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Friday, 29 February 2008

Guess Who's Coming To Tekralh?

I'm a bit of a sucker for "partworks" (big books cut up into easily digestible magazine sizes and flogged off for seemingly cheap prices until you add up the total cost of the expenditure), so it was no surprise that an advert for this latest one caught my eye this morning: Beasts & Beings.

You get a hand-painted (in China) statuette with each issue, as well as a magazine on random "fantasy" subjects - the first issue covers swords, King Minos, Atlantis, Merlin and Red Dragons (each subject getting about two or four pages... so it's not in depth research, but surface anecdotes are good for roleplaying game story seeds!).

What makes it wonderfully brilliant though is that these myths and fantastical stories are presented as matter-of-fact truth! Sure, there is the odd "But is this true?" box on some articles, but most are just presented as straight-forward cold, hard facts. Perfect fodder for a gamer (I was particularly taken with their article on the ecology of the red dragon and will almost certainly be adapting it to Castles & Crusades for my roleplaying group).

But, of course, the beauty of this first issue is the dragon statuette (it's about 60mm from tail to head and 60mm from claw to wingtip). It's gonna scare the bejeppers out of my Dungeons & Dragons players when I plonk it down in front of their little 28mm high miniatures!

The second issue, out in a fortnight, has a werewolf statue with it. Now not all the statues are going to be - like the dragon - "in scale" with gaming miniatures, but I'm sure I can find some use for them. In the past I've bought odd issues of partworks, with the intention of using the 'free' statuette as a city statue or some such piece of scenery in a game.

Speaking of which, I believe Clare is psyching herself up for a character creation session for our impending Tekralh campaign, so it's about time I got my head back in the game and resumed work on my "magnum opus".

Miss February: Keira Knightley

Keira Knightley (from King Arthur)


Thursday, 28 February 2008

DVD Of The Week: Elizabeth - The Golden Age (2007)

Telling the story behind the assault by the Spanish Armada, Elizabeth: The Golden Age is director Shekhar Kapur's sequel to the Oscar-winning Elizabeth from 1998.

Cate Blanchett returns to the title role as Good Queen Bess The Virgin Queen of England, but this is joined by Clive Owen, in his best performance to date, as Walter Raleigh, the roguish pirate-turned-adventurer who lays claim to the New World and the Queen's heart.

More than any mainstream film I think I have ever seen the long, complex story is told in montage - a series of isolated scenes that leaves it up to the audience to fill in the gaps between them.

This disconnected approach to storytelling makes emotional investment in the characters almost impossible and the movie ends up feeling more like a docu-drama than a feature film.

The segmented narrative undermines the epic quality that Kapur is clearly aiming for. However, Blanchett is magnificent, as we would expect, in the lead role, but Owen makes the film in a part he was born to play.

There are some tremendous moments - some of Elizabeth's speeches are very stirring and the build-up to her kiss with Rayleigh is splendid - but then other sequences, such as the anti-climatic confrontation with the Spanish Armada (a pivotal moment in English history), are dismissed before you can blink.

Like Elizabeth herself, the film is incredible eye candy but also cold and distant. We care and learn no more - probably less - about any of the characters than we could have in a documentary on the History Channel.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Torchwood: Dead Man Walking

The - almost casual - death, last week, of Owen Harper (Burn Gorman) - at the hands of Jim from Neighbours (aka guest star Alan Dale) - came as a genuine shock and in typical Torchwood style shock was heaped on shock this week, in Dead Man Walking, as Captain Jack brought Owen back to life.

Using yet another Resurrection Glove (a recurring 'cursed item' in the first series), Jack thought he was bringing Owen back for a couple of minutes so the team could say their goodbyes. But clearly recent memory tampering made him forget that everytime the glove is used there is a terrible price to pay.

Owen had returned in a state of "unlife" - no heartbeat, no use for food, drink, sex etc - and, on top of that, was gradually turning into a mythical personification of Death itself.

The story, by Matt Jones, simply isn't as clever, or original, as it thinks it is - with the whole Weevil messiah subplot being just a red herring (unless it plays out in a future episode) - with most elements being rather old hat in the world of Torchwood and Doctor Who.

While I am a fan of returning villains (e.g. Daleks, cybermen, the Master etc), I've always thought the Weevils were little more than blokes in boiler suits with ugly face masks and I just didn't really see the purpose of this half-hearted attempt to add some depth to them.

That said, I was surprised that Owen survived the adventure and continues with the team as some sort of undead zombie in next week's story, A Day In The Death, which sees him exploring his new found position!

Dead Man Walking seems to have been a bridging episode in this interesting twist on the Torchwood mythos, just not a very interesting one.

My Life And Roleplaying: Movies, Movies, Movies!

Four movies in particular shaped my early Dungeons & Dragons games - namely Jason & The Argonauts from 1963, Sinbad And The Eye of The Tiger (which I saw at the cinema with my parents when it came out in 1977), Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated (and unfinished) Lord Of The Rings and the legendary Hawk The Slayer (from 1980).

Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger, being the first Dungeons & Dragonsy film I saw after discovering the game, was a major source of material.

One of my first characters was actually called 'Sinbad' and most of the ship's crew and other supporting characters from the film appeared as non-player characters at some time or other in my games.

It was also this film which inspired the epic trans-oceanic adventures that young Gublin and I mapped out on seemingly neverending rolls of paper, making up the islands and continents as our characters' ship discovered them.

As I've already said several times on this blog, it was Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animation in Jason & The Argonauts (and later in Clash Of The Titans) that really decided the 'look' of Dungeons & Dragons monster fighting for me.

But it was Hawk The Slayer that had the closest overall feel of pure Dungeons & Dragons as we actually played it, even with its micro-budget and B-movie mentality.

I certainly wouldn't put it above any of these other films, but it's easy to see why it's so popular with old school gamers.

It has everything a classic game of Dungeons & Dragons requires! The party's charismatic leader Hawk (John Terry who also happens to play Jack's dad in Lost which just adds to the geek cred of the film) has a magic sword and a feud with his one-eyed Darth Vader-like brother Voltan (Jack Palance).

He takes a mission to raise the 2,000 gold pieces needed to ransom an abbess (Victor Meldrew's wife, Annette Crosbie) back from Voltan.

To aid him, Hawk teams up with adventuring friends old and new including a giant (who is basically just the tall bloke from the Carry On films, Bernard Bresslaw), the coolest elf in cinema history (Crow - Ray Charleson - could whoop Legolas anyday of the week with his superspeed archery), a dwarf, a one-handed fighter with a machine-gun crossbow and a magic-user called, simply, "Woman" (whose spells strongly resemble smoke, snow and wind machines, luminous ping-pong balls, silly string and assorted 70s disco lighting effects).

Set this all in a land permanently enshrouded in fog, with a funky synth music score and spaghetti western whistly bits; enough name dropping to give the impression of a full-developed country; and more than enough chewy, cheesy dialogue to satiate the diet of both a giant and a dwarf and you've got a "realistic" depiction of 99 per cent of how I viewed every fantasy roleplaying game I played back in the day.

If it isn't already compulsory for those about to start a Dungeons & Dragons campaign to watch this film... it should be!

Hawk The Slayer In Three Minutes...

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Cavalier: Move Over Space Monkeys Here Come The Panda Warriors!

For the first major wargame event of our calendar, Nick and I thought Cavalier was rather a lacklustre affair.

While Nick was able to pick up the tiny planes and boats on his shopping list I was shocked to discover no-one stocking AT-43 - I had been holding off from ordering some Karman space monkeys off the Internet because I was convinced there'd be at least one trader here flogging them and even, maybe, offering deals.

How wrong I was! A lot of the traders were of the 'generic shop' kind selling a variety of goods and books, but all very similar to each other and at pretty much identical prices; which ruled out the usual fun aspect of a show, that of going from stall to stall to try and hunt down the best bargain.

Although there were plenty of old favourites and familiar faces, there didn't seem to be the usual mix of small-scale manufacturers or distributors selling 'unique' wares - where were Gripping Beast and Honourable Lead Boiler Suit Company, for instance. I'm sure they used to be regulars at Cavalier?

Then I stumbled upon the Black Hat stall and it was as though the clouds parted and a beam of light transfixed me to the spot. There in a glass case was a display of their latest Tales Of The Dragon King line of mythical ancient Chinese figures.

These looked liked they'd stepped straight from the page (or script) of some great wuxia epic. The Black Hat man was explaining how these eight packs were just the start of a very long (160-pack, I think?) line that would eventually include large dragons, Monkey, Tripitaka and gang, temple dogs etc

I was in love (especially with the cute panda warriors - pictured above - which I had to buy, along with a set of Chinese heroes) and my mind was racing on how to accomodate this new line into my supposedly disciplined and organised wargame/role-playing 'timetable'.

Being the fickle, impressionable geek that I am, I suspect that Tekralh (my Castles & Crusades projects) could find itself written off as another excercise in world building (much like the original Knight City, my online Buffy game, which, for a while was going to transmorph into a Mutants & Masterminds setting).

So, mind spinning with possibilities, I continued to look round the show, picked up a few cheap books, but very little by my usual standards and no other figures besides the Black Hat ones.

The show had expanded from last year into other rooms around the Angel Centre, with a selection of display games; but only a couple of science-fiction ones really caught my attention (particularly a battle between steam-powered Victorians and martians... which, ironically, turned out to be using miniatures from Black Hat!)

A few more pictures can be found here.

As it's our local show, Nick and I will - without question - continue to support Cavalier, but I must confess that if I had travelled any distance to this, or it had been my first show, I might have second thoughts about coming again.

Thank Hugh For The Memories...

The mind is a strange thing. There are days when I can't even remember what I had for my last meal several hours earlier, but I can still clearly remember the first time I heard the music of The Stranglers.

It was a dark, smoky house party at John Tapp's house in the first year of my time at The Skinners' School (I joined in the Third Year) and someone slipped the vinyl album The Raven onto the stereo and I was hooked.

Very rapidly The Stranglers became my favourite band and I have plenty of random memories associated with them:

* such as buying a copy of The Gospel According To The Men In Black while on holiday at the coast with my parents, but having to wait until I returned to listen it - in the meantime trying to extrapolate lyrics and sounds in my head based purely on the track titles;

* many years later Nick and I going to see them in concert at The Assembly Hall (Hugh Cornwell had left the group long before this) and Nick's elbow accidently catching someone's temple in the mosh pit and sending them crashing to the floor;

* how moved I was the first time I actually got to see the band live (although I'm not sure if the venue was in Brighton or London);

* proudly wearing my black Stranglers T-shirt, while out with an older punky friend, in Dunorlan Park - despite the fact that it was unbearably hot;

* the fact that mum didn't object to my Stranglers poster on my bedroom wall because she was quite taken by Hugh Cornwell's rocker quiff.

So, last night, when Hugh (long established as a successful solo artist) was supposed to play a gig at The Assembly Hall in Tunbridge Wells, I was hoping to create some new memories and share a part of my childhood with my good wife.

Unfortunately the big man bailed on us. With less than 24 hours to go - and during all the computer chaos yesterday - I get a message from the venue telling me the concert had been cancelled.

Turns out Hugh's management team had pulled the plug because he was "unwell", but there was a suspicion this was a code for "low ticket sales".

So, Rachel and I went for a meal at my favourite restuarant in Tonbridge - The Oriental Buffet Club - and made us some memories the old fashioned way; good food and good coversation.

Monday, 25 February 2008

HeroPress Update!

Apologies for those awaiting new stuff on the site (including my review of Cavalier).

I was very tired last night and then today have spent the better part of six hours "remote linked" to Norton's help desk in India, while a series of tech heads tried to find out why I could no longer see about 50% of the Internet!

The problem seems to be solved - but I'm drained and way behind on my list of things "to do" today.

Will get back to y'all ASAP.

At least it didn't happen at 11.59pm as it usually does...

On the positive side of the karmic balance I've just heard that we might be exchanging on our house in the next couple of days and, simultaneously, two rare items have popped up on eBay that I've been after for ages.

Guess it's all swings and roundabouts or some such cliché!

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Six Of The Best With JON 'THE VICAR' STALLARD

The Vicar - aka Jon Stallard - is half of the Geek Daily crew, the new podcast from the team that also brings us Geeklabel Radio and the fantastic Geeklabel T-shirts.

Every day, after doing his own broadcast radio show, he - and superproducer Billy Flynn, then sit down to deliver an hilarious 15-minute slice of geek news for their pod-listening fans.

(1) How did you come by the nickname of The Vicar? Is it anything to do with your love all things British?

First, my Christian name is Jon, which is as dull as it gets, so I resolved that I needed a nom de plume for podcasting.

In hindsight, I don't think it was necessary, but it seemed fun and cool, so that was that.

Originally I wanted to be "The Bishop", just 'cause it sounded vaguely dirty and reminded me of the movie "Sneakers", so it came with some geek cred.

My co-hosts however decided that I was in no way cool enough to pull off "Bishop" as a nickname, and Vicar was born.

Given my well-publicized adoration of all things Brittania, it's ironic that it had nothing to do with the name choice.

(2) What’s the “origin” story of Geeklabel and what made you decide to branch out into podcasting?

That's easy. We were shilling t-shirts at RavenCon in Richmond, and Podcasting's Rich Sigfrit approached us for an interview on his cast. Afterward, he said "hey, you guys are funny- you should do a 'cast!".

In real-life I own a radio station group in Central Virginia, so we certainly had access to the equipment and the talent. The rest is history.

(3) How did Geeklabel Radio spawn Geek Daily?

Geeklabel started as a t-shirt business of course, so the focus was always on the product to some degree. The podcast was ultimately a marketing tool for the business.

Now, what with changes in the marketplace and changes in our lives, we're sort of moving in other directions.

Billy Flynn and I work in the same studio every day, so it was an easier thing for us to do a show at the drop of a hat, whereas Kingfish had to drive quite a distance for the weekly show.

Our hope is that in addition to the daily program, we'll find the time to still maintain a more-or-less weekly show.

(4) You’ve mentioned on several podcasts that you are currently running a Savage World Deadlands game. Can you tell us a bit about that, why you chose that system and what’s going on in the campaign?

Ooh, I just love Westerns. Not the cheesy good guys in white hats, bad guys in black hats variety, but the gritty kind. A good Western is like greek tragedy; there are eternal archetypes and epic struggles, and cool guns. Really, if you add undead, what else could you want?

I just wanted to do something other than Vampire or AD&D for a change, and I heard such good stuff about the Savage Worlds system in general, and the Deadlands setting in particular.

That all being said, I've not had opportunity to get much into it! In a perfect world, I want to get blazing into that setting, and then dive into SW's Solomon Kane, too. If it wasn't for this stupid "job".

(5) From all the roleplaying games you have played over the years, can you think of a single moment that encapsulates just what is so great about this hobby?

Yeah, I can think of a couple things. The moment in gaming that comes to mind was the climax of my old Thief AD&D campaign in about 2000.

It's always so rewarding when your players eyes open wide with the realization of major plot points that you as a DM have spent YEARS building. That was just such a payoff.

The other time that I love my hobby so very, very much is convention time.

There's nothing like geeking-out with 40,000 like-minded people over a long weekend of gaming debauchery, is there?

(6) On your shows you make no secret of being a man with an eye for the ladies; who is your favourite geek-related hottie?

In the real world (sort-of) is the obvious choice of the slave-bikini-clad Princess Leia. From the fantasy realm? Kitty Pryde, of course!

A-Spendin' We Will Go...

It's Sunday morning and I'm gearing up for one of the regular highlights of the year - Cavalier, the Tunbridge Wells Wargames Society annual open day.

Usually with wargames shows, Rachel acts as taxi driver, but since last year Cavalier has been held at the Angel Centre in Tonbridge - 10/15 minutes' walk from our flat.

That means Rachel can stay in bed watching the Hollyoaks Omnibus while I meet up with Nick for some 'toy' shopping!

This picture is from last year's show. That's me in the middle, with the white rucksack, and Nick poised to spend money at the A&A Game Engineering stand

They are a Tonbridge-based company who also paint figures; they regularly paint aircraft and boats for Nick and painted up some 20mm Stargate SG-1 figures I had and N-gauge cricketers Rachel found for her Midale railway layout.

Next to us is wargaming legend, author, lecturer and historian George Gush, founder and former chairman of TWWS.

Later today I hope to post up a report of the event and some pictures of the display games (if I can get to grips with the swanky new camera Rachel got me for Christmas).

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Three Is The Magic Number!

It was Eddie's third full day in Sunnydale last night and I felt he needed to be a bit more proactive in our Buffy The Vampire Slayer campaign; rather than spending his time as a punching bag for various supernatural forces. So come lunchtime he hit the library and found himself a dusty old occult book to check out, take home and study.

Lunchtime also saw the beginnings of a tentative new "Scooby Gang" as Hugh (Andy's character), Jez (Mik's character)and Eddie started to trade "secrets" in veiled terms and sound each other out. Hugh got himself invited round to meet Jez's Watcher.

After school Eddie went back to Dragon's Cove Magic Shop, flexed his credit card and ordered a "real magic book".

The proprietor explained that Eddie would be able to pick it up in three days (Saturday evening) at a place called Willy's Bar; from a big chap called Luke [out-of-character, we all pretty much reckon this is the giant vampire that Buffy tussled with at the start of the first season of the show; obviously in this 'alternate universe' he's still alive... and trading in rare books!].

That evening Hugh joined Jez and Mr McCall on a hunt for vampires in the railyard and Jez got jumped by three.

She managed to defeat them quite spectacularly, although I was worried about the amount of damage she was taking.

Any single blow that she took would have knocked the stuffing out of me - in my current battered state - and she withstood half a dozen. It's moments like that when I realise just how inferior White Hats are, combat-wise, compared to the Slayer!

However, Eddie was having his own fun at home - another ghost turned up; this time chased by a tidal wave of cold that blew up his parents' fridge and created an arch of ice in the kitchen - in which he briefly glimpsed a wall of screaming faces!

Eddie called Hugh and Jez and in due course they rolled up with Mr McCall and quickly realised, from his description, that the ghost was that of Sunnydale's previous Watcher who had disappeared into a vortex on Mount Raven at the end of the last season (the legendary "massacre" from which Hugh had been the only survivor).

Looks like next time everyone is going on a hike into the hills to find the site of the vortex...

Friday, 22 February 2008

"I'll Be Blah..."

When Buffy moved from the big screen to the small screen, a rather silly little film was transformed into a cultural icon and ratings winning TV series, unfortunately the reverse seems to be happening with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

The new series debuted on Virgin 1 last night, apparently transforming a highly successful and innovative movie franchise into a very mediocre television show.

While Buffy struck gold with its total overhaul of cast and setting, The Sarah Connor Chronicles has managed to pretty much miss the target completely.

In the headline role, Lena Headey, so good as Queen Gorgo in 300, lacks the charisma - and maybe even the conviction - to carry off a part so intimately associated with Linda Hamilton.

Thomas Dekker (aka Zach from Heroes) is passable as yet another iteration of the future saviour of mankind, John Connor, but the show's only real high point is Summer Glau (River from Firefly) as the latest Terminator sent back to protect the junior Connor.

The pilot episode, set in 1999, began like a low(er) budget retread of very familiar Terminator territory, although having Sarah and John stay in the same place for two years and Sarah even getting engaged, seemed rather conttrived and out of character.

Things picked up when they moved on and John crossed paths with the Glauminator at his new school; making the new bodyguard Terminator a "school girl" model was a nice touch with a lot of Buffyesque potential.

The evil Terminator-tutor cutting his gun out of his leg was genius as well and it looked as though the story was really taking off.

Then things took a strange twist as the Glauminator locked our three protagonists in a bank vault and proceeded to assemble - from parts she'd "hidden" in safety deposit boxes in 1963(!) - not only a super-douper anti-Terminator gun, but a fully working time machine...

Huh? Remembering that a big deal is always made about not being able to bring anything with you when you time travel (hence the requisite 'arriving naked' scene in every film), Glau's mumbled explanation of, I think, some engineer using current (presumably '60s) technology to scrape this lot together just seemed a bit far-fetched... even for this already convoluted story.

Our heroes then 'jump' forward to 2007 - conveniently saving on the props and costume budget by moving the action from the 20th Century to the 21st Century - to stay off the evil Terminator's radar and discover who is responsible for the future global Apocalypse and rise of the robots.

Like a good little geek, I'll stick with this for a few more episodes to see where it's going, but at the moment it just looks like a rerun of The Littlest Hobo with killer androids instead of cute dogs.

When the outrageous time machine (or 'deux ex machina' as I like to call it) was unveiled, I really hoped the Connors and Summer Glau were about to travel to the post-Apocalyptic future we've seen glimpses of in the Terminator movies; while this probably wouldn't have solved anything at least it would have been cool to look at!

Hot Monkey Love!

Just in time for the first major gaming spendfest of the year, Cavalier, it appears that all my fears for the future of my favourite pre-painted miniatures sci-fi game - AT-43 - have eased.

With the bulk of my AT-43 now stuff hidden away in storage - awaiting our semi-mythical 'moving day' - and Rackham seemingly unable to progress the game any further, my initial enthusiasm for the system had kinda waned.

However, in recent weeks, Rackham seem to have gotten back on track with their release schedule for the game, including a whole swathe of Karman (apes with big guns and jet packs) figures and vehicles.

There's even talk of a new campaign supplement (pictured right), which, according to Rackham's email newsletter will include: "battle maps, exclusive scenarios, new troops and new heroes for all the armies of AT-43".

The newsletter also says of the new book: "Operation Frostbite takes place on the ice covered planet of Élysée and stages a colorful military campaign.

"The Karmans, the Therians, the U.N.A., the Red Blok and each of their factions are all pursuing there own secret objectives."

Ironically - for my wallet - it was Cavalier last year where I discovered the delights of AT-43 and now I can't wait to start my AT-43 purchasing again, get into my new games room and break out the miniatures and scenery for some hot space monkey action!

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Unearthing Hidden Gems: The Last Legion (2007)

When you least expect it, a great treasure suddenly surfaces. The Last Legion is both a cracking swords, sandals and 'sorcery' film and a fine representation of my quest for Dungeons & Dragonsyness in movies.

From Ben Kingsley's Jedi/trickster/retired adventurer Ambrosinus to the young Emporer's magic sword, this is pure fantasy adventure, done with great style and all-star cast.

Thomas Sangster (from Doctor Who: Human Nature/Family Of Blood) is Romulus, declared Emporer of Rome the day before the Goths invade and take over. He is captured, along with Ambrosinus and it's up to Legion Commander Aurelius (Colin Firth) and his rag-tag group of surviving legionnaires - plus beautiful Indian warrior-woman Mira (Aishwarya Rai) - to go and rescue him from his island prison in Capri.

Then things get worse and the group find their only possible allies are the forgotten Ninth Legion in Britain and have to make tracks for Hadrian's Wall... which they discover abandoned; the legionnaires have "gone native".

However the Goths - under the command of wicked Kevin McKidd - are on their trail and have teamed up with British warlord Vortgyn (Harry Van Gorkum) who wants the Emporer's magic sword so he call rule the country.

A lot of people dismissed this great little action-adventure flick because it was not "historically accurate", but since when has every single film been required to educate as well as entertain? Was Gladiator a historical documentary? Or Clash Of The Titans a study of ancient Greek history ? Or The Good, The Bad And The Ugly an accurate portrayal of life in the Old West?

The Last Legion sets itself up as a prequel to the legendary Arthur myth cycle - which itself is not exactly history, but mostly make believe and symbolism - and that's where the film does make its one error of judgement; it may be stylistically 'cool' to end with the Emporer's sword (Excalibur) wedged in a stone, covered in moss, waiting for the "rightful ruler" to pull it out... but that wasn't Excalibur! Arthur was given Excalibur later by the Lady In The Lake...

But that's just geeky silliness, it's like quibbling over the detailing of the armour or the choice of weapons. The fact is The Last Legion is a cracking adventure flick for all the family and a fine piece of sword and sandal nonsense for any geek worth his salt.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Torchwood: Reset

Although this season has, on the whole, been consistently better than the show's first, the problem I am currently having with Torchwood is that it regularly sets up a great story or interesting premise, but then fails to totally deliver on it.

I have no problem with foreshadowing future events or a touch of mystery, but so far the issues I've been seeing with the storylines have just appeared as plot holes.

However, with Reset (as the name might suggest) all these concerns were put to rest. Obviously, the introduction of Martha Jones - the Doctor's glamorous former assistant, played by the lovely Freema Agyeman - into the mix didn't hurt.

Now working as a medical offier for UNIT, at first Martha seemed almost a different person, but a short time around Jack Harkness and the old Martha shone through. She'd been called in to assist with an investigation into a nationwide series of strange murders that soon turn into a conspiracy to conceal medical trials of a new drug, Reset, which - as Owen puts it - "restores the human body to its factory settings".

Martha is more confident, "grown-up" and professional now and I wonder if she is being set up to return to the Doctor's side as a more practical assistant (yet more skills to complement her brains and beauty)?

The whole tone of Reset seemed a lot lighter than previous episodes, and a good portion of the second act was Martha going solo infiltrating the Big Bad's base of operations (armed only with funky, Mission Impossible-style contact lenses).

Old school Neighbours' fans (as well as viewers of Ugly Betty, 24 etc) will recognise the menacing head of the evil Pharm, the research centre trying to cover its tracks, as cult character actor Alan Dale.

Away from Martha's story, the Owen/Tosh potential romance took a tentative step forward, which made the shocking turn of events at the end of the episode even more powerful.

Without a doubt the best episode of this series so far, and with Martha staying on for a while, we can only hope the high standard continues... or just keeps getting better!

Watchmen Wraps!

Just a quick note to alert you hungry fanboys (me included!) that filming has wrapped on Zack Snyder's eagerly awaited Watchmen adaptation.

The project now moves into lengthy post-production and we aren't going to see it in cinemas until March 6, 2009 (here in the UK).

Aces & Eights: Showdown - A Shot At Realism!

With Aces & Eights: Showdown, Kenzer and Co (the people responsible for Knights of The Dinner Table, Hackmaster etc) have, without a doubt, created one of the most realistic gunfight roleplaying engines yet seen.

Showdown is way more detailed and crunchy than I usually like, but the writing style is clean and, for the most part, clear... so I'd be willing to give it a go.

At its core, the rules are reasonably simple - roll to hit and use a transparent overlay (called the "shot clock") on a silhouette of a gunfighter to determine where the bullet struck (check out the video tutorial below).

Time is not measured in "rounds" or "turns", as in a traditional roleplaying game or wargame, but in cumulative 1/10 second "counts" (you draw your gun, aim then fire in a certain number of 'counts', then your next actions are added on to them and so on).

It's all very innovative and straight forward, but - in striving for realism - the authors have been unable to avoid massive lists of "modifiers", to both the accuracy of shots and the speed of actions, which could prove a problem for those of us more mathematically-challenged.

Real life, sadly, doesn't fit into neatly regimented rules, but Showdown does its best to second guess most of the wild things players might come up with in a straight-forward gun battle.

This isn't a rules system for those looking to run down and dirty, quick gunfights, but those looking for more verisimilitude than abstraction will be well served.

Showdown can work as standlone miniatures game, but lacks the full roleplaying aspects of the out-of-print and ultrarare Aces & Eights game (characters have no skills and no statistics outside of their combat abilities); however I can see this playing out as a fun diversion until the full Aces & Eights rules are reprinted in all their glory.

As a tease for the full rules, Showdown presents a sampling of the game's background. Like Deadlands, it has its own 'alternate history', but where Deadlands is more Brisco County Jnr meets The Evil Dead, Aces & Eights is pure Deadwood.

For large scale gunbattles, I'd imagine Showdown is an administrative nightmare to run with every character having dual 'count' tracks for actions and movement (I'd still prefer to use Warhammer Historical's Legends of The Old West for battles between posses rather than individual characters), but for small scale games I can't think of a more realistic system for handling Wild West shootouts.



Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Bottom Of The Pile: Spider-Man - With Great Power... #1

First off I've got to say Spider-Man: With Great Power is a well-written new title by David Lapham and strikingly illustrated by Tony Harris.

However, my big beef with this five-issue miniseries is: do we really need yet another retelling of Spider-Man's origin?

As Rachel said, when I mentioned it to her: "Surely he's only got one origin? He was bitten by a [radioactive] spider!"

Except for the Ultimate Universe total re-imagining, Spider-Man's origin has been told, and retold, countless times in comics, movies and TV shows, so why another version?

And surely it doesn't need five whole issues to cover this well trodden ground again? Spider-Man is one of the established, classic, old style characters with a simple, memorable, definitive origin that doesn't need messing up with additional complications - if that's even the idea of this mini-series.

Perhaps the time and effort invested in this title would have been better spent on an 'original' Spider-Man story... possibly even trying to undo the whole "deal with the devil"/continuity-wrecking malarky that finally drove me away from one of my favourite characters?

Maybe I'm missing something; hopefully someone can tell me what the point of this title is because I just can't see one.

Pick Of The Pods: Geek Radio Daily

If you enjoy the humour of Geeklabel Radio (and let's be honest - who doesn't?), then you're going to love Geek Radio Daily.

This is a daily (the clue's in the title) 15-minute slice of geek news from Billy Flynn and The Vicar, from Geeklabel Radio; recorded at the radio station where they both work in Tappahannock, Virginia.

Each episode starts with a round-up of the "highlights" of that night's TV - and even though I'm in the UK and, obviously, can't get any of the same channels, it's still very entertaining.

Then the episode segues into its main topic: Monday - box office receipts; Tuesday - new DVDs; Wednesday - new comics; Thursday - new games (tablestop RPG and video); and Friday - new movies. That pretty much covers my life and this blog!

Mix this in with some general geeky news and you've got an easily digestible daily show that's silly, insightful, hilarious, cheeky and informative.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)

Like the zombies at its heart, Resident Evil is the film franchise that just won't die... and long may be it stagger on in all its undead glory.

Picking up the action several years after Resident Evil: Apocalypse, the dread virus has swept the world and given everything in Resident Evil: Extinction a distinct Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior flavouring.

However, it makes up for Apocalypse's lack of zombie action, by bringing them on by the truckload... there are now more undead in the world than living.

Alice (Milla Jovovich) has gone lone wolf and is trying to eke out an existance on the run from the evil Umbrella Corporation, fronted by mad scientist Dr Issacs (the brilliant Iain Glen, who was so good in the recent City Of Vice TV drama).

Umbrella have been experimenting with attempts to domesticate the undead, using blood samples from its legion of Alice-clones. To be honest, if I'd been able to clone Milla Jovovich, I'd have stopped the experiments right there... but then again, I'm not a mad scientist!

The original Alice teams up with a convoy of survivors, led by the lovely Ali Larter of Heroes fame, in full Sarah Connor/Linda Hamilton mode, but there's only room for one alpha female in the Resident Evil films... and that's uberbabilicious Jovovich all the way.

She tramples zombie butt and takes names across the Nevada desert, building to a very video-game-like battle with the end of level boss in an underground Umbrella complex (which, disappointingly, has a rather anticlimatic conclusion that is almost "off camera"). This, however, sets up a pretty cool denouement which I doubt - for financial reasons - we will ever see played out on film.

A lot was made in the initial advertising for the cinema release of Resident Evil: Extinction of its use of Las Vegas, suggesting that most of the film takes place here, but don't get your hopes up - it's just one excellent street battle/ambush sequence on the convoy's journey.

Away from the kick-ass action, the script groans under some pretty dire dialogue, but thankfully talking problems out isn't really Alice's strong suit and mostly she lets her guns, boots and knives do all her delicate negotiations.

Slightly annoyingly, several scenes I would have considered key to explaining people's reactions to Alice - and even her new superpowers - are relegated to the "deleted" folder in the DVD's extras.

Written by Paul WS Anderson, as were the first two episodes of this gorey trilogy, Resident Evil: Extinction was never going to be anything more than a live action re-enactment of the best-selling computer game series, but it has enough nice touches (and hotties) to be worth an hour and a half of your time.

DVD Of The Week: Howard The Duck (1986)

Since the invention of DVDs, I've had a short list of films I just had to own in that format.

One was a definitive cut of Blade Runner, which I now have and am holding back until we move house, to savour in all its five-disc geeky glory, and the other was Howard The Duck which, to be honest, I thought might never see the light of day.

Made all the more poignant by the passing of Howard's creator, comic book legend Steve Gerber, earlier this month, the film has snuck out with about the same fanfare as Dragonlance: Dragons Of Autumn Twilight.

I'm a massive fan of the original Howard The Duck comic book run - which I discovered as an impressionable youngster through black and white reprints in the back of some humour magazine in the style of Mad - but not so much of the newer stuff (where he looks more like an emaciated human in a duck mask from Mongoose's bastardization of the old Runequest game, rather than an anthropomorphic duck).

Many a duck appeared in my early games of Dungeons & Dragons (including more than a few "masters of quack-fu"), although normally as non-player characters, and so imagine my excitement as I turned 20 and a film was made about Howard... by the guy who did Star Wars!
I saw it at the cinema, loved it, read the novelization, bought the soundtrack and... and... nothing. It just seemed to vanish, buried under an avalanche of unfair criticism (much fuelled, I am sure, by a backlash against Lucas for his Star Wars success).

I eagerly snatched up the VHS release when it came out, but as the years went on and technologies changed it looked as though Howard The Duck (like TV classics such as Tales Of The Gold Monkey) would not be making an appearance in the 21st Century. Then the other week I caught sight of a briefy snarky preview in some film magazine and I realised my wait was over.

Viewed from a 2008 perspective, I reckon the film stands the test of time; the only elements that really look dated are the horrendous 1980s street fashions which appear to be wardrobe rejects from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

ILM's special effects - particularly those surrounding Jeffrey Jones' Dr Jenning and his gradual transformation into the Dark Overlord of The Universe are still pretty neat (although the Dark Overlord himself looks like he wouldn't have been out of place on the set of Men In Black... but then again I said that about the monster in Cloverfield!).

The script is generally quite chucklesome, Lea Thompson is as yummy as 'love interest' Beverly as I remember her and I still enjoy Chip Zien's voice for Howard himself, although Tim Robbins is more than a bit annoying as nerdy lab assistant Phil.

Where the film has issues is its inability to judge its target audience, the script has the leaps of logic you'd expect from a kids' film, but throws in some distinctly adult themes and ideas (from Howard's part-time job in a bath house/brothel to his cross-species relationship with Beverly; funny in the comics, but slightly uncomfortable in live action!).

There's also the rather preposterous and overlong microlite chase that segues the second act into the third, which just smacks of the kind of silliness that George Lucas seems to love (see the Ewok movies, various 'comedy' moments in the Star Wars Prequels, the mine cart chase in Temple of Doom etc for further evidence of this). I just hope he doesn't bring this particular trait into the new Indiana Jones film...

But the '80s music in Howard The Duck still rocks!

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Get A Free Issue Of Knights Of The Dinner Table!

The ever reliable, and interesting, Dane of War ("If it's not about explosions, fire, robots, zombies and boobies, I'm probably not interested") reported yesterday that Kenzer And Company is having a big publicity push on the awesome Knights of The Dinner Table magazine.

He writes:"Do you know someone who doesn't read Knights of the Dinner Table? Or maybe someone who thinks it's just a comic book? (Actually, it's a full-fledged monthly gaming magazine with a wide variety of articles suitable for many different game systems!)

"Now, how'd you like to give that person a free issue to read? That's right - for a limited time, they're giving away a complete promotional issue of the Knights of the Dinner Table magazine in digital format!

"Simply download the issue - and don't forget to send the link to as many of your friends as you want! In fact, send it to all of them!"

You get the whole of issue 132 (from last October), plus an introduction to the Knights (a who's who), submission guidelines and the costs of subscription etc.

I was a late-comer to this publication - only really discovering it at the end of last year - but it is, without a doubt, not only the finest general roleplaying magazine in print but also features the funniest - and most lovingly accurate - geeky/gamer comic strips. If you can remember old school hack'n'slash or don't think games should take themselves too seriously then this is the title for you.

I still can't believe I wasn't reading this 10 years ago! I've got a lot of catching up to do...

Saturday, 16 February 2008

I Choo-Choose You!

Rachel and I made our annual pilgrimmage to the Tonbridge Model Railway Club open day at The Angel Centre in town this lunchtime.

As always it was packed with a variety of layouts, ranging from N up to O gauge, in different eras (even one, large scale 'fantasy' layout, up in the restaurant based off of an old children's storybook), as well as the usual mix of traders.

We even found one, Plus Daughters, which dealy purely with N Gauge products, so I treated Rach to some more little people for her Midale layout (currently set up at her parent's house, but, like so many things at the moment, has a spot earmarked for it in the new house).

I'm always a sucker for the unusual layouts and was particularly taken with the one shown above, Columbia Wharf (by Chelmsford and District Model Railway Club) - which was basically a giant breakers yard, with boats, submarines, military vehicles etc all in the process of being reduced to scrap metal.

Other fine layouts included Lookout Mountain, a giant tree-covered display by a gentleman from Eastbourne, representing a fictitious American coal mining town of the 1950s; and several nice European layouts with mountains, valleys and snow.

I was testing out a new camera today - a Christmas present from Rachel, that I had yet to try out in the wild - and I reckon I got about a 40 per cent success rate. I hope, if I can read the full instrauctions and comprehend it's many, many settings to have a better hit rate next weekend at Cavalier - the first of the year's wargames shows.

More pictures of todat's show can be found here.

'Cos Stats The Way We Roll, Baby!

Feedback is the lifeblood of HeroPress and I want to thank all my readers who have taken the time to express an opinion or congratulate the site on its first anniversary in the last few weeks.

A slight hic-cup with either Blogger or AOL has meant I haven't been getting all the 'alerts' to tell me someone has posted a comment, but luckily Rachel is very observant and often tells me of a comment I might have missed (particularly if it is one singing her well-deserved praises!).

The site seems to have settled down after the major influx of new visitors last month (because of my "oh woe is me" rant that other, more successful, blogs kindly picked up on), but we are still steadily recording higher readership figures than we used to - so thank you all for sticking around!

I'm currently noticing particular spikes on Thursdays when my Transatlantic readership pops in to check on the latest Torchwood review.

Here are the visitor numbers for the last month. Where applicable I've included a note of last month's figures for comparison.

Visitor Numbers (as of Saturday, 16 February): 11,663 (10,174)
Average Number of Visitors Per Day: 48 (53)

Top 5 Countries of Origin:
United States 49% (40%)
United Kingdom 28% (42%)
Canada 4% (2%)
Denmark 4% (4%)
Argentina 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) Torchwood: Adam
2) Justice League: New Frontier
3) Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (teaser trailer)
4) Dresden Files: Soul Beneficiary
5) Elric: Making of A Sorceror

No surprise to see Torchwood, Justice League and the incredible Indy trailer hogging the three top spots there, but I'm always pleased to see the continuing interest in the old episodes of The Dresden Files.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Justice League - The New Frontier (2008)



Following on from Superman - Doomsday, DC Comics has pretty much set out its game plan for forthcoming animation movies.

Clearly it is taking a more serious and adult approach to the genre than Marvel (whose recent animated features include Invincible Iron Man, Doctor Strange and The Ultimate Avengers), who seem to be aiming more at the higher end of the Saturday morning kids cartoon market.

Based on Darwyn Cooke's graphic novel of the same name, Justice League - The New Frontier reimagines the formation of the Justice League of America (even though that name is never used) during the Cold War era, when government suspicion and public mistrust has put many of the costumed heroes on the backfoot.

The Golden Age Justice Society has retired and America awaits the dawning of its Silver Age heroes - from Barry Allen's Flash to Hal Jordan's Green Lantern.

There's a lot going on here, featuring a cornucopia of costumed heroes and supporting characters from the DC Universe (look out for cameos from a young beardless Green Arrow and Aquaman, as well as turns from The Blackhawks, Adam Strange, The Challengers of The Unknown and probably many more) in a story that covers a span of several years from the end of the Korean War.

The complex storyline about an impending Apocalyptic threat called The Centre and the arrival of a floating 'living island' (which turn out - I think - to be one and the same thing) can seem rather overwhelmed in this 75-minute movie because of all the sub-plots and character ineraction going on around it.

The action is certainly a lot more 'adult' (by which I mean bloody and violent) than the Marvel cartoons, but it's no gorefest and the 'strong language' that has been mentioned in other reviews of this fine piece of art must have passed me by (but then I've always thought American's have more sensitive ears than the rest of the world).

The voice talents are, on the whole, good - with Lucy Lawless redeeming her lacklustre performance in Dragonlance with a truly Xenaesque turn as Wonder Woman and David 'Angel' Boreanaz stands out as Hal Jordan aka The Green Lantern - although Jeremy Sisto's Batman didn't really deliver for me.

Even the Martian Manhunter, never one of my favourite DC characters because I've always considered him rather dull and overpowered against the Big Three (Superman, Wonderman and Batman), as voiced by Miguel Ferrer, came across as a crucial and interesting character.

The two-disc special edition of the DVD is chock full of tasty extras including three episodes of the Justice League Unlimited cartoon and several documentaries (45 minutes of the history of the JLA and 35 minutes on the development of the DC Universe's most striking villains, as well as 10 minutes on Darwyn Cooke's original award-winning graphic novel and adapting it to the screen), as well as two commentary tracks.

Where We Stand...

Six weeks into the year and I thought I'd review my "resolutions" for 2008.

The main movement has been on the gaming front - as there is still no news on our impending move, the chain of buyers held up by the first-timer at the bottom who is still fumbling around getting her mortgage together.

My "crusades" drive has been subsumed by my passion for my Castles & Crusades fantasy role-playing campaign - Tekralh - which I am still hard at work on, but will probably rest soon until a start-date for the adventure can be fixed.

I am concerned that if I create too much background before the game makes first contact with players there will be too much 'back story' for all parties to absorb and not enough wiggle room for player creativity.

On the figure buying front, I've pretty much drawn a line under my "pulp era" miniatures purchases (there's still a lot for Neil the painter to catch up on!) and I think I'm pretty sorted for "fantasy/roleplaying" figures - but I'm hoping to pick up some Dungeons & Dragons pre-painted plastic miniature monsters at Cavalier in a couple of weeks.

However, a couple of mighty fine Westerns and discovering Kenzer's Aces & Eights Wild West RPG (through reading piles of their brilliant Knights Of The Dinner Table magazine) has also reignited my passion for the Old West... which had been on a bit of a downward spiral since Deadwood went off the air.

Aces & Eights is currently out of print and rarer than hen's teeth around these parts. It is due a second printing in about May/June, although I have been able to snag a copy of Showdown (which is basically a skirmish supplement, detailing the game's gunfight rules and doubles as a standalone miniatures game) from Games Lore.

In the meantime I also have Deadlands: Reloaded to keep me entertained and I guess I'll be looking for some 28mm gunslingers at Cavalier as well!

On a more positive financial note, I've managed to trim back my monthly comics pull-list and I reckon I'm making headway towards controlling my geek spending a bit better... but it's difficult to break the habit of a lifetime.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (teaser trailer)


Need I say more...? Don't forget to check out the official website here.

Love Is...

... a copy of the HackMaster Gawds & Demi-Gawds supplement (wrapped in Doctor Who paper) from my wife on this Valentine's Day! Nothing says "I love you" more than some old school hack'n'slash.

Torchwood: Adam

Quite surprisingly Catherine Tregenna's low-physical violence episodes of Torchwood - such as the superlative Out Of Time from season one - have always been a big hit at HeroPress Towers.

Last night's Adam was no exception, telling the story of an alien infiltration of The Hub by a creature able to manipulate the memories of Team Torchwood so they all saw him as an established member of their crew.

With its doctored opening credits, the episode started in a similar vein to the famous Buffy 'alternate reality' episode Superstar, but Adam went for a less over-the-top approach with the alien's memory tampering having various side effects on the team: Gwen forgot all about her boyfriend Rhys; Owen lost his cynicism and became a nervous, speccy square besotted with Tosh; Tosh became more confident and fell in love with "Adam"; Captain Jack was haunted by memories of his childhood; and - after he discovered Adam's secret - Ianto was plagued by false memories of a life as a serial killer!

While this was a very powerful episode, with some clever ideas, there were also some gaping plot holes and the alien's motivations were never fully developed.

The biggest "gaff" though was Team Torchwood's acceptance of their "two lost days" - in fact they almost seem to laugh it off, when you'd expect them to launch a major investigation into the fact they had no records, CCTV footage or memories from a 48 hour period!

Presumably when Gwen went home, Rhys would be able to tell her - and then the others - what had gone on.

Captain Jack's childhood flashbacks were interesting, but rather underwhelming as his home just appeared to some weird beachfront property you might expect from an episode of Grand Designs and the unseen, screeching aliens who killed his father, and presumably kidnapped his brother Grey, aren't even given a name!

Superficially, Adam is a very creepy, solid Torchwood episode, but it doesn't really stand up to scrutiny, throwing out lots of good ideas yet resolving few.

Next week, however, sees the arrival of Martha Jones (beautiful former companion to The Doctor)...

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Top Of The Pile: Captain America #34

Cap's back! Well, kinda... once anyone saw where this storyline was going it was no surprise to find that the new man behind the stars and stripes in Captain America #34 is James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes, Captain America's wartime sidekick.

It's a credit to Marvel (a phrase I didn't think I'd be writing anytime soon) and top writer Ed Brubaker that even through all the bruhaha surrounding the death of the original Captain America, this title has never once flagged - even without its named protagonist for the last year!

Brubaker has woven a masterful story - aided by the incredible art of Steve Epting - of a breathtakingly audacious, sweeping, Machiavellian plot by the Captain's arch-nemesis Red Skull to bring down the United States.

It's a wonderful, brave piece of storytelling that I hope just pays off in the end (Brubaker's never let us down yet, so I'm pretty positive this will become one of the comics of the year!).

I'll admit I'm not overly happy about Bucky/Cap waving a gun around - real superheroes don't use guns (and before anyone says anything: the Punisher is NOT a superhero, he's a vigilante/anti-hero at best), and while he does make some passing comment on the point, I'd like to see it addressed more confrontationally... if Bucky is to stay as the Marvel Universe's resident shield slinger.

Obviously, what I'd eventually like to happen is the return of Steve Rogers and the whole 'death thing' be shown to be some skrully/shapechanging hoax or some such... but, of course, then I'd be calling that a cop out, so I guess you can't have it both ways!

I'm really glad I've stuck with this comic (so many swore off it - and all Marvel titles - when Cap was killed), but my faith in Ed Brubaker as a storyteller has paid off and I'm sure there's a long way to go yet. I, for one, am definitely sticking around the ride.

And so a new era begins in Captain America, as one ends in Fantastic Four.

Fantastic Four #553 sees the end of Dwayne McDuffie's short run on this title, patching up the fall-out from the tragic Civil War mess.

And how better to go out than with a tale of a time-travelling Doctor Doom from the future coming back to stop Reed Richards enacting a plan to make the world a better place?

Doom claims it actually ruins everything... but the future Fantastic Four (who've travelled back to stop Doom from stopping Reed!) disagree!

A smoking hot Michael Turner cover, a beautifully illustrated story bursting with weird science and time paradoxes, multiple Fantastic Fours, Doctor Doom... what more could an FF fan ask for?

The next issue of Fantastic Four sees the arrival of The Ultimate's creative team - Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch - so the goodness should continue (as long as they can produce issues on a regular basis!).

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

DVD Of The Week: The Brave One (2007)

Jodie Foster does Deathwish! Once more proving that the fantastic Foster - who I have adored since I was a kid - can turn her hand to anything... by bringing an explotiation theme (the female revenge movie) into the mainstream with more balls than Charles Bronson (the actor rather than the convict!)

In The Brave One, Foster has gone from being the catalyst for vigilantism - in Taxi Driver - to the hand of justice herself; she plays New York radio host Erica Bain - whose show records the sights, sounds and memories of the everchanging city - who is ambushed by a gang of thugs in Central Park while out with boyfriend (Naveen Andrews of Lost fame).

The boyfriend dies and Erica is left in a coma for three weeks.

Returning home she quickly realises that she no longer feels safe in the city she loves and seeks security from an illegally bought gun.

The film - directed by Neil Jordan - starts amazingly; rounded characters are sketched in five minutes, the trigger event comes within ten minutes and everything continues with the solid
verisimilitude of a fly-on-the-wall documentary for the first hour.

Then the script - by Roderick and Bruce Taylor and Cynthia Mort - takes a dive for a while when Erica becomes, unconvincingly, entangled with a perv who kidnaps prostitutes; and then goes after an "untouchable" corrupt businessman that her friendly police detective (Terrence Howard) just happened to mention during a radio interview.

Not only does it seem strange that Erica should target this scumbag (I guess she thought she was doing the copper a favour), but also that she can get away with attacking such an obviously protected - and connected - businessman without calling down the wrath of New York's organised crime bosses!

She is much more convincing targetting street-level scumbags and thankfully things get back on track when the police, eventually, call her in to identify one of her possible attackers.

Events escalate to their obvious gunslingin' conclusion - but with a very surprising (and un-Hollywood, I thought) twist.

I have to admit I was not expecting such an un-PC ending; a big budget, contemporary Hollywood movie seemingly come out in favour of vigilante justice! But more power to it for sticking to its guns (quite literally).

My only real disappointment with the DVD is the cover - where's the original, stylish, grainy yellow film poster art? This DVD cover just says: "cheap, bargain bucket 80s thriller" whereas the original art said: "tough, 70s revenge film". Shame... but it's still a brilliant movie and just proves that you shouldn't judge a DVD by its cover.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Another Typical Day At Sunnydale High!

The twin curses of not having my gaming head in the zone when I rolled up to Andy's for our second episode of The Buffy The Vampire Slayer game on Sunday... and the dice gods turning their backs on me, meant that poor old Eddie Carvallo got the snot kicked out of him in Sunnydale's Restfield Cemetary by a newly risen vampire and only survived thanks to the intervention of the Slayer, Jez (as played by Mik).

Eddie had been doing a bit of investigation into the "freezing phantom" which had walked through his parents' home the night before and caused him such pain by passing through him. Little did he realise that his amateur ghosthunting antics would lead him into a worse world of hurt (and the prospect of having to create a new character after only 48 hours as a Sunnydale student).

A trail of clues from the school library led first to the Dragon's Cove Magic Shop (future site of The Magic Box) and then to a certain plot in the city's largest cemetary. Eddie, being oblivious to the Sunnydale's high incidence of neck trauma, then took his "note book of clues" and went ghosthunting.

It wasn't long before Eddie got ambushed by the vamp and I found myself burning off Drama Points to keep Eddie alive as I rolled a succession of "1"s for my various Dodge attempts (that matched the "1"s that had dogged me through my investigations).

Fang face had knocked Eddie down and was kicking seven shades of shit out of him before the cavalry came over the hill in the shape of Jez who sprung through the air, kicked the guy off me, pummelled him a bit then tore his head off before I could react!

Andy's character, Hugh, has the prestige of being the only survivor of the previous group of player characters and therefore has accrued a certain amount of Sunnydale-specific common sense, while Mik is such an immersive roleplayer that he even doodles "in character" and playing the Slayer, we should really leave the fighting up to him anyway... so what's Eddie's role in the party? Vamp bait!

Otherwise it had been a pretty ordinary second day at Sunnydale High, with Eddie failing to shine in most of his classes (I blame the utter terror of seeing his first, real 'live' ghost the night before) and getting saddled with a 5,000 word essay on Moby Dick and a 10,000 word creative writing project.

The Moby Dick work is due by the end of next week, the creative writing by the end of the year... as this rate he isn't going to be alive for either of those deadlines!

He got sneered at by Cordelia Chase, paired up with Jez as lab partners in biology and played the ineffective witness to a major stand-off between Jez and all of Cordie's crew in the quad at lunchtime... which resulted in Jez stomping off and venting her anger on the school's old bleachers.

Okay, the kid gloves are off... no more pussy-footing around for Eddie. It's time to do some serious research and prove his worth to the party (and himself).

Tomorrow (next game session - in about a fortnight) he's going to crack open the magic books and track down some scrying spells and possibly some defensive (or even offensive) magic, so he can better look after himself!

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Legend (1985)

And how better to follow Labyrinth than with another fairy tale - the oft forgotten early Ridley Scott/Tom Cruise venture: Legend, mainly memorable for the scenery-chewing turn by Tim Curry as The Lord of Darkness.

It came up in conversation the other month because someone (Steve, I think) mentioned how gutted he was when he discovered this wasn't a film adaptation of the late David Gemmel's first novel: Legend.

Ridley Scott's light-weight, fantasy flick couldn't be further from that gritty tale of swords and sorcery.

In a strangely effeminate role, Tom Cruise is the flighty Peter Panesque woodland resident Jack who helps his beloved Princess Lily (Mia sara) on her quest to save the last living unicorn and prevent The Lord of Darkness bringing eternal night to the magical forest kingdom where they live.

It's a simplistic tale, with little room for moral ambiguity, and yet very creepy.

The whole film is possessed of an unreal, dream-like quality, and has a certain degree of campness - with its bubble machines, soft focus, unicorns, dance routines and floppy-haired Tom in a chainmail miniskirt - but let's not overlook the fact that it also has a pretty wicked "dungeon crawl" sequence of its own when Jack (and his party of dwarves and fairyfolk) break into the Big D's castle.

It also features a fantastic suite of monsters, from the goblins and "orc-like" creatures who serve The Lord of Darkness to the water hag that ambushes Jack in the swamp.

What makes this - and Labyrinth - so good in my book though is the absense of CGI. As we all know good CGI can be an incredible asset to a movie, especially a fantasy one (just look at the battle scenes in the last two parts of the Lord Of The Rings saga), but CGI , or an overabundance of it (here I cite the Star Wars Prequels) can just make a film look like a video game.

These films used 'real effects' and animatronics, so the actors were reacting to "flesh and blood" creatures, not tennis balls on the ends of long sticks that would later be replaced with a computerised critter.

I guess, like with my gaming, I just have a soft spot for old school (hence Classic Trilogy over Prequels any day of the week - puppet Jabba beats CGI Jabba hands down!).

Labyrinth (1986)

My quest for Dungeons & Dragonsiness in films continues with the sublime Labyrinth from Jim Henson.

With a screenplay by Monty Python's Terry Jones, puppetry from the Jim Henson Creature Shop, designs by Brian Froud, production by George Lucas and music, as well as central performance, by David Bowie... what could go wrong?

In fact, very little. Although, primarily a children's fairy tale, there is still a lot that an older, more cynical eye could view as "inappropriate" - from beautiful 16-year-old Jennifer's Connelly's jiggliness to the Goblin King (Bowie's) expressed feelings for her - but that just gives Labyrinth that darker edge common to true Grimm Fairy Tales.

I do wonder also what younger viewers make of some of the stranger, Alice-in-Wonderland-like imagery, particualrly the ballroom sequence and the Escher-inspired staircases of the Goblin King's castle, but the film is always engaging and its spectacular visuals only falter occasionally when a dodgy piece of greenscreening is employed for certain effects.

Connelly plays Sarah, a dreamy teenager annoyed at having to babysit her younger brother Toby who wishes "goblins would come and take him away". When they do, she goes on a quest through the labyrinth to reach the castle beyond the goblin city where he is being held by Jareth The Goblin King.

In Dungeons And Dragons terms, while there may be very little actual fighting (until Sarah and her friends arrive at the goblin city), this remains one of the best live-action portrayals of a "dungeon crawl" that I can think of - complete with atmospheric corridors, secret passages, pit traps, talking statues, wandering monsters, etc

Sarah is joined on her adventure by a mixed species party of fellow adventurers including the gnome/dwarf Hoggle, the anthopomorphic fox Sir Didymus and the giant hairy beast Ludo (with the useful 'summon boulders' ability), which again makes it an interesting study from the gaming perspective with the different characters bringing different skills to the group and each adding their own dynamic.

As a fairy tale Labyrinth needs a moral and I guess it's about growing up and learning what's important (e.g. friendship and family over material possessions), but also the necessity of retaining a spark of child-like imagination and wonder.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Ashes To Ashes... The New Life On Mars...

Ashes to Ashes, the sequel to cult BBC cop show Life on Mars, made its debut last night... and wasn't half bad! Fears that you can't trap lightning in a bottle twice might have been premature as the show is very self-conscious in referencing its predecessor.

In this series single mum DI Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes), who has been studying the late Sam Tyler's psychological files, is shot by an apparent down'n'out and wakes up to find herself in London, 1981, with many of the character's from Sam's "dream world". The big difference is she is adamant it is all a mental construct and tries to use tricks that Sam discovered in Life on Mars to either get her out or contact her daughter.

The story started on shaky ground with a rather unconvincing sequence of DI Drake taking her young daughter to an active crime scene, where an armed man was holding a busker hostage, but - unsurprisingly - the show came alive once Alex was "back in the '80s" and DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) showed up with his trademark sexist bravado.

Life on Mars had its freaky, trippy moments, but they seem more 'in your face' in Ashes To Ashes, because I guess there is less need to try and slip it under the radar as a "cop show with some quirky moments"; it has a guaranteed core audience who know exactly what they are letting themselves in for!

A point was made of saying that Sam Tyler had died, after seven years in this 'fantasy world', but that his body had never been found after he drove his car into a river during a shoot-out; perhaps that means we might get a surprise visit from John Simm towards the end of this series?

With this show anything is possible... we even had Zippy and George from Rainbow show up last night, so we know all bets are off!

Welcome Archie!

Congratulations to Pete and Jeni on the birth of 8lbs 15oz Archie in the early hours of this morning!

Bottom Of The Pile: The Flash #236

Adding gimmicks to a tried and tested formula is the sure sign of a series having jumped the shark... and one of the most heinous is the sudden introduction of 'spunky young kids' to an established group (think Scrappy-Doo).

The current run of The Flash (pun intended) has brought in Wally West's two children - Iris and Jai - but while they are effectively 'new borns' they have been 'aged' by the speed force that gives Wally his powers as The Flash so they appear and act as pre-teens.

The problem is a simple one: this is nonsense. If we can accept this basic premise then we have to think it was very convenient that the twins stopped growing at such a "useful" age; rather than just racing through to geriatrics and dropping dead of a heart attack in their first story.

The powers the children have inherited are also very contrived; while Iris has the power to vibrate through solid objects - a variation of a basic Flash ability - Jai can "accelerate the growth of his muscle tissue". WTF? Again, there is no logic to this; especially given that every other member of the Flash dynasty has had basically the same powers as the first Flash (give or take a few subtle changes - normally in strength).

Artifically aging the children is clearly just a gimmick to give the Flash a couple of built-in sidekicks, despite the fact that he has worked fine as a solo artist for decades.

If DC wanted to give him parental responsibilities - an interesting sub-plot for any superhero - then why not leave the children as babies? That would have been far more interesting, to watch them grow and develop in 'normal' time in the chaotic and dangerous environment of a superheroic family lifestyle.

The story chosen to introduce the Wests as a family of superheroes to the DC Universe is an overly-drawn out, cut-price alien invasion story with little to make it memorable except Freddie Williams III's ugly artwork.

The back-up story, with far more attractive artwork by Doug Braithwaite, finally tied-in with the main story in this current issue, but after five or six issues (I've lost count) I really didn't care anymore.

The "headline" on the front of The Flash #236 asked the question: "Finished?" And I'm afraid I am. I've followed The Flash for years, especially the original Wally West era of the title, which crackled with originality and fine artwork, but was driven away when the title's focus shifted to young Bart Allen and got very messy indeed. Killing him off and bringing back Wally made me think the title would be returning to its glory days. Sadly, it hasn't and so I won't be staying either.
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