp, has operations on all three worlds and appears to be trying to siphon natural resources from the Gammaverse to the Alphaverse, which leads to a major catastrophe at the end of the episode and, possibly, some sort of merging of the worlds.

The titular character, and our narrator, Charlie Jade is a cliched private investigator ('cursed' with with 'visions' of things that don't exist... but are obviously visions of the parallel worlds) operating in the Blade Runner-lite Alphaverse. Many films and TV series have tried to ape the atmosphere of Blade Runner over the years and this is one of the closest I have yet encountered, but that also gives the Alphaverse - where the bulk of the action occurs in this episode - a very "seen this before" feel.

The script also comes across as rather jumbled - giving away the existence of parallel Earths in the pre-credit voiceover, then trying to create a mystery around Charlie's latest client who has no idea where she is, no background, no records etc

It's like the show is falling over itself to reveal all its clever secrets at once and ends up with a mess. However, this mess has the potential to unravel into something quite interesting, even though Charlie Jade may be trying too hard to be the next Lost or the next Heroes.

It certainly seems to have more original thought put into it, and higher production values, than the new Flash Gordon.

More than the episode (The Big Bang) itself, it was the 'behind the scenes' documentary on the DVD that really piqued my interest for Charlie Jade, spotlighting this unusual Canadian/South African co-production's many noble aspirations and forthcoming fascinating characters.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Film Night: Taxi Driver (1976)

Once upon a time, in the Dark Ages of my childhood, films could only be seen in cinemas or on the rare occasion they were shown on one of Britain's three television channels.

Then came the video cassette recorder (VCR) - a magical, top-loading device that meant not only could we watch films whenever we wanted (provided they were in stock at our local rental emporium) but as many times as we wanted.

When dad brought our first VCR into the household it transfixed me and I made sure I watched each film we rented at least five times in the 48-hour slot we were allowed to hold onto the tapes.

The first film my parents rented me (at the same time as they acquired the VCR) was Battle Beyond The Stars (John Boy Walton and Sybil Danning restaging the Seven Samurai in outer space).

The first film I rented was Taxi Driver. I knew nothing about it, but I had a massive teenage crush on Jodie Foster (she's only a year or so older than me) and I knew that Robert DeNiro was a respected actor.

Five viewings later and my cosy ideas about film making and storytelling had been shattered and reshaped. I knew films could be exciting and thrilling, frightening and even titillating, but I'd never realised that films could be that powerful.

DeNiro's portrayal of socially inept, insomniac Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle is an intense masterclass in method acting as his mental state unravels while he drives his late-night taxi cab around the grim streets of New York, trying to find a purpose for his life while "saving" child prostitute Iris (Foster) and clumsily romancing Betsy (Cybill Shepherd).

Sadly, Rachel didn't share my wonderment at this work of art, describing it instead as "boring" and "pointless". Well, I guess, you can't win every time! At least it wasn't as uncomfortable as Travis taking Betsy to a porno movie on their first date and Rachel did admit that she preferred Star Wars (The Phantom Menace).

Next week: A Beautiful Mind.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

It's What Coffee Tables Were Invented For... (Chapter Two)

I know I'm on to a winner when even my wife admires a massive book I've bought about the history of a comic book company. The Marvel Vault, which describes itself as a "museum-in-a-book" is spiral bound, like a file folder, with plastic sleeves breaking up the run of pages.

The sleeves contain exact replicas of various items of memorabilia from Marvel's 60-plus year existence. These range from early sketches of The Sub-Mariner to the menu from a Marvel-themed restaurant, convention brochures, trading cards, and fan club cards and badges.

Pages have to be turned quite carefully because of the design of the book, to avoid snagging, but it's not a book to be rushed through but rather savoured as you devour each page and each piece of nostalgia.


See also chapter one of this series: The Making of Star Wars.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Star Wars Film Night: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Back from university, I was already writing film reviews again for the Courier group of newspapers in and around Tunbridge Wells (I was Chief Reporter for the Sevenoaks Chronicle at the time) when Star Wars: The Phantom Menace came out in 1999.

And I can still remember the minor outrage I caused among the paper's younger readers with my damning review of the film that I felt had dashed all my childhood dreams.

I had gone through university as "the Star Wars guy" - our course's resident expert and trivia king on the original films - and my excitement levels and anticipation had soared to previously unheard of heights in the build-up to the release of the first new Star Wars film in over 15 years.

I guess I was just expecting too much.

Having now rewatched The Phantom Menace many times, it's not as bad as I'd originally thought. There are some very clever bits of plotting - you can't help but admire, with hindsight, Darth Sidious' machinations and manipulations - and up until the first appearance of the "comic sidekick" (Jar Jar Binks) it's actually going quite well (even if a dispute over taxation is a very un-epic start to the whole Saga).

However, even with my thickest rose tinted glasses and my largest geek hat on, there are parts of this film that I still wonder what George Lucas was thinking when he suggested them.

Obviously Jar Jar was meant to be "light relief", but Star Wars stories had already proven that a couple of droids were all that were needed there.

The casting of Jake Lloyd as young Anakin was also not the best move. He's okay when he's not talking, but as soon as he opens his mouth all credibility is lost.

And, finally, we have the issue of "midi-chlorians". Out of nowhere The Force is no longer a mystical 'power', but a scientific creation... what was that all about? I like to think that it was just a theory some Jedi believed in and later it was disproved or just abandoned.

Last night was the first of our "Star Wars Film Nights" as Rachel began her education in the ways of The Force... or, rather, watching all six Star Wars film in order, as she requested after sitting through The Force Among Us documentary the other week.

Not having the baggage of being an old school fan of the Classic Trilogy, I thought Rachel might appreciate The Phantom Menace better than I did when I first saw it.

While she explained away Jake Lloyd's rubbish performance as a side effect of acting in an empty studio in front of a green screen, she still enjoyed the film even if she found it confusing and didn't understand what the initial disagreement and trade embargo was all about or who was fighting who in the final battle.

As well as not being able to understand most of what Jar Jar Binks - or any of the Gungans, for that matter - were saying, she felt there were simply too many characters to focus on.

I resisted her suggestion that we "fast forward" through the podracing, because I really like that bit (but then, in my prime, I was a pretty decent 'pod racer' in the arcades and always wanted my own "sit in" podracer video game).

Overall I believe Rachel is still quite intrigued by the next episodes in the Saga, despite her less than stellar introduction to my favourite Universe. As I told her: things will get better.

Next week: Attack Of The Clones.

Monday, 17 September 2007

DVD Of The Week: Superman - Doomsday (2007)

In 1980, Superman II gave us the first - and still one of the best - live action, superhero-versus-supervillain fights when Superman took on the three escapees from the Phantom Zone in the streets of Metropolis.

For the first time I really got an idea of what a "real" superhero fight might look like.

Now, in 2007, Superman - Doomsday gives us not one, but two, near definitive animated superpowered punch-ups in the streets of Metropolis, showcasing the sheer destructive power of pitting Superman first against the indestructible alien supersoldier Doomsday and later against an enemy who is, in many ways, Superman's equal.

It's certainly not the best superhero animated feature of recent years, but it rewards its audience with better and more sympathetic characters, a more coherant story and more convincing action than Bryan Singer's limp Superman Returns.

The Death Of Superman graphic novel, which collected the original comics that this film is inspired by, remains one of DC's best selling titles of all time. But, by necessity, this 75-minute cartoon deviates from the original text in leaps and bounds (for instance, there is no Steel or Superboy to replace the fallen hero, just a full-grown clone created by the Man of Steel's nemesis Lex Luthor) and simplifies much of the complex, multi-title crossover story.

Superman - Doomsday looks and feels like a Superman comic book, and still manages to give its brutal plot a dark edge the public may not normally associate with the square-jawed Man of Tomorrow and defender of the red, white and blue.

The animation style appears quite dated in parts, compared to many modern superhero cartoons, almost like an '80s He-Man episode or something similar, but that doesn't stop DC from pulling out the big guns for this major release. The cast is packed with A-list voice talents such the gorgeous Anne Heche as Lois Lane, Firefly's Adam Baldwin as Superman, and Buffy's James Marsters as a Grant Morrison-lookalike Lex Luthor.

As a streamlined retelling of one of the cornerstones of the modern Superman mythos, this is fine piece of art and while some of the animation may have been lacking 21st Century finesse the storytelling won me over. I thought I might miss Superman's "replacements", but Duanne Capizzi's script soon made me forget what I thought I knew about Superman and enjoy the film for what it was.

The Ego Has (Crash) Landed!

Stan Lee co-created Marvel Comics' first superhero team of the Silver Age of comics - The Fantastic Four - along with Jack 'The King' Kirby in 1961.

It was their answer to DC's Justice League of America.

Now, almost 50 years later, Marvel has allowed Stan 'The Man' to pen his final Fantastic Four story... and, to be honest, it might have been worth waiting another 46 years!

Although I can appreciate the enormous contribution Stan has made to comics over the years and can accept that he is a great "ideas" man, with a keen business sense, I've never been a fan of his bombastic, simplistic and on-the-nose dialogue.

And, boy, does The Last Fantastic Four Story suffer from this! If anything, I'd say Stan's writing has gotten worse; while the insistence on talking direct to the reader and making silly, outrageous proclamations has fallen by the wayside, the dialogue is still heavily laden with exposition and toe-curlingly poor lines that wouldn't have even made it into an episode of Scooby-Doo.

Two examples that spring to mind are: Dr Strange, when asked how can stop the giant alien that is threatening the world: "I can think of no one. Which means ... mankind is doomed!"; and Dr Doom (for some reason standing next to Black Panther and behind Captain America at a United Nations tribute to the FF) thinking: "But I'll still find a way to crush them someday!" He might as well have said: "And I would have got away with it if it wasn't for those meddling kids."

You just have to watch an episode of Stan's awful Who Wants To Be A Superhero? reality TV show to see how out of touch he is with modern ideas on the genre.

The Last Fantastic Four Story is only bearable because of John Romita Jr's art - and if you don't like that then don't pick up this book.

The plot, what there is of it, sees an intergalactic tribunial suddenly rule that mankind is too warlike and needs to be eliminated. It sends a giant robot machine thingy called The Adjudicator to Earth (visually reminiscent of The Celestials from Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr's recent revival of The Eternals) to wipe us all out.

For some reason it gives mankind a week to get its affairs in order - instead, of course, mankind spends the time trying to destroy The Adjudicator. Various superheroes, led by the FF, spearhead the attacks, but to no avail... until a cheesy Deus Ex Machina, engineered by Reed Richards, saves the Earth, but then provokes another dilemma which can only be resolved by a massive brawl.

When this is all over, the FF suddenly decide 'enough is enough' and they're going to retire. They pack their bags, climb into a space ship and head off. The end.

Throughout this tale things happen for no good reason and the one-dimensional caricatures that pass for characters act in inexplicable ways, continually spouting drivel dialogue. They may have the faces of the Fantastic Four, but these are not the characters we know and love from their regular monthly adventures.

As a novelty item, this title is a quaint reminder of how writing styles has developed since comics first appeared as a form of mainstream entertainment, but as a serious, in-canon, ending for the First Family of Superheroes, this is a sorry excuse for a story and a sad end to the legend.

I don't know if editor Tom Breevort was just humouring Stan, or The Man still holds some sway over the staff at Marvel, but shame on Tom for allowing this tatty tale to see the light of day.

I can't see it bothering future writers of the FF as the "goal" they have to steer their stories towards... although perhaps it will serve as an object lesson that just because you are regarded as one of the founding fathers of an industry doesn't mean everything you touch turns to gold.

Hopefully now Stan will stick to cameos in superhero movies and making camp reality TV shows and leave the writing to the new generation.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Top Of The Pile: Astonishing X-Men 22

At a time when many of Marvel's titles have been cursed by the fun-sucking taint of the fall out from the ill conceived Civil War debacle, Astonishing X-Men stands head and shoulders above many of its peers.

By taking the core of the canon X-Men and lifting them out of the Marvel continuity, Buffy writer Joss Whedon and photorealistic artist John Cassaday have created the best X-title for years (quite possibly since the definitive days of John Byrne and Chris Claremont's run in the '80s).

As well as simply beautiful looking art (and we're not just talking Emma Frost here), Whedon's writing on this title has the wit and flare of his television scripts complementing the pace and twists that comic book connoisseurs have come to expect.

This is easily one of the best superhero comics on the market at the moment - and is a title that should bring in non-comic book readers to the medium because of Whedon's cross-genre credits - and, to be honest, should be retired when Whedon and Cassaday move on to pastures new.

It's my understanding that Warren Ellis is slated to take over the title next year, and what little I've read of Ellis' team titles leaves me cold. I might just drop the title when Whedon departs, so my memories of this great run aren't soiled by lesser quality work.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Stat Time Of The Month Again...

It seems longer than a month since our last review of the traffic figures, but it seems to have been a busy month despite the ever-popular Six Of The Best strand being on hiatus until last Sunday, when I interviewed Marcus of DoctorWhoToys.Net.

Although the daily figures can still fluctuate wildly, tt's good to see generally they heading in the right direction (up) and hopefully will continue to do so - as long as I can keep writing something vaguely interesting most days.

So, here are the numbers for the last 30 days. Where applicable I've included a note of last month's figures for comparison.

Visitor Numbers (as of Saturday, 15 September): 6,103 (5,000)

Average Number of Visitors Per Day: 33 (27)

Top 5 Countries of Origin:
United Kingdom 42% (46%)
United States 39% (36%)
Canada 4% (8%)
France 3% (2%)
Malaysia 1% (-)

Most Popular Entry Pages: (i.e. what brought people to the site) For this, we can take it as read that the most popular "entry page" is always going to be either the current top story or just general browsing, but after that the pages that have brought the most readers to this site have been:

1. Doctor Who - Blink
2. Six Of The Best With Marcus
3. Six Of The Best With Clare Grant
4. Top of The Pile: Black Adam
5. Doctor Who - Smith & Jones

Despite strong early showings in the month by various mentions of my 'rediscovery' of the Hollow Earth Expedition roleplaying game and Nick's subsequent offer to run a game for us, as well as interest generated by my review of The Force Among Us, about Star Wars fans, it's still Doctor Who that is bringing the visitors to HeroPress - with three of the top five entries.

I also suspect - not wishing to belittle "my" Clare Grant, a long-time supporter of HeroPress - that the recent influx of people to her interview are actually seeking information about the actress Clare Grant from Black Snake Moan.

Friday, 14 September 2007

A Very British Apocalypse...

One of the benefits of being a "gentleman of leisure" (semi-housebound for health reasons) is that I get time to revisit parts of my childhood.

With the postponement of Film Night for the second week, this week's dose of nostalgia has been Quatermass.

The 1979 sci-fi thriller series had a major impact on its 13-year-old viewer when first screened; implanting in me a fascination not just for adventure stories set amongst urban decay but the heroic futility of standing up to alien creatures of unimaginable power and destructive capabilities.

I am sure there is some synchronicity between my first viewing of this televisual tale and my discovery - not long afterwards - and immediate love for, the works of HP Lovecraft.

From Cthulhu to Galactus, all these cosmic entities can trace their influence on me back to watching Quatermass on ITV in the late 70s.

So inspired by this series was I that I also clearly remember creating (but never playing) a Quatermass role-playing game system and, once we started playing the comic book RPG Villains & Vigilantes I named an alien race after the "enemy" in Quatermass - The Harvesters... although they were nowhere near as powerful as that entity!

Set at the end of the 20th Century (the future when this was made), Quatermass sees the return to London of Bernard Quatermass (Sir John Mills), founder of the British Rocket Group which pioneered space travel in the UK (see The Quatermass Experiment of 1953 and its cinematic remake).

He's been living in seclusion in Scotland and is unaware of the anarchy spreading through England, with gangs roaming the streets, power cuts and the general collapse of society. He is looking for his runaway granddaughter and instead meets up with a fellow scientist (Simon MacCorkindale).

Also roaming the land are a group known as The Planet People - hippies who gather at stone circles, prophesying a mass transmigration of those who "believe" to a Utopian alien planet.

Then the beams of light start coming from the sky, hitting the places where people have gathered and seemingly disintegrating them; although the Planet People believe they have been "taken to The Planet".

Seen now Quatermass can seem slightly melodramatic in places, but it can still deliver an incredible impact with its portrayal of a very British Apocalypse, complete with polite graffiti, a plate of sandwiches and a thermos of tea.

It faces themes of science versus belief, youthful enthusiasm versus the experience of age and the human spirit's unwavering strength in the face of overwhelming odds.

If HP Lovecraft were alive in the 1970s, this is exactly what he would have been writing - man as an insignificant speck in the Universe, caught up in events way beyond his understanding and ability to comprehend. Don't expect answers, explanations or convenient happy endings - there is no Deus Ex Machina in the world of Bernard Quatermass... it is that God In The Machine that is "harvesting" the human race!

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Time To Face(book) The Music!

According to some employer-centric/employee-bashing groups, the social website Facebook is costing British companies billions of pounds a year in lost revenue. This is one of those random - unprovable - statistics PR companies love to pluck out the air to reinforce some spurious fact that an account executive thought might make a good press release.

For the longest time I had dismissed Facebook as "something the kids were doing" and couldn't really see the point of it. But eventually Rachel - an avid Facebooker - wore me down and explained that it wasn't that complicated.

Like MySpace, there are a lot of whistles and bells to Facebook, but most of this is just silly window dressing. At its core, Facebook is far more organised than MySpace. As I understand it, you can't approach people through its network until you are a member, then you can invite other people to join and so on. In a sense it's like a zombie plague - you bite one person, they bite two, who bite two more each and so the plague spreads!

So what's the point of Facebook? I'm sure I'm missing a lot of its features, but I like the instant messaging utility, picture sharing and the group 'message boards'.

The picture sharing is a particular favourite of Rachel and I as it includes a novel feature where you can "tag" people in pictures so that running a cursor over the picture brings up a label with that person's name. If they are already on Facebook, it will also tell them that they have been "tagged" in a picture.

While MySpace allows you to "befriend" random celebrities, Facebook (seemingly) is all about 'real' people operating under their own name and thus, is a good way of keeping in touch with former workmates, old schoolfriends etc

On Facebook you don't get constantly spammed by up-and-coming bands or comedians plugging their websites or wannabe strippers, topless models and porn stars trying to lure you into coughing up your credit card details!

At first glance Facebook can seem quite intimidating - it did to me - but it's actually, for the most part, quite intuitive. It's also - as with all these social sites, and the Internet in general - quite easy to waste hours searching through its labyrinthine corridors of information and 'faces' looking for people you know or groups whose interests you share.

While the novelty of MySpace has quickly worn thin - when I realised the various Playboy girls I had "befriended" were never going to drop me a casual chatty email - Facebook actually serves as a useful communication tool and may well become my default location for picture storage in the future.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Space Monkeys!

Nick seems to be believe that we are cursed. If we take too much interest in a product line of pre-painted plastic miniatures it is doomed!

First it was Sportclix, the baseball game from Wizkids, which we loved... but no-one else in this country seemed to. In fact, probably due to some licencing technicality, the figures barely made it to our shores. Then Wizkids redesigned the rules system in an attempt to relaunch the line and it seemed to die completely.

Recently, we learned that production of the Battlefield Evolution line has gone "on hiatus" because Mongoose was unhappy with the standard of their molds or something.

And now, Rackham, the French manufacturers of the beautiful AT-43 figures have applied for some form of financial protection to allow for a drastic company restructuring as sales of certain lines haven't been hitting targets.

Hopefully this is just a speed bump, rather than a stop sign, and it won't have too much of an impact on their weird and wacky science-fiction line... particularly as they have just announced the imminent release of the first figures for the eagerly-awaited fourth faction in the game: the Karmans, genetically modified, superintelligent apes.

Right from the off, this was the faction that most piqued my interest. No matter how cool the other three factions (U.N.A.; Red Blok and Therians) are, who wouldn't want to control an army of souped-up gorillas in power armour?

Sure, the crunch of the main AT-43 rules - and the army supplement books - can be a bit obscure, but nothing a healthy house rule or Tim/Nick rewriting couldn't correct.

While Nick is already planning a large-scale Vietnam War campaign for my future gamesroom, I'm dreaming of some gorilla warfare action as I can finally put to use all my sci-fi scenery I've been accumulating over the years in mammoth games of AT-43.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Rachel's Journey To The Dark Side...

As part of her on-going mission to get her head around my collecting obsession, last night Rachel agreed to watch The Force Among Us documentary about Star Wars fans; no bribery, coercion or Jedi mind tricks were necessary!

As someone who's never really watched many of the Star Wars movies - and certainly not in any particular order or with a 'fan head' on - Rachel found the documentary "interesting" but added: "An hour and a half is a long time to listen to people just talk about Star Wars."

While she couldn't understand what pleasure some collectors got from just storing their horde in a warehouse, she felt the documentary did put my own collecting in perspective - which was a good thing!

However, after the film finished Rachel took me totally by surprise by asking to watch all six of the Star Wars films (not in one day and starting with The Phantom Menace).

Of course, it was my cool wife who secretly booked Darth Vader to act as ring bearer at our wedding, so there's some knowledge and interest already there.

Therefore, starting next Monday, we begin a new "Star Wars"-themed Film Night track. May The Force Be With Us!

Monday, 10 September 2007

Superheroes Rock!!!



The teaser for The Dark Knight, with Christian Bale as Batman.

Meanwhile, the first trailer for the amazing looking Iron Man movie (with Robert Downey Jnr as Tony Stark) can be found here.

And the name of the new Indiana Jones film has been revealed as... er... Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Quite a mouthful! But we said that of The Phantom Menace, another George Lucas franchise revival and look how well that worked out... oh... wait a minute...

All three films are due out next year, which means we should be in for a good year for action movies...

DVD Of The Week: 28 Weeks Later (2007)

Zombies always go down a storm at HeroPress Towers... and 28 Weeks Later is a blast!

Unsurprisingly, this is a direct sequel to Danny Boyle's middling zombie tale 28 Days Later, which suffered from its own refusal to acknowledge its distinguished zombie heritage.

No such worries with 28 Weeks Later.

Different writers and a different director, but still with Boyle's flare for the obvious - and not so obvious - homage (remember the lawnmower scene in Braindead? Now imagine it with much bigger blades...)

In the vein of all the best horror films, no one is safe in 28 Weeks Later, no matter how big a star they are (Harold 'Lost' Perrineau, Catherine McCormack, Robert Carlyle etc). Anyone can get bitten or shot at any moment, and while some characters have 'victim' printed across their forehead, some of the other casualties will catch you totally unawares.

A pre-credit sequence sets up some of the characters during the virus outbreak shown in 28 Days Later, then the story shifts forward to a time when a safe zone has been created on the Isle of Dogs in London by the American army. The virus has been eliminated and everything seems to be returning to normal until an unusual plague carrier turns up and everything snowballs out of control.

Spinning out from claustrophobic chaos and confusion to widescale firebombings and gas attacks this has everything - even kids who can act!

Occasionally events, necessary for the story, seem a bit far fetched and some plotholes leak through, but this is a classy zombie film that entrances with its overall story rather than any particular characters - although 17-year-old Imogen Poots has the making of a star about her.

While the story revolves around the fate of two youngsters (Poots and her brother, played by Mackintosh Muggleton) who may hold the key to a cure for the virus, this is really an ensemble piece.

Clever, without being brilliant, 28 Weeks Later is generally easy viewing for the genre aficionado and casual gorehound alike, and is certainly more satisfying than its predecessor.

A nice ending takes the story to the next level and opens the way for a potentially global sequel. Let's hope it's as stylish as this when it finally comes.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Six Of The Best With MARCUS

Marcus hosts and updates the highly informative DoctorWhoToys.Net, which covers the latest news on forthcoming toy releases - action figures, dummy props, voice-changer masks etc. The site also hosts a growing community of fans, exchanging gossip and 'shop reports'.

(1) How did you get into Doctor Who in the first place?

I think I am quite typical of a lot of 'new' fans of Doctor Who. I used to watch it when I was a kid but my big brother at that time was a lot more into it than me. Only with the arrival of the New Series did I really get into it. Right now I think David Tennant is a wonderful Doctor; he is just so watchable.

(2) At what stage did you become interested in Doctor Who toys (particularly the action figures from Character Options), and what prompted you to start a website dedicated to this hobby?

Early in 2006 Character Options released the first waves of Doctor Who action figures and they were instantly a runaway success. Character have really taken Who toys to another level. But their own website had more information on Scooby Doo than Doctor Who! What information there was could only be found by searching fan forums. I wanted to post news of current and future releases in one place, and so doctorwhotoys.net evolved from there.

(3) Obvious, fanboy question, but who are your favourite Doctor, companion and villains and do you have a single favourite story/episode from either the Classic Who or the New Who?

No contest, for me my favourite Doctor is the 10th and current David Tennant. If you can stretch companion to crew I would vote for the redoutable Captain Jack Harkness. Currently my favourite episode would be Smith and Jones. Its a brilliant opener to Series Three and has spawned some amazing toys; the Judoon Scanner and Sound FX Helmet and the Judoon Captain and Trooper action figures.

(4) What is your favourite Doctor Who toy?

Right now (it changes) the Hoix figure from Series Two's Love & Monsters episode because its only just out and, though it only makes a brief appearance, its a 'proper' monster with lots of teeth and claws.

(5) What do you think about the increasing range of bootleg Doctor Who toys?

I will still put the bootleg toys on the site because they are probably as collectible in their own right as the official ones. There are going to be a lot more shipped in, presumably from China. I did enjoy the latest 'Rise of the Cybermen Set' with a flip-top Doctor Who mobile phone and a Doctor Who gun that fires foam darts and converts into a plane!

(6) What future plans do you have for DoctorWhoToys.Net ; will you be expanding into podcasting like some of the Star Wars and Buffy action figure collectors have?

The most important thing about the site is that it is bringing fans of Doctor Who toys together; a virtual community of dedicated Who toy collectors are helping to create the most informative New Series toy site on the planet. And in so doing it is my hope that connections are made that will last longer than the toys themselves. I hope the Doctor would approve...

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Cathryn's Art Exhibition...

Today is my good friend Cathryn's birthday - but the poor dear is celebrating it in hospital. She has been in and out since about the time I was in, but, fingers crossed, she's being moved to London next week for an operation that could could an end to all her ills!

However, on a brighter note, yesterday Rachel and I attended a "private view" at an art exhibition in Wadhurst featuring several of Cathryn's paintings.

This isn't her first exhibition - she's won awards for her photography - but is her first since her health problems.

I had just started freelancing as a reporter at the Sevenoaks Chronicle, trying to earn some beans after my first year at Bournemouth University, when staff photographer Cathryn came bounding into the reporters' room - a beret-wearing, bubbly blonde - and sat herself down beside me and started asking me if I did salsa dancing. She just launched into the conversation as though we were old chums... and hasn't really stopped since!

It turned out that before coming to work on the newspaper Cathryn had earned an MA from Winchester School of Art, had travelled widely and exhibited her work in Europe and Russia.

In 1998 she won a London Arts Board award for photographic installation.

I have a soft spot for people with a real talent and so I've spent many hours in the last decade encouraging Cathryn to stick to her art while she was running herself ragged making money as a travel writer and journalist for national newspapers and press agencies.

She was also keen for me to pursue my creative writing ambitions... as you can probably tell, I think my encouragement was more successful!

She did, however, succeed in nurturing my interest in the arts - we've visited many a gallery together and even an opera on occasion - and so I was delighted when she gave Rachel and I one of her works of art for a wedding present.

I'm now developing quite a collection of her paintings - I just need some influential art critic or millionaire to take a shine to her work at this current exhibition and my pension worries will be solved.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Babylon 5: The Lost Tales

There's part of me that believes "any Babylon 5 is better than no Babylon 5" (even Crusade and Legends Of The Rangers kept the flame alive) - but I'm starting to wonder if, perhaps, it's time to give this franchise a dignified send-off to the stars.

Part of Babylon 5's curse has always been that the reach of its ambitions and aspirations always exceeded the grasp of current technologies and the format of serial television. Unlike the literary forms it emulated, it was constrained by having to tell each 'chapter' of its story in an hour format - no matter how much or how little needed to be expressed to the viewer.

Nevertheless, to the fans, the depth of the story always shone though and writer/director J. Micheal Straczynski (JMS) was rightly proud of his flagship creation which, at its zenith, set the bar so high that few subsequent sci-fi shows have even come close to equalling it.

The Lost Tales is the latest entry into the franchise, struggling to keep the story of Babylon 5 alive. While infinitely more competent than Legends of The Rangers and more engaging than Crusade, you can't help coming away thinking: "So what?"

Production technology has advanced significantly, so the computer-generated scenery now looks better than it ever did on the show (although the blending of live action with CGI still needs a bit of work - as is evident whenever characters are standing in the docking bay), but the two 34-minute stories on this DVD are quite weak and rather a waste of the talent involved.

Released under the joint title of "Voices In The Dark", the first has station commander Lochley (Tracy Scoggins) dealing with a case of possible demonic possession that not only plays out like The Exorcist-lite, but is even filmed in such a way as to highlight this obvious homage.

Weighed down with JMS's trademark pontificating dialogue, this is a visually appealing, but ultimately silly, story that seems to mess with the Universe's established mythos by introducing previously unheard of power players to one of the key planets in Babylon 5's metaplot.

The second story sees President Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) returning to B5 after ten years. On the way he is visited by one of those annoyingly omnipotent technomages (Galen - Peter Woodward) who dangles before the President the galactic equivalent of that old cliche "would you kill Hitler as a child, knowing what he would do when he grew up?"

There's a pleasing, and at least unexpected, resolution to both stories, but they didn't exactly leave me fired up for any more Lost Tales, despite some flashes of large-scale effects, moments of pithy dialogue and touching tributes to the late Andreas Katsulas and Richard Biggs.

There is no real drama or tension - for instance, the "destruction of New York" is just a vision of "what may happen" and the demon's fiery embrace of the station is just an illusion, and the central characters never seem in any true jeopardy.

Had these been mid-season episodes in a new run of B5 I would have welcomed them with open arms, but standing on their own they seem slightly lonely; not really 'lost' rather rightfully 'forgotten' by the rest of the episodes as they tussled for screen time to tell the Big Story.

Memories of Anne...

After all this time, it still surprises me what I can recall from my "pre-stroke" days and what's a total blank. Rather oddly, one thing I still recall clearly is the first time I saw actress Anne Heche.

It was early in my second year of university, and, as usual, a group of us were gathering in our house for a boisterous night on the town. People were drifting in slowly and the TV in the main lounge was on - it was some Channel 4 "theme night". I was watching it out the corner of my eye.

The host introduced comedian Ellen DeGeneres who came in, accompanied by her stunning girlfriend - it was like I had been struck by lightning! I sat up and fixated on this bob-haired pixie, whose name I soon discovered was Anne Heche.

I have followed Anne's career loyally ever since - watching many of her films (although none of her more recent material yet) and her major TV appearances (from her cameos on Ellen to her major role in Ally McBeal) and I even stuck by her though the "difficult years" when she was a bit loopy (I read her rather disturbing autobiography Call Me Crazy) and her indecisions about whether she was a lesbian or not, up to the present day.

Last night Living TV screened the first episode of Anne's great new TV series: Men In Trees. Set in the isolated Alaskan town of Elmo, where the men outnumber the women 10 to one, there's a strong Northern Exposure vibe, although Men In Trees has yet to evidence the extreme quirkiness of that early '90s staple.

I managed to watch the show 'live' (rather than "off tape") as the Film Night screening of Taxi Driver was postponed until next week as Rachel and I had come in late from shopping after visiting mum.

Men In Trees is not in the slightest bit geeky, and my critical eye was certainly skewed by Anne's presence, but its stunning Alaskan scenery and gentle humour has guaranteed it a slot in my weekly "must see" schedule.

Anne plays relationship coach Marin Frist who visits Elmo on a lecture tour to promote her latest book, only to discover while there that her fiance is cheating on her. She gets drunk in the town's one bar and misses her flight home, then after a series of mishaps - including falling through the ice into a frozen lake - decides to stay in Elmo to start work on her next book.

There is enormous potential for this ensemble show, as long as it doesn't fall into the "visitor from the outside"-of-the-week cliche, and as long as Anne stays on board I'll be there for a weekly dose of easy viewing and Merin Frist wisdom.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Mentioned In Dispatches...

By single-handedly taking out a VC machine gun nest (as pictured above), Thomas Magnum - one of our primary scouts - earned himself a mention in dispatches and whatever the military equivalent of a "man of the match" award is!

Nick and I were once more having a crack at refighting the Vietnam War on his kitchen table with 20mm figures - Nick taking the Vietnamese and me the Americans. My track record over the years as the Americans has not been good, so this small-scale skirmish came as rather a shock. The dice gods were on our side!

One unit took some casualties when they were caught out in the open by a ridge-mounted, heavy machine gun emplacement, and our other scouting party (led by John J Rambo) was pretty ineffective in direct combat situations, but managed to call in a barrage of mortar fire onto a further treeline, keeping a couple of units of Nick's troops at bay.

Having been ambushed, Magnum heroically charged his machine gun nest and took them out in a hail of bullets and grenades, clearing a path for the advancing troops. He then steered them into the village, and despite taking some shots from a small occupying force, managed to hang around and see the village cleared and razed to the ground!

The game ended with the remaining Vietnamese troops vanishing off into the jungle, with their tails between their legs, leaving the victorious Americans to clean up as night fell.

We were using a modified version of Frank 'Space 1889' Chadwick's Command Decision rules set - a new edition since our last games that made for subtle changes to the game. It's a terrifying 200-plus page rule book with more tables, charts and cross-referenced sub-headings that D&D 3.5, but once we got into the flow of the game it ran quite smoothly until we hit the next new situation (such as 'close assault' or 'artillery fire').

Besides the enormity of the rules (which I let Nick handle as it's his baby), my only reservation with the this game is the use of 'order chits' placed next to your units. I'm not a fan of the use of 'order chits' as they shatter the illusion of the table for me; I like game markers that can pass for terrain - like Nick's homemade wound/pin markers that look like shell holes.

Perhaps by the time we get to play a large game (with tanks, air strikes etc) in my 'mythical' games room, we'll have found - or Nick will have crafted - some 'order chits' that blend in better with the scenery!

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