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Monday, 31 August 2009

Garden Watch: The Finishing Touches (Part One)...

As it was a Bank Holiday today - and thus the "official" time to do some DIY - Rachel spent the afternoon painting my shed and the tool shed with green protective, waterproof paint.

My shed now just needs shelves inside to become a fully functioning "scenery factory", where I can glue, paint, dry brush etc to my heart's content and create exotic, post-apocalyptic scenery for use on the games table.


I'd like to point out that I did help - in a very small way - by carrying the step ladder and going up town to get some more masking tape, for use around the windows (to keep the paint off).

I did offer to do some painting, but Rachel assured me that she was "well into it" or something.

Still feel a bit guilty though!

At The Fleapit: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

One of the reasons for Quentin Tarantino's continued commercial success is his ability to deliver the unexpected, defy conventions and serve up surprises to his audience.

Sometimes this doesn't work (for me it was Death Proof, Jackie Brown and Kill Bill Vol 2, but your mileage may vary), but more often than not he hits a home run and, boy, does he deliver with Inglourious Basterds!

It may be set, primarily, in Nazi-occupied France during the 1940s, but it is isn't really a war film as you might expect - Inglourious Basterds is more an espionage thriller with moments of extreme violence thrown in.

And yes, when the violence occurs, it isn't pretty - but then there are some things we do expect from a Tarantino flick.

Something else we expect is cool dialogue and, again, he doesn't disappoint. Of course, this being a period film his usual reperoire of pop culture references are rather limited, but the rhythm of the language (whether it's French, German or English) carries you along.

This is a film that mixes black comedy with high tension that twists your gut as a moment is drawn out to its inevitable conclusion, yet pulls no punches either with its very clear delineation between the "good guys" and the "bad guys".

Opening with the line "Once Upon a Time..." we know this is a fairy story, a heightened reality with no room for shades of grey, that eventually takes us into the realms of alternate history.

In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino gives us two parallel stories, heading for the same climax, even if the central players never actually meet.

The main dramatic story follows a young Jewish-French woman, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) who escapes the slaughter of her family and flees to Paris where she inherits a cinema from her aunt and uncle.

There she reluctantly befriends a German war hero, Private Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) who has become the star of a propaganda film about his exploits, that Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) eventually decides to premier at Shosanna's cinema.

Meanwhile, in the other story strand, Aldo The Apache (Brad Pitt) is leading his terror squad of Jewish soldiers - The Bastards - behind enemy lines, striking fear in the heart of the Nazis with their brutal tactics.

We actually see very little of The Bastards' brutality, it is all hearsay and legend; a reputation built on the terrified words of the few - scarred - survivors of their attacks.

Eventually, they are contacted by an English OSS agent about the planned movie premier in Paris that will attract all the top brass of German High Command. The Bastards' assignment is to get inside and blow the place up.

This is a film driven by character, and the actor's are certainly given the time to develop their roles. In the hands of a lesser writer (and director) this could have dragged, but Tarantino's ear guarantees that the movie's two-and-a-half hour duration is never a chore.

He also brings out top class performances from all his actors, especially Christoph Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa (aka The Jew Hunter, an incredibly well-drawn character, oozing evil superiority) and Brad Pitt as Lieutenant Aldo Raine.

Even Eli Roth (director of Hostel etc, whose acting roles are usually limited to background cameos) gives us an impressive turn as the baseball bat-wielding 'Bear Jew' Sgt Donny Donowitz.

Inglourious Basterds is a propaganda war, pitting the reputation of The Bastards against the reputation of the German war machine, as encapsulated in the movie-within-the-movie that is the story of Private Zoller.

By the end of the film, there is no doubting who triumphs, besides the audience.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Top Of The Pile: Superman #691

As Hannibal would say in The A-Team: "I love it when a plan comes together", so I think he would have appreciated the culmination of fellow army man General Lane's schemes in Superman issue 691.

In the final episode of the Codename: Patriot story arc, the many diverse strands of Lane's Machiavellian behind-the-scenes maneuverings fall into place when he manages to kidnap Mon-El framing Supergirl (blowing up protions of Metropolis in the process), trick Ral-Dar into attacking the President of The United States during a trade meeting with Markovia and turn the world against Superman, through his use of Morgan Edge's television show!

As an added bonus for the General, he also took the opportunity of saving the President to reveal to the world that he wasn't dead after all and had, in fact, been on a "deep undercover mission".

Looking forward to finding out how Lois is going to take all this - her father alive and her husband a traitor to Earth?

Throw in the revelation of General Lane's new base in a magical dimension (which makes the average Dungeons & Dragons world look very tame by comparison), home of his shapeshifting assistant Mirabai and this is an outstanding conclusion to this particular segment of this year's Superman story arcs.

Okay, so the artwork isn't the best in comics at the moment, but it's functional and serviceable, and it has its moments (ie the unveiling of Mirabai's world and the Superman/Ral-Dar chase across the skies of Europe) .

With General Lane also pulling the strings on New Krypton, it's going to be fascinating to see over the next few months how Superman deals with this ever-increasing mountain of trouble and bad publicity; and ultimately what the resolution of the whole New Krypton situation will be (I can't believe a planet of Supermen and women - and pets - on the other side of the Sun to Earth is going to remain a permanent fixture in the DC Universe).

Top Of The Pile: Fantastic Four #570

What a difference a month makes - and a change of creative team. The Fantastic Four are back where they belong (at the "top of the pile") under the steady hand of scribe Jonathan Hickman and artist Dale Eaglesham.

What immediately strikes you about this issue, in total contrast to the last few, is the bright, vibrant colours and excitement that leaps off the page, as opposed to the dire, dismal artwork that compounded the depression of Mark Millar's run on the title (yes, I'm not totally convinced by the "bulked-out" Reed Richards and the short sleeves on the uniforms, but these are minor, trivial details).

But, of course, the main saviour of Marvel's First Family is Jonathan Hickman, immediately throwing us into a wild story of super-science off the back of his excellent Dark Reign: Fantastic Four mini-series about Reed's device for scanning parallel dimensions and seeing how decisions played out in alternate worlds.

It's no real shock that the "shadowy figures" watching him in the mini-series turned out to be alternate Reeds from these other dimensions, but the big "wow" factor comes in his introduction to The Council of Reeds, a beautiful and mind-blowing idea that brings back pleasant memories of the Alan Moore/Alan Davis era of Captain Britain.

The Fantastic Four appear to be, once again, in the hands of a writer and creator who will, hopefully, be able to possibly recapture some of the magic that attracted me to this team during the days when John Byrne was writing and drawing their adventures.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Seeker Not Found...

Half way through the first of this week's two episodes of Legend Of The Seeker I simply lost interest.

It's not that the show is bad, it certainly isn't. It looks good, the effects are pretty decent for a TV budget, the main cast are all very competent - but I realised I was just watching it because it was "geeky" and that perhaps swords and sorcery just isn't my thing, after all!

Certainly not for TV viewing anyway.

I don't think the UK Sci Fi channel is doing itself any favours showing the series in two-episode blocks eother, even with Sky+ that's a big commitment every week to squeeze in around my other shows.

That's a lot of investment to ask of an audience and you'd expect something special back... and I, personally, just wasn't getting that from Legend Of The Seeker.

I was hoping for something new, I don't know what exactly, but the show just reminded me of countless sword and sorcery B-movies I've devoured over the years, just recycled with a slick, professional, 21st Century sheen and a surfeit of "bullet time" fight sequences.

I can't even say I'll miss it in my weekly viewing because I never remembered when it was on anyway, and just relied on the Sky+ box to record it for me.

It certainly wasn't an action show that I looked forward to at the moment (like True Blood, The Tudors, Chuck, Moonlight, The Wire, or Buffy The Vampire Slayer - daily reruns on FX)

If nothing else it should free me up some time to catch up on my backlog of The Wire.

Now if Legend Of The Seeker were set in modern times or featured a vampire...

Just kidding!

It was a good show - certainly a lot better than the disappointment, and slight embarrassment, of Krod Mandoon And The Flaming Sword Of Fire - but just not what I was looking for at the moment.

I still believe this facet of the fantasy genre is totally underserved by television companies, but I'm just waiting for an iteration that really grabs me.

Not In Kansas Anymore...



Not sure what happened to "no tights, no flights" on Smallville, but this teaser for Season Nine looks quite intriguing.

Not exactly sure either why Clark's proto-Superman costume is more Dark Knight than Man Of Steel, but Smallville is so far off the reservation these days that it's really only "the early years of Superman" in the names of the characters.

Still, on a good day, it's pretty exciting televisual superheroics... even if its connection to its comic book origins are increasingly tenuous with every passing season.

Here's hoping that Season Nine takes flight on UK television soon after its US debut.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Doctor Who RPG: A Brief Recap...

There has been a flurry of information recently about the on-coming storm that is Doctor Who: Adventures In Time And Space, the eagerly awaited role-playing game from Cubicle 7.

With the release date now set for November (hopefully around the time Waters Of Mars airs), we've heard about the core set, the gamesmaster's screen and the first supplement, but here are the official detailed listings from Cubicle 7:

Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space

Game Line: Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space

Category: Core Rules and setting

Retail Price: $59.95

Size: Boxed Game, 144pp Gamemaster’s Guide, 86pp Player’s Guide, 30pp Adventures Book, 4pp Quick Start Guide, Pre-generated Character Sheets, Blank Character Sheets, Gadget sheets, Story Point Tokens and Dice.

Interior Art: Full colour

Author: David F. Chapman et al.

Stock Code: CB71100

ISBN: 978-1-907204-11-1

Imagine you could go anywhere. This world or countless others, encountering strange alien races, new cultures or hostile environments. Now imagine you could travel to any time. See the pyramids and the Sphinx (back when she had a nose!), discover who (or what) really built Stonehenge, meet the first Emperor of Japan, or travel into the far future as humanity spreads to the stars. Where would you go?

With Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space, the power is in your hands! You can go anywhere or anywhen in the universe. It’s not going to be easy. It’ll probably be dangerous. The universe is a hostile place, full of Daleks, Slitheen, Krillitane, Sontarans, Plasmavores, Cybermen, Sycorax, Judoon and worse. There will be fear, heartbreak and excitement, but above all, it’ll be the trip of a lifetime.

Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is a roleplaying game set in the universe of the world’s longest running science fiction show on TV – the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Published in a boxed format, the core set includes:

• Player’s Guide
• Gamemaster’s Guide
• Adventure Book
• Quick Start Guide
• Character sheets, including pre-generated characters for the series cast
• Tokens and Dice

Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space has been written to appeal to both the experienced and first time gamer.

Doctor Who: Gamemaster’s Screen

Game Line: Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space

Category: GM Screen

Retail Price: $14.99

Size: 4 panel screen

Interior Art: Colour

Author: David F. Chapman and Dominic McDowall-Thomas

Stock Code: CB71101

ISBN: 978-1-907204-13-5

Packed with all the information a Gamemaster needs for easy reference during a session of Doctor Who, this 'deluxe' thick screen will last for years of Adventures in Time and Space.

Aliens and Creatures

Game Line: Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space

Category: Expansion

Retail Price: $39.99

Size: Boxed set, 180pp

Interior Art: Full colour

Author: David F. Chapman et al

Stock Code: CB71102

ISBN: 978-1-907204-30-2

In the vast expanse of space wait creatures beyond the imagination. Mutants housed in impenetrable armour, vast criminal families that disguise themselves in the skins of their victims, and thousands of cloned soldiers ready to conquer and crush.

But it's not all evil and danger out there. The songs of the peaceful enslaved echo through time, while others try to protect the weaker species in the endless night of space.

Aliens and Creatures is an expansion set for the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game. Within this box you will find:

• 148 page rulebook detailing many of the creatures faced in the Doctor's latest adventures including the Cult of Skaro, Davros, the Weeping Angels and the Hath, as well as additional rules for creating your own creatures both as enemies or as playable characters
• 32 page Adventure book, featuring a whole new ready-to-play adventure and many ideas for additional stories
• Additional Story Point Counters
• Alien Record Cards for easy reference

Doctor Who: Remembrance Of The Daleks (1988)

Marking the 25th anniversary of Doctor Who, The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and Ace (Sophie Aldred) return to where it all began in An Unearthly Child - namely Coal Hill School and the Totter's Lane junk yard in 1963.

Turns out that when the First Doctor was here, he was arranging the disposal of The Hand Of Omega, a dangerous piece of Time Lord technology that serves as this story's MacGuffin.

Now two contingents of daleks are after The Hand - to use it to make them as powerful as The Time Lords - one group serving The Dalek Emporer, the other Renegades (the daleks from Revelation Of The Daleks).

Ben Aaronovitch's script is packed to bursting point with dalek backstory, fantastic alien technology, nods to Doctor Who's past and plenty of opportunities for Ace to go into "full-on action" mode, especially when tooled up with her supercharged baseball bat.

There's even a nice passing reference to Bernard (Quatermass) and the British Rocket Group, which taken with the mention in the recent Planet Of The Dead is enough confirmation for me that Quatermass exists in the "same universe"... although I still await the story that ties in The Doctor with the last Quatermass story!

Remembrance Of The Daleks is pure, unadulterated geeky fanservice, a 'thank you' for 25 years of loyal support. Even Davros pops up in the final act (and the second disc in the new Special Edition DVD is devoted to a 45-minute documentary about the creator of the daleks). This would be his last appearance in the Classic Era, turning up again in The Stolen Earth, the climatic story arc of the fourth season of the new Doctor Who.

It's not a perfect story, being slightly convoluted, but McCoy is wonderfully sinister and manipulative as one of the most underrated incarnations of The Doctor.

There is no denying the slick majesty with which he ingratiates himself into the military surveillance operation when he first arrives on the scene, so that he is effectively running the show within minutes of turning up - even though no one knows who he is!

I was still having problems accepting Ace when I saw this as a kid, and while now I see she is the prototype "rough diamond" model for the Rose character of later years, I don't think we got the best of Ace until the end of her time with The Doctor on screen (and in the Big Finish audios, of course, which have reshaped people's opinions on many of the show's main characters by allowing them to develop beyond their TV personas).

* Davros Connections, the documentary on the second DVD, charts the character's life story both in the show and in the Whoniverse, interestingly giving equal weight to Big Finish stories and TV episodes.

Made in 2007, the film - which includes some incredible animations of segments from the Big Finish plays - runs from the I,Davros quartet, which explores his youth and formative years up to the eve of Genesis Of The Daleks, up until Terror Firma, an audio adventure with the Eighth Doctor.

The chronology is peppered with sound bites from actors who have taken the role and writers who have written for Davros, creating an informative guide to the megalomaniac's background.

It feels slightly truncated though by not referencing the character's return in recent Doctor Who. I know the film was made before then, but given the fact that it was included with a DVD only released a couple of months ago, surely a "final chapter" could have been added?

Given that Big Finish plays dominate large segments of this documentary, it also seems slightly cruel that they never once get an actual mention by name, only referenced as "the audios", until the name check in the final credits.

Anyone unfamiliar with Big Finish and watching this (which, let's be honest, is the vast majority of the television viewing public and probably even many Doctor Who viewers) could easily be mistakenly led into thinking these were BBC productions (not everyone hangs around to read the end credits of a documentary!)

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Films On TV: The Reaping (2007)

If you really want to give people a good scare and mess with their minds, turn to The Bible.

This is the recipe for success of the unholy trifecta of fear: The Exorcist, The Omen and Rosemary's Baby, and The Reaping is drinking from the same well.

While it's minor league compared to those unquestionable classics, The Reaping still - for the most part - relies on intelligent scripting, atmosphere and suggestion rather than totally going for the cheap, easy shocks.

It even manages to squeeze in a dose of The Wicker Man for good measure (the proper one, not the daft remake).

Hillary Swank is Katherine, a missionary-turned-scientist who travels the world debunking claims of religious miracles with her trusty sidekick Ben (Idris Elba, Stringer Bell from The Wire).

She is haunted by dreams of her dead husband and daughter - killed by a tribal shaman in the Sudan - and doesn't return the calls of fellow missionary Father Costigan (Stephen Rea).

Katherine is approached by Doug (David Morrissey), a school teacher in the American South whose town is beset with fears of Old Testament, Biblical plagues: a young boy was found dead by the river and now the river waters appear to have turned to blood. The townsfolk blame the boy's sister, Loren (AnnaSophia Robb) and there's whispers of "devil worship" and other strange practices.

When Katherine and Ben go to investigate, the plagues escalate, starting with a rain of frogs and heading towards locusts, nits, boils, darkness etc

Worthy of particular note is the monologue delivered by Katherine, at about the movie's mid-point, when she explains - scientifically - the 10 Biblical Plagues that were visited on the Ancient Egyptians (while standing in a field of dead and dying cattle).

Written by the duo responsible for House Of Wax, twin brothers Chad and Carey Hayes, The Reaping plays its cards pretty close to its chest until the final act when the ultimate revelations are made amidst bombastic special effects (complete with"wrath of God" fire raining down from the heavens).

There's a sneaky little twist right at the end, that possibly opens the window for a sequel, but to be honest the film works perfectly well as a standalone horror piece.

Like The Exorcist, if you follow the story through to the end, you discover The Reaping is actually quite pro-God and, despite the initial appearance of painting Bible belt residents as murderous fanatics, the film is actually about regaining lost faith (admittedly in a God with the special effects budget of a Hollywood blockbuster!).

While it's derivative, and most of the plot twists are predictable to anyone who has seen more than a couple of decent horror films, The Reaping is still a much better-than-average way to entertain yourself for an hour-and-a-half.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Tough Choices...

As I mentioned recently, the conjunction of increasing comic book prices and my own decreasing personal finances has finally meant I've been forced to make some drastic cuts to my monthly pull list from Paradox Comics.

There was a time when my list was dominated by Marvel titles, then gradually it shifted to a balance of DC and Marvel, but it's now almost entirely DC.

This move was helped by a succession of awful, money-draining "events" (One More Day, Civil War, Secret Invasion, Dark Reign) in the Marvel Universe, that were not only badly written themselves but led the Marvel Universe in a direction I had no interest in.

I also can't forgive Marvel for axing Captain Britain And MI-13.

Meanwhile DC was giving me grand epic "events", like Final Crisis (okay, I might not have entirely understood what was going on, but it was so artful that I didn't mind just being along for the ride) and now Blackest Night - which is shaping up to be the "event" to end all "events", under the masterful guidance of Geoff Johns.

Although I added the Batman/Doc Savage Special to my list this week (who wouldn't want to read that pulptastic, instant classic?), I've now dropped all the Ultimate titles from my list, along with Nova and Captain America.

I'm gutted to have to lose any of these, but the end of the Ultimatum Wave saga seemed as good a time as any to jump out of the Ultimate Universe. I read the first issues of the new look Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate Avengers this week and realised quite quickly that I could live without them (not impressed with the re-invention of The Red Skull as 'just another thug', despite the clever "son of Captain America" angle).

This brings to an end my desire to collect, and read, every Ultimate title from Marvel. The line was a great experiment, but, for me, it's time to draw a line under it and move on.

I've really enjoyed both Nova and Captain America, but I'll continue to get my cosmic character fix with Guardians Of The Galaxy and I'm seeing the Captain America: Reborn mini-series through to the end - I'm still saying it's too soon to bring Steve Rogers back though; Bucky Barnes never really had a chance to establish himself as the new Captain America. But, hey, that's not my problem any more!

The only Marvel titles I'm sticking with these days are The Fantastic Four (despite Mark Millar's best efforts, this is still my favourite team of characters), Guardians Of The Galaxy (as I've already mentioned), the two Stephen King titles (The Stand and The Dark Tower) and Thor (but only until JMS leaves the title).

I guess I'll be handing in my Marvel zombie credentials on the way out the door.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Aliens And Creatures Coming For The Doctor Who RPG...

Cubicle 7 has today revealed, via ICv2, its forthcoming boxed set supplement for the Doctor Who Roleplaying Game, which should hit shelves in December - a month after the main game.

Information on the supplement is as follows:

Creatures of Metal, Fire and Blood details the Doctor’s adventures against the Cult of Skaro, Davros, the Weeping Angels, and the Hath in a boxed expansion set for the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space Roleplaying Game. The set includes a 148-page rulebook, 32-page adventure book (both full-color), with a new scenario and scenario ideas, story point counters, and alien record cards. MSRP is $39.99.

However, Angus of Cubicle 7 twittered that: "the name of the ... supplement has changed" and it is now called simply Aliens & Creatures.

Personally I'm excited by the revelation that Cubicle 7 is going old school and releasing box set supplements; I can't wait to have them all lined up on my shelves!

It really sounds as though this game is going to be the work of art it deserves to be.

The Week In Geek...

A round-up of geeky news you might have otherwise missed...

(1) Swine Flu Defeats The Doctor: The release of the Doctor Who Role Playing Game has been pushed back two weeks, to early November, after key members of staff at publisher Cubicle 7 were struck down with swine flu. However, the game is now available for pre-order on Amazon.co.uk

(2) Martian Madness: A John Carter of Mars film, called Princess of Mars, with ex-porn star Traci Lords in the Dejah Thoris role, is due out on December 29 from Asylum. This is not to be confused with the big budget 2012 Disney movie starring Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins.

(3) Return To Devil's Cape... With Sherlock Holmes: Long-time friend of HeroPress and author of the 2008 HeroPress Book Of The Year, Devil's Cape, Rob Rogers has a short story included in a new anthology, The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Rob's story is The Adventures of the Pirates of Devil’s Cape.

(4) Torture-Porn Movie Banned: Japanese horror flick Grotesque has been refused a certificate in the UK and therefore selling or supplying the DVD is now illegal.

(5) Close Encounters of The Imaginary Kind: Archive documents reveal that increases in alleged UFO sightings are fueled by mass media, such as The X-Files and Independence Day.

(6) Active October: Season Two of Dollhouse is said to be debuting in the UK on October 20, on The Sci Fi Channel.

(7) Big Bang, Big Hit: Ace geek comedy The Big Bang Theory is attracting massive audiences in reruns - nearly equaling stablemate Two And A Half Men, America's top rated comedy.

(8) Zombie Bar: An undead-themed bar has lurched to life in Minneapolis!

(9) Video-in-Print: The September issue of Entertainment Weekly will feature a slim-line screen, the size of a mobile phone display, showing CBS programme previews.

(10) Romance With Bite: Even venerable publishers Mills & Boon are getting in on the "supernatural romance" craze.

(11) Mouse Guard Nabs The Cheese: The Mouse Guard RPG has been named Game of The Year in the seventh annual Indie RPG Awards.

(12) Doctor Gets Animated Again: The BBC has revealed the first image from its upcoming Doctor Who cartoon, Dreamland, which will be available via several different avenues.

(13) Walking Dead Takes Bite Out Of Best-Seller List: Volume 10 of Robert Kirkman's Walking Dead graphic novel series has entered the New York Times best-seller list at number one (for paperbacks).

(14) 3D TV: Channel 4, in the UK, is going to start showing 3D programmes in an attempt to change the way we watch TV.

(15) Next Stop - World Domination: The Guild's music video (Do You Wanna Date My) Avatar has gone straight in at number one in the UK's iTunes chart.

(16) Hedgehog Joke 'Best At Festival': A one-liner from Dan Antopolski's Silent But Deadly show at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival has won the award for the best joke.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Talkin' 'Bout My Regeneration...



A 20-minute interview with Russell T Davies and David Tennant, in the wake of San Diego Comic Con, talking about the end of their run on Doctor Who (courtesy of BoingBoing Video).

Enjoy!

Our 'African' Adventure...

This weekend's adventure took Rachel and I to Africa... well, a very convincing representation of Africa care of Port Lympne Wildlife Park in Kent.

We spent the morning wandering, mainly, around the primate section; being particularly in awe of the mighty Western Lowland Gorillas who entertained passers-by by rampaging around their enclosure in a very dangerous game of tag (see below).

Having never seen one of these incredible beasts in the flesh before I was amazed by the sheer strength and speed of them - television and films has done them a severe injustice!

Otherwise we saw around half-a-dozen species of monkey, all of which were stunningly acrobatic, whether scampering around their large enclosures or, as in the case of the black and white Colobus monkeys, jumping from tree-to-tree.

After a quick picnic - during which Rachel was almost traumatised by dive-bombing wasps - we embarked on The African Experience tour bus ride, which takes parties of visitors out into the vast acreage of the park in large trucks.

One of the highlights of this 'safari', especially for Rachel, was the four or five giraffes, standing by the rough, pot-holed track that passed for a road. A couple of them were quite inquisitive (although I'm sure they've seen these trucks countless times) and came right up close, almost - but not quite - putting their heads into the back of the truck where we were all seated.

The one pictured above just stared at us all for minutes, calmly chewing (with his mouth open).

The trucks wound up and round the park (past rhinos, elephants, ostriches, hunting dogs etc), to The Livingstone Lodge, an area of wooden huts and tents where it is possible to stay overnight to really get the full 'safari' experience (we're seriously considering doing this, but it isn't cheap).

Also up there is The Discovery Centre; a reptile house with snakes, lizards, spiders and a pair of the cutest little Pygmy Marmosets (one pictured below).

With claws instead of fingers, they probably wouldn't make the ideal house pet, but I couldn't resist asking Rachel if, perhaps, we could take one home. I was mesmerised by this one's lyrical singing voice - which I took to be his appeal to us to liberate him. Rachel wasn't convinced!

At the end of the tour, we strolled back past the caged area where these majestic Barbary Lions were sunning themselves and watching us "walking Happy Meals" with obvious contempt.

It was this breed of lion that the Ancient Romans used in the Colosseum to snack on uppity Christians and I'm quite sure there was some of that racial memory sparking through these beauties' brains as they were picking out their targets!

Our photographs from the day can be found here.

We were pleased that we decided to do The African Experience tour, because the walk up and down the steep gradients of the part of the zoo that we managed to see in the morning had knackered me out; and by that stage we had seen very little of the site.

There were still large swathes left unexplored, but that makes a return visit all that more appealing - although I would have to go an see the Pygmy Marmosets again... and the gorillas... and the howler monkeys... and the baboons... and...

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Fleeced!

Now that we have the garden in fully-working order, it's a shame - while the summer lasts - not to use it and so Rachel suggested, after we'd lounged around in it for a couple of hours (post-European Grand Prix) listening to podcasts (me) and the radio (Rachel), that we play a board game.

Rachel disappeared inside the house and returned with Fleeced! The Wallace and Gromit-themed game of sheep-rustling (which Nick and Clare had given us the other year).

Devised by Nick Park himself, you take the role of Aardman characters (I was Gromit, Rachel was Shaun The Sheep) and attempt to first find the missing sheep and then rustle them back to your home.

Like funfair ducks, each sheep token has a number on its base, but you don't check these until the end of the game and its adding these numbers that creates your final total and decides the victor.

Along the way you pick up "cheese" cards, which act like Fortune cards, but also equipment cards; some grant special abilities (e.g. rolling two dice instead of one or jumping to any square), while others give you "keys" to unlock buildings where sheep might be hiding; and others (Hard Cheese cards) are penalties (often sending you to the police station, to miss a turn).

What we discovered is that game starts slowly, as you feel your way around the board - collecting "cheese" cards until you get a "key" - but then things snowball and once someone starts moving a train of sheep around the board, towards their home, all bets are off as other players swoop in and try and steal them for themselves.

The game comes with six plastic sheep whistles as well, which you are supposed to blow every turn you attempting to move your sheep, but we got a bit forgetful on this and will probably enforce it more rigidly in future games.

We made a few other minor slips (such as, somehow, losing one entire sheep hideout), but the game was still great fun and surprisingly cut-throat and strategic for something, ostensibly, aimed at children.

I won by 55 sheep to 23, by the way.

DVD Of The Week: Tokyo Gore Police (2008)

Simply put, Tokyo Gore Police is quite possibly one of the craziest, most mixed-up movies I've ever enjoyed.

Merrily playing hopscotch along the line between genius and insanity, decorated with more severed limbs than you'd ever want to see and almost certainly the largest volume of free-flowing blood, there is no escaping the "gore" in the film's title.

Set in the near future, with a recently privatised police force controlling the city and freaky cybernetic mutants, known as "engineers", running rampant, Tokyo Gore Police tells the story of Ruka (Eihi Shiina) - the Force's top "engineer hunter".

The katana-wielding cutie is haunted by dreams of the death of her father (also a police officer) and is plagued by a penchant for self-harming.

The movie mixes the body horror of David Cronenberg with the dystopian future and dark humour of Robocop, but just as you think it can't get any more over-the-top it pushes the envelope that bit further like a live-action anime where literally anything is possible.

The engineers have a power which may be scientific or supernatural (but most likely somewhere in between) to transform any wound into a weapon, leading to such mind-hammering creations as phallus cannons and breasts that spray acid.

In pursuit of a particularly methodical serial killer, Ruka, begins to find herself turning into an engineer as she is simultaneously drawn into mystery of her father's murder and the police impose a major crack-down on engineers (and anyone who shows the slightest resistance to their investigations).

There are definitely shades of Buffy The Vampire Slayer in there as well, with an attractive protagonist raised to fight monsters that she discovers she has a dark connection with but as blood-splattered satires go, Tokyo Gore Police is in a class of its own.

Enduring images will be seared into brain - from the police chief's quadriplegic gimp pet to the physically re-sculpted prostitutes in the night club (the human chair is truly disgusting) - but Tokyo Gore Police isn't just about the shocks, at its heart is a solid (if a bit hackneyed) mystery-revenge story that allows the horrific action to evolve around it.

Add in some random TV adverts for self-harming knives, supersharp swords and the Tokyo Police Corporation, and you've got almost two hours of crazy that is quite happy to swing from extreme violence to the poignancy of Ruka surveying the aftermath of a slaughter by her fellow officers.

Be warned though, where Western films might cut away and fade to black, Tokyo Gore Police lingers that bit longer and, yes, the special effects are often quite primitive puppetry but that doesn't make them any the less suggestive. You don't need a multi-million pound CGI budget to get under an audience's skin.

Certainly not for the feint of heart or easily disturbed, Tokyo Gore Police makes Hollywood nonsense like the Saw and Hostel franchises look like the silly little homemovies they are by not sacrificing plot and character on the altar of excess, using the gore instead to paint a picture that actually tells a story.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

I Got Nothing...

You know sometimes real life can get in the way of this wonderful pastime we call blogging; sometimes you think you've got a free afternoon and suddenly a mountain of "real world demands" falls in your lap and has to be dealt with immediately.

Well, that's finally caught up with me - the perpetual Gentleman Of Leisure - and so I've got nothing (yet) for today's post.

I can promise though, if you come back tomorrow, there'll be a new DVD Of The Week that I'd like to hear your thoughts on (if you know the film or just think it sounds like your cup of tea).

Don't worry - I'm not packing up HeroPress just yet... still got plenty of ideas for future features and columns, and am always willing to entertain submissions from passing bloggers and fellow geeks!

And don't forget to check out some of my favourite blogs via the icons in the right hand column (and tell 'em The Acrobatic Flea sent you)

Ladies & Gentlemen, It's Been A While...

Hello, again, patient readers. It's been a few weeks since our last new recruit, but now we can can welcome to the ranks of the HeroPress superteam:

* Ralph of Contreras Designs: Comic Book Graphic Design

Friday, 21 August 2009

Top Of The Pile: Blackest Night #2

With individual comic book prices at an all-time high, and personal finances heading for an all-time low, harsh decisions will soon have to be made about what has to be axed from my pull-list.

This is made doubly difficult with the increasing amount of quality - or at least, quality-sounding - material being pumped out by large numbers of comic book publishers in these difficult financial times (I guess they've got to make as much money as they can as well).

However, if there is one stamp of quality assurance in comic books these days it's the name Geoff Johns on the cover.

And Blackest Night is shaping up to be his magnum opus. Although primarily this could be looked at as a Green Lantern story, as it stems from that particular mythos, and Hal Jordan is a central character in the story so far, it clearly embraces the whole of the DC Universe.

There is a not a corner of the DCU that hasn't been touched by death at some point, which makes fertile "recruiting" ground for Black Hand and his legion of black rings, which restore the dead to life in a state somewhere between your classic zombie and the demons of Supernatural.

Although the walking dead have the bodies, and memories, of dead heroes and their loved ones, I'm not 100 per cent convinced at the moment that it is actually them "inside" those rotting meat suits.

Although playing with many horror tropes, Blackest Night moves along with the pace and excitement of a breathless action thriller.

This issue centres on Hal Jordan and Barry Allen (The Flash) fighting the resurrected Martian Manhunter, while a gathering of the DCU's more supernatural-orientated characters confront the terrifying prospect of the near-omnipotent Spectre being turned to the dark side and Mera, Garth and a handful of Atleantean soldiers get chunks taken out of them by undead sharks (wickedly gruesome) and born-again Aquaman, Tula and Dolphin.

Throw in a couple of sub-plots involving Hawk and Dove, Boston Brand and The Atom and this is shaping up to be the best read of the year - and a certainty to remain firmly in my pull-list and at the top of my reading pile every month.

I Used To Be A Werewolf, But I'm Alright Nooooowwwwww!



And another great looking horror/monster movie trailer, just released to be the big wide world web: The Wolfman, a remake of the Universal original, that appears to capture the period grandeur and mystique of those lovely old 1930s and '40s movies.

The Wolfman is due to open on February 12, 2010.

Oh, and here's a teaser for some little, low-budget sci-fi effort called Avatar that you might have heard mentioned in passing on the Interwebs.



Without knowing much more about it (and you know how I hate to know too much about a film before going to see it), at the moment it just looks like Starship Troopers or Aliens with some giant blue people wandering around in the mix.

It appears potentially spectacular, but so far I see no evidence of a particularly original story - but I'm willing to be won over (probably quite easily).

Avatar opens in the States on December 18.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Paul Brings The Horror Again...

My good mate Paul is currently in Scotland, working in a near empty flat before he can move down to London to be with his girlfriend, Polly.

This has left him with a lot of time to, once again, trawl the Interwebs for horror movie trailers and here's this week's trio of forthcoming delights (Legion,The Fourth Kind, and Survival Of The Dead).

All are great in their own way: you can't go wrong with a Biblical smackdown, gun-toting angels and demonic grannies spouting f-bombs and scampering up the wall (Legion); you can never have too many zombie movies from the master George Romero (Survival Of The Dead); and while I have some reservation about any science-fiction/fantasy/monster film that claims to be "based on true events", because some dumb people out there will believe it really is, Milla Jovovich's alien abduction yarn (The Fourth Kind) looks suitably creepy and exciting.



The Stars Are Right For Witches Everywhere...

New supplements, adventures, comics and the possibility of a live-action Princess Lucinda movie - these are exciting times for fans of Malcolm Harris' Witch Girls Adventures roleplaying game.

Malcolm told me: "We are in talks with a lot of different people about a Princess Lucinda movie. We actually have an actress interested and I'm writing the first draft of the script based on the [comic book] limited series."

He explained that the film would be Princess Lucinda's "origin story", starting in her world, Bruja, and following her through to ours.

Lucinda, and her sister, were sent to our world when her parents - the despotic rulers of Bruja - were overthrown by the forces of good.

The backstory of the Princess will also be spelled out in a comic book limited series (the basis for the movie), with issue one due out in late October.

Each issue of the comic will have seven to 10 pages of Witch Girls Adventures game material in it, detailing the world of Bruja - which will become the game's "traditional fantasy setting".

This editorial will include new Cliques (renamed 'Callings' in this setting), skills, heritages and everything the players need to create characters for that world.

The first supplement due out soon, for the game, however, is a PDF entitled All About The Voodollars, which Malcolm assures me should only cost $2 at most.

After that, Pirates of Buccaneer Hill, the game's first adventure, should be ready, followed by the first issue of 13 Magazine and then Moonshadow Circle, a guide to a magical town.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Gott In Himmel!

Before 2000AD and American superhero comics, I read whatever comics were available to a young British lad in the 1970s - mainly war comics and Roy Of The Rovers (I even made myself a Melchester Rovers Subbuteo table football team, but that's another story).

Leading the charge for the war comics was Battle Picture Weekly and now WH Smiths has on sale, exclusively, a 64-page souvenur special, to mark the 60th anniversary of D-Day, which reprints a selection of classic old strips.

Depicting tales from the First and Second World War, Battle Picture Weekly's strips ranged from D-Day Dawson (the brave Tommy critically wounded on D-Day and only given a year to live, who returns to the front utterly fearless because he knows he has nothing to lose) to Hellman (commander of the German Panzer Division known as 'Hammer Force').

There are several strips I remember quite distinctly from 30 years ago, namely the James Coburn-lookalike Major Eazy, drawn exquisitely by Carlos Ezquerra, and Dirty Dozen clones The Rat Pack.

Taking lead characters from both sides of the conflict, none of these stories glorify war in the slightest, rather they celebrate bravery with some - such as The Battle Badge Of Bravery and Iron Cross Of Courage being dramatic retellings of true life incidents, not all with a happy ending, but all highlighting the heroics of the protagonists, be they Allied troops or Germans.

In between the strips are replica adverts from the time - almost all for stamp collecting (remember there was no Internet then to distract young boys!) - and a sampling of the letters' column (Battle Stations) where boys debated the relative merits of various fighter aces or recounted anecdotes about their relatives war-time experiences.

Still a thrilling read today, there is - understandably - a certain naïveté about the storytelling that allows the Germans, almost every strip, to proclaim: "Gott In Himmel!" and other delightful phrases (sadly, no sign of an "Achtung, Spitfire!" which was always popular in the junior Flea household).

From publisher Egmont's press release about this reprint: "Battle began life in 1975 and ran for 13 years. Filled with action-packed, thrilling stories mainly set during the Second World War, Battle fired the imaginations of countless boys, many of whom had a surviving relative from the war. From the exploits of the unconventional soldier Major Eazy to the realistic portrayal of WW1 life in Charley’s War, Battle was was the first of a new wave of British Comics that featured rugged realism from cover to cover."

There's a Roy Of The Rovers souvenir issue out as well, so I'll have to hunt that down, and a rather cracking "personalised" Roy Of The Rovers book, which puts you in the middle of the action as the latest signing for the legendary Melchester Rovers!

Films On TV: Reeker (2005)

SPOILERS AHEAD!

Reeker
is a genuinely bad film - not for the production values and the acting, because these are all reasonably good. It's not even boring; it's just the story is simply a waste of 90 minutes of your life.

David Payne (writer/director/producer) is trying hard to put a new spin on the "teen road trip ends in horrific disaster" movie, but instead strays out of his depth into the domain of far, far superior films like Carnival Of Souls and Jacob's Ladder.

All of which, in turn, owe a massive debt of gratitude to Ambrose Bierce's original 1890 short story An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge.

Reeker sets up a typical eclectic band of American college students heading to a rave in the desert; only they don't make it because their car breaks down and they find themselves stranded at an abandoned motel.

However, they are not alone... as well as seeing visions of dead and mutilated people and finding cryptic messages scrawled in vandalised Bibles, there's a strange gaseous being seemingly hunting them, which manifests itself as an undead cyborg with various drill attachments.

In retrospect, you realise that a lot of what happens to the characters and what they see is supposed to be "significant", but it's not. It's totally random.

To be honest ANYTHING could have happened to them before the "twist" ending and a willing (gullible?) audience would have found a way to justify it - human beings have an inbuilt knack of finding patterns, in random events, that aren't there.

Certainly one of the worst 'horror' movie I've seen in a long time, Reeker (more aptly named "Stinker"!) is a shallow, one-trick pony that squanders its one trick.

While the film manages to be mildly exciting for a while, it soon begins to dawn that there is no logic or plot behind what is happening, no use of foreshadowing or any other basic storytelling tool that encourages the audience's investment in the unfolding events.

There is very little that can be taken from this film - except maybe an object lesson in how not to write a horror movie.

The biggest shocker of the whole debacle is how the filmmakers managed to get Michael Ironside to appear in it; although, admittedly, he does look slightly embarrassed for the few scenes he's on camera.

And Still They Come...

British zombie manufacturers Studio Miniatures has just released its latest batch of shambling undead, bringing its output to four zombie mobs (and two survivors - Cole and Mia).

All their figures are available in either white metal or resin.

Meanwhile, Mark from Griffin Miniatures, which has already produced its 20-strong zombie (and five survivors) range of Survivor: The Walking Dead, recently told HeroPress of plans for more heroic scale (ie 32mm) zombies for later this year.

"I expect that at the end of the Summer holidays that I will be able to ... start working on the range. When the new sets are ready you should see zombies like the dog walker, dragging half a dog corpse behind them, and the Hare Krishna zombie," he said to whet our appetite.

Zombies from both Studio Miniatures and Griffin Miniatures feature in the growing HeroPress horde of Project Z.

Resistance Is Futile...

Picking up on the recent HeroPress trend for edible geekery, Darius Whiteplume of Adventures in Nerdliness 'tweeted' about the selection of Doctor Who cakes over at Cake Wrecks, and Clare - who knows my sweet tooth - sent me the link as well.

As she said: "Imagine a cake that's bigger on the inside than on the outside... yum!"

Of course, it's only three months to my birthday if anyone's thinking of duplicating one of these...

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Week In Geek...

A round-up of geeky news you might have otherwise missed...

(1) Surviving The Zompocalypse: Go behind-the-scenes of George Romero's latest zombie movie: Survival Of The Dead. It is also possible now to "follow" George on Twitter.

(2) Dead Walk Into TV Series: The amazing, ongoing zombie comic series from Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead is to be transformed into a TV series, written and directed by Frank Darabont.

UPDATE 12.45pm (3) There is no news item number three this week... move along, nothing to see here...

(4) Spidey-Farce: Spider-Man musical on Broadway allegedly runs out of money before it even opens, according to the New York Post.

(5) Dr Who's Greatest Moments: A one-hour special will be shown on BBC Three this Thursday at 8pm about David Tennant's time as the 10th Doctor. The first of three shows is called Doctor Who Greatest Moments: The Doctor.

(6) Vampires Vs Werewolves In 3D: Work is beginning on the next episode in the Underworld franchise... and it's to be filmed in 3D. Kate Beckinsale is believed to be returning as well.

(7) Be Yourself: Check out this short, humourous (and certainly NSFW) faux Public Service Announcement from Megan Fox to promote Jennifer's Body.

(8) Here's Pee-Wee: Disgraced actor Paul Reubens is returning to the role that made his name, Pee-Wee Herman, in an adult-themed stage show.

(9) Battlestar Galactica Lives Again Again: Bryan Singer is to direct a movie of Battlestar Galactica, but reimagining the original 1970s series.

(10) Superman's 'Origin' In Dispute: Legal wranglings over the rights to Superman have taken another strange turn with Warner Brothers and DC Comics losing the rights to the Man Of Steel's origin story!

(11) Victorian Zombies: Wildstorm is releasing a six-issue comic book mini-series in November about the undead in Victorian London.

(12) Mysterious Cave Complex Under Giza Pyramids: British explorer claims to have found lost underworld of the pharaohs.

(13) 4th Edition Dominates ENnies:Unveiled at this year's Gen Con the 2009 ENnie Awards were dominated by 4th Edition - Dungeons & Dragons 4e won the Product Of The Year and Best Rules categories; 4e Monster Manual was named Best Monster/Adversary (Supplement); D&D Insider was Best Aid Or Accessory; and Wizards Of The Coast took Best Publisher.

(14) The Dare Is Over: Daring Entertainment, publishers of the Savage Worlds' superheroic setting Dawn Of Legends, has fallen foul of the economic climate and is closing its doors.

(15) Our Survey Says...: Inkwell Ideas is conducting a RPG Blog Readers Survey, please take a moment to answer the 25 questions (if you read HeroPress for my RPG coverage, that is!)

(16) What A Tangled Web We Write: Spider-Man 4 may not even be out yet, but Sony have given the job of penning episodes 5 and 6 of the franchise to James Vanderbilt.

(17) 28 Comics Later: Boom! Comics is releasing a new on-going series set in the world of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later movie, and it's sequel 28 Weeks Later.

(18) Surviving The Zompocalypse II: A mathematical model, from Canadian researchers, for surviving a zombie attack!

Monday, 17 August 2009

A World In Miniatures...

Rachel and I have been talking about visiting Leonardslee Gardens in Sussex for ages and finally, this weekend, decided we could procrastinate no longer.

Leonardslee is a magnificent sprawling garden, which slopes down in a sleep dip to a series of lakes. It just so happened that when we went (yesterday) there was a model boat regatta on the lakes, otherwise I don't think Rachel would have got me down the sloping paths to the bottom of the valley (the long-winding path back up out of the valley nearly finished me off as it was!)

The regatta was a splendid array of radio controlled boats, of all different sizes and designs, from a pirate ship (pictured above) to a tug boat (see video below), aircraft carriers, plenty of yachts etc

Just past the greenhouses at the entrance to the garden is a small collection of buildings hosting a selection of displays. In one is half-dozen Victorian cars, which I believe do the London-Brighton run every year. One of them once belonged to the 19th Century inventor Sir David Salomons, whose house Rachel and I got married in!

There was also a sculpture exhibition on while we were there, but the building that really caught our eye - and one of the main reasons we came to Leonardslee - was "Beyond The Dolls House" exhibition.

Believed to be the largest dolls house display in the country, this isn't just a single, elaborate house, but a whole village - with a pub, church and graveyard, department store, a large farm, numerous smaller dwellings.

Everywhere you look in this display something is going on, as well as having some of the figures animated mechanically, none of the 1/12th scale characters are in static poses; everyone is caught in an active pose that really gives the display a sense of vibrancy.

I managed to take a few photographs, but they're rather blurry because the dolls were behind protective glass and my poor, old camera isn't the best for zoom focusing. However the Leonardslee website has an entertaining video that should give you a better idea.

Rachel and I were also rather smitten by the field of wallabies behind the main stately home (which is closed to the public, but appears to be available for business conferences and such like). There were even quite a few of the rare white/albino wallabies.

Pictures from around the gardens (including the regatta, the wallabies, the sculptures, the rock garden etc) can be found here.

If all that wasn't enough, the gardens have an excellent restaurant where I enjoyed a gorgeous cottage pie for lunch, followed a couple of hours later by a cream tea. I wouldn't call the restaurant cheap, but I'm pretty sure all the food was hand cooked and the staff were very generous with their portions.

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