Thursday, 30 April 2015
The key takeaway from Avengers: Age of Ultron is that, for Marvel Cinematic Universe fans, it delivers what it promises. However, if you're not already even slightly invested in the franchise this probably isn't a good place to start.
While the original Avengers movie felt like both a natural extension of the solo hero movies that had gone before it and a self-contained entity, Age Of Ultron is very much a part of a greater whole, with many of the sub-plots and Easter Eggs laying the groundwork for what is to come (particularly in 2017's Thor: Ragnarok, 2018's Black Panther and the 2018/19 Avengers: Infinity War).
Having retrieved Loki's scepter from Hydra's Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), Tony Stark has a glimpse of the future where he is responsible for the death of the Avengers and decides, with the aid of Bruce Banner, to push ahead with the Ultron project to create an artificial intelligence to protect the world from future alien invasions.
Ultron has other ideas.
Age of Ultron is a truly comic book movie, with its ever-increasing cast of characters to its multiple sub-plots and story arcs. There's a lot crammed in here and it feels like a long movie - but in a good, value-for-money way. Even when writer/director Joss Whedon takes his foot off the accelerator for some necessary downtime, the film never drags.
Joss juggles a lot of balls here and most elements pay off really well (the running gag about Cap's attitude to the more potty-mouth members of the team is great, but rather fizzles out, while the team's playful efforts to lift Thor's hammer has a wonderful pay-off later in the film).
I was really pleased to see Whedon positioning Hawkeye as the heart of the team, but it did generate a nagging sword-of-Damocles feeling that maybe Clint was heading in the same direction as Wash (from Serenity).
S.H.I.E.L.D. also popped up towards the end of the movie, doing what "S.H.I.E.L.D. is supposed to do", which rather suggests that this all takes place some time in the near-future of the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show.
As well as introducing two new 'enhanced' characters, namely Pietro Maximoff aka Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), without wasting time on 'origin stories' for the twins, the film gives us the most interesting new addition to the Avengers roster: The Vision (Paul Bettany).
With input from multiple sources into his creation, the android is fascinating personality and I can't wait to see how he develops in future movies.
There's also an unexpected romance at the core of Age Of Ultron, that works really well, being so well-written that it makes sense even if you never saw it coming.
On the downside, I was slightly underwhelmed by James Spader's Ultron, although he was the all-powerful antagonist you would have expected from a rogue AI, he wasn't the sinister evil the trailers had been cut to portray but rather a petulant child prone to bouts of Whedonesque snark.
The character itself felt like a bit of a fudge, as it's set up to be the first artificial intelligence (and certainly runs out of control as predicted in James Barrat's depressing and rather terrifying Our Final Invention). But Stark already has his long-established Jarvis program - which appears, to all intents and purposes, to be an AI working perfectly fine with its human counterparts.
This is where comic book reality clashed uncomfortably with attempts to inject some real world science into the mix.
Age of Ultron also, for some reason, adopted the darker colour palette of the DC Universe films. I hope this is a one-off shift rather than a major misstep in the wrong direction for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Minor glitches aside, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a magnificent continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe storyline as it heads towards the cosmic dust-up scheduled to go down in Infinity War.
Wednesday, 29 April 2015
The fragile truce between the Winchester brothers is tested again when Sam unearths a possible case for them to investigate, but Dean has become increasingly obsessed with tracking down Abaddon after killing Magnus with the First Blade in Blade Runners.
While Sam heads off, Dean is struggling to cope with the side effects of using the Mark of Cain, and when he can't find answers at the bottom of a bottle, he begrudgingly turns to Crowley - who is more than willing to offer support!
The violent murders that Sam is looking into are proving difficult to crack until he meets Julia Wilkinson (Jenny O'Hara), an ex-nun, who tells him about an undercover visit to the town decades ago by the Men of Letters - in the form of Sam's grandfather Henry (Gil McKinney) and Josie Sands (Alaina Huffman) - the future host of Abaddon.
As Julia's tale progresses, it becomes clear that we are hearing the origin story of the Josie-era Abaddon, and the fact that Abaddon let a witness to her transition survive is the the one slight weakness in this story.
Of course, if she hadn't, then we wouldn't have had a story and Sam wouldn't have unearthed the latest element in the Knight of Hell's masterplan for domination of the infernal realm.
Minor flaw aside, Mother's Little Helper is yet another powerful episode, really driving the the main season arc forward, giving us insight into Abaddon's schemes while simultaneously revealing - without going into the details - that Crowley is, unsurprisingly, playing Dean.
To what end? Who knows? But it's sure to be an interesting ride with an unhappy ending for someone.
Tuesday, 28 April 2015
Monday, 27 April 2015
Achievement unlocked! Rachel is calling it "probably the hardest thing [Tim has] done physically in 10 years", but the sponsored walk is done and dusted.
I may try and kid myself that growing up in Pembury (essentially a sleepy suburb of Tunbridge Wells) makes me "country folk", but nothing brought home my townie credentials quite like the 3km hike Rachel, Alice and I did yesterday in the woodlands surrounding Burrswood Hospital in Groombridge.
Although I'd trained for the distance (Tonbridge Castle and back from my front door) I'd totally failed to factor in that this walk was in real country, where steep slopes and hills are the norm rather than the gradual incline that I'd practiced on.
I'd fooled myself into thinking it would be like last year's Step Out For Stroke event, a walk around primarily flat fields, but as Rachel pointed out (about two klicks into the Burrswood walk) that had been specifically designed with stroke survivors in mind; this route was designed for dog walkers.
Some of the slopes felt like they were 45 degrees or steeper, and factoring in the mud (from the previous night's rainfall) made this walk seem a lot further than 3km.
But we did it - and I have the aches to prove to it (Alice has a certificate) - and have raised over £330 for Pets As Therapy.
Our JustGiving page will remain open for a few weeks yet if it anyone else wants to throw some pennies in the virtual bucket, to support this delightful charity that brought such pleasure to my late mother in her final years.
Alice was a total star on the walk - befriending every other dog and walker she met, tackling every muddy puddle and fallen tree without complaint.
Given that she supposedly only requires 20 minutes of exercise a day, our hour-and-a-half walk didn't seem to faze her at all.
She was still full of beans when she came home afterwards (although she needed a shower to shift the mud she'd accumulated in her fur), only passing out in the early evening while Rachel and I were curled up on the sofas in the lounge watching Peter Kay's Car Share and the finale of Poldark on TV.
You can see a selection of Rachel's photographs over on Alice's Facebook page.
A Gotham Fairytale is an original Batman story from Mauricio Abril told as an animatic to Muse's Knights of Cydonia. Composed of over 200 black and white illustrations, it depicts the dark imagination of a little girl as she's listening to a bedtime fairytale told by her grandmother.
Sunday, 26 April 2015
Saturday, 25 April 2015
Sarah, a runaway teenager in the city of Metropolis, encounters a persistent newspaper reporter named Clark Kent who won't leave her alone until she agrees to an interview for his newspaper column. Ten questions -- that's all he asks. In their moments together, the fragments of her tragic life emerge, but her anger towards superheroes and Superman himself explodes in full force. If he is so great and so powerful, why is the world such a horrible place? Why doesn't he do something about it?
Friday, 24 April 2015
After a couple of shaky weeks, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is back on track with One Door Closes.
Taking a page out of the Arrow playbook, the episode went with twin timelines, the flashback thread (primarily an excuse to see Lucy Lawless kick ass and take names) laying the groundwork for how the 'real' S.H.I.E.L.D. arose out of the chaos of the rise of Hydra in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Meanwhile, back in the present, Coulson and May had figured Mack and Bobbi were working for someone else (they assumed Hydra) and there's plenty of twists, turns, bluffs and double-bluffs before Coulson eventually comes face-to-face with Robert Gonzales (Edward James Olmos) to argue over which organisation is the 'real' S.H.I.E.L.D.
It soon becomes clear, Gonzales' S.H.I.E.L.D.is also interested in getting its hands on Skye.
While this is going on, Skye is hiding out at The Retreat (turns out it was designed by Bruce Banner) when she is surprised by a visit from the eyeless teleporter, whose name is Gordon (Jamie Harris).
He invites her to join more of her kind, transformed by the mists, who will not only encourage her to embrace her powers but guide her in controlling them.
Having delivered his invitation, and emphasised how S.H.I.E.L.D. is clearly frightened by Skye's new powers, he leaves - saying when she has made up her mind, he will know.
One Door Closes started unsteadily, with the prospect of another protracted S.H.I.E.L.D. civil war, but eventually this developed into an interesting situation where there are essentially three sides in this drama (Coulson's S.H.I.E.L.D, Gonzales' S.H.I.E.L.D. and 'the Inhumans') - all of whom could be good considered the 'good guys' from a certain point of view.
A point worth mentioning - because this episode demonstrated it perfectly - is how strong all the female characters are in this show. Even Simmons, not a physical fighter, takes out a more powerful opponent using her brains, while May, Bobbi, Hartley et al are doing what they do so well.
Justin Halliday, creator of Hero Kids, has released a second collection of characters for use in a science-fiction twist on Hero Kids.
As with the first bundle, all these characters are 100 per cent compatible with everything else produced for Hero Kids, the popular entry-level roleplaying game designed to introduce imaginative youngsters to the concept of structured gaming.
Included in the $2.99 (£2) PDF of Space Heroes II are character cards for:
- Goliath - The goliath communicates with his fists and hurled rocks
- Infernal Binder - This infernal's magic can direct the actions of her enemies
- Felinian - The felinian fights tooth and claw for her allies
- Trapper - The alien trapper uses his net to capture wild creatures - and foes
- Fire Binder - The simian binder manifests nadic energy into fiery attacks
- Blade Master - The reptilian's double-ion blade can cut twice as deep
- Ionight - The ion knight wields a matching set of sword and shield
- Insectoid - The insectoid has chitinous armor and a piercing sonic shriek
- Hunter - This tiny hunter is renowned for the accuracy of his sling shots
- Wild Binder - This pandian is barely in control of her nadic magic
Thursday, 23 April 2015
|You'd Never Guess This Was Shot In Front Of A Green Screen, Right?|
Last week a new channel launched in the UK, Spike (part of the Channel 5 empire). Among the detritus of reality TV programming and Breaking Bad episodes (only a few years after everyone has seen it) in its schedules is a new, weekly fantasy show called Olympus.
I first heard of this SyFy show about a month ago, but then spotted it being trailed during the promos for the launch of Spike and so knew I had to tune in.
If ever there was a show hamstrung by its lack of budget it's Olympus, an action-adventure serial set in a mythical incarnation of Ancient Greece filtered through a Dungeons & Dragons lens.
Apparently it's made by spending about as much money as the BBC used to spend on Classic Doctor Who.
Outrageous mullets aside, Olympus is hampered by amateurish performances and an over-reliance on weak green screen that make its more 'exciting' moments seem more Knightmare than Crystal Maze.
The show is a cocktail of the BBC's cruddy Atlantis and pretty much everything produced by The Asylum, but with far more charm and imagination than the former.
It wins out over Aunty Beeb's efforts at reworking Grecian mythology by taking its subject matter seriously (although not to a po-faced degree) rather than trying to ridicule or subvert it.
Unfortunately, some of Olympus's good intentions are undone by its hilariously poor CGI, hilariously poor dialogue and hilariously poor acting which give the viewer the impression they are watching a village hall am dram production rather than a mainstream television show.
But don't let that put you off. The first episode alone had more creativity and inspirational material in it than the entire first season of the dire Atlantis, and some of the effects are really good, such as the apparition summoned by the sexy priestess to lure the show's hero to his doom...
And some of the scenic backdrops used in Olympus are truly stunning (such as the one below).
It's just a shame that quite often they are also about as interactive as a painted backdrop in a stage play. But they do look impressive!
As you may be aware, Alice, Rachel and I are doing a 3km sponsored dog walk this weekend.
I hadn't planned to write anything further about it until after the event, but following my "final pupdate" on Monday we had a surge of generous new donations.
We've now crashed through our £300 goal, in aid of Burrswood Hospital (the event organisers) and Pets As Therapy (their chosen charity)
Our JustGiving page will remain open for a few weeks after the walk, in case you're inspired to donate some cash.
We're doing this walk in memory of my late mother, who always enjoyed the visits by Pets As Therapy animals to the residential home where she spent her final years.
Wednesday, 22 April 2015
Crowley, supposedly out hunting for The First Blade (the only artifact known to be powerful enough to slay Abaddon) has gone AWOL, and the Winchesters discover he has fallen foul of his addiction to human blood.
Unfortunately Abaddon's agents have been working Crowley and she has been alerted to the Winchesters' quest for the holy relic.
The brothers retrieve Crowley, drag him back to their lair and force him to go cold turkey, while questioning him about what he has unearthed on the missing blade.
Their studious legwork leads them, eventually, to Cuthbert Sinclair (Kavan Smith), a rogue member of the Men Of Letters, a master sorcerer concealed from the world amidst his vast collection of magical items and supernatural critters.
However, Cuthbert isn't so much interested in parting with the First Blade as acquiring Dean - and more specifically The Mark Of Cain - to add to his collection.
Blade Runners was a good, old fashioned treasure hunt, a straight-forward story with predictable (but nonetheless enjoyable) twists and turns that allowed Mark Sheppard to have some fun with Crowley.
The episode also featured a brief cameo by a demonic Snooki aka Nicole Polizzi. Anyone still remember her given that her 15 minutes of fame dried up years ago?
This is, of course, one of the problems with this kind of quirky 'stunt casting' (even for comedic cameos) - the subject of the joke is likely long forgotten before the show they're popping up in ever is.
Especially if, like Supernatural, we're still about a year behind the States over here!
Tuesday, 21 April 2015
It's almost a year since I purchased these magnificent-looking maps from a lady called Lucy (trading on eBay as standon123) but I was finally able to bring them into play during our last gaming session.
Our heroes (Cobblethwaite's Companions) were exploring an abandoned fortified manor, hunting for a missing child, when they came upon a map room. On a shelf under the main map table they found the two folded, tied and sealed parchments pictured above.
I couldn't have been happier seeing the genuine excitement on the players' faces and the reverence with which they handled the documents - as they were genuine antiques!
The fact that Lucy had personalised the maps for my campaign made them all the more special as I was able to indicate on them places that the characters actually knew (either directly or through some nugget of campaign background/history that they may have been privy to).
Meanwhile, Clare and I have been discussing the idea of her character, Marigold, working on a book about the flora of Cidri, our game world..
After our last gaming session, she emailed me a link to the Google doc she is compiling of native flowers (which includes some houserules on harvesting and using them in potions, salves etc).
This is very much a work-in-progress (every time I check back there's a bit more detail), which is impressive in its own right, but what makes it even better is that Clare is tailoring the names of the plant species to the established mythology of Cidri.
She also included a scan of a page from Marigold's notebook:
This is the sort of player buy-in/investment I've been dreaming of for years and proves to me that we're onto a winner with this campaign.
Naturally, Marigold received a bit of an experience point bump for this.
As well as looking forward to what Clare comes up with next for Cidri Botanica, I'm anticipating some unusual adventure hooks that will see her working with Holly (the group's naturalist, Erica's character) in pursuit of rare plants and herbs.
Rutger Hauer, Matthew Macfadyen and Jason Flemyng star in the BBC's forthcoming eight-part adaptation of Bernard 'Sharpe' Cornwell's tales of Anglo-Saxon Britain.
Thanks to Steve Blease for drawing my attention to this, which had somehow slipped under my radar.
Monday, 20 April 2015
And so Peter Jackson's epically-padded adaptation of a 300-page children's book into three two-and-a-half hour films comes to end with a concluding chapter that is essentially (as the title suggests) one giant battle.
And, yet, oddly, I found The Battle Of The Five Armies the easiest of the trilogy to sit through, quite possibly because it was just vignette-after-vignette of a massive fantasy battle.
It still suffered from dreadful sub-plot bloat:
- Thorin's "dragon sickness" - which started off as fascinating character development - got worse and worse until he had a fever-vision and then it suddenly got better;
- Any scene with Alfrid, the right-hand man of the Master Of Laketown, was just a waste of celluloid;
- Billy Connolly's Dain was a potentially interesting - if stereotypical Scottish - dwarf to throw into the mix, but then he disappeared from the action;
- Whatever happened to the giant wormy-things that burst out of the ground and were never seen again?
- What was the point of showing Beorn being parachuted into the battle if we never saw him again?
- etc etc
The opening pre-credit sequence - the death of Smaug - should have been the finale of The Desolation Of Smaug and I really could have done without Peter Jackson's obsession with Legolas and his physics-defying stunts.
Moments like this tend to bring home the fact that you're just watching what amounts to someone else playing a very expensive video game - and sometimes the graphics aren't even that good.
Thankfully the misty, blur-o-vision that was so prevalent in the trailers doesn't seep in that often in the actual movie.
As much as I enjoyed the variety of fantasy races and monsters clashing, jumping around, killing each other and so on, for me, the most interesting part came with Bilbo's return to The Shire to find all his property being auctioned off - I could have watched more of that!
The hobbits are the most unique creatures in Tolkien's work and therefore the most interesting as they don't seem to fit comfortably with the rough-and-ready rest of Middle- Earth. That's why, if you're going to pad out a story entitled The Hobbit, I feel there ought to be more about hobbits!
Much like the Star Wars prequels, I'm sure I'll come round to liking these three movies eventually, but they're never going to come close to Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings, which is a shame.
You have to wonder if The Hobbit might have been better treated as a single movie or maybe two, without all the spurious padding. The book has stood the test of time without anyone feeling the need to write additional chapters and blow it out to the size of Lord Of The Rings, so perhaps there's a lesson there.
It's less than a week until Alice, Rachel and I em-bark (pun intended) on our sponsored walk in aid of Burrswood Hospital and Pets As Therapy.
We're just about £80 shy of our new £300 target, so if anyone would like to chip in a few shekels that would be great.
It's a 3km walk, which is a fair old distance for Alice and I, especially if it gets too hot, but we've been keeping up with the training walks. Rachel took Alice for a long walk yesterday and I took her in the week (being a little puppy, Alice doesn't need particularly long walks usually, but we're getting her used to the idea).
As I've said before we've been humbled by the generosity of donors already and if you'd like to sponsor us, please visit our JustGiving page.
Sunday, 19 April 2015
Complementing my recent write-up of The Mindsword and the 'staff of entanglement' from Hawk The Slayer, here are my adaptations of some of the spells cast in that incredible movie, written up for use in Heroes & Other Worlds.
FOG OF CONFUSION (T), IQ: 10, EN: 2, R: IQ
Once cast a number of glowing spheres appear in the mage's hands, which he then crumbles releasing a cloud of thick fog that moves at his command. The cloud can be as large as a 100ft cube and rolls across the ground with the speed of a normal man walking (MV: 6). All people and monsters, not allied with the mage, caught up in the fog suffer a -2 penalty to all die rolls (to hit, saves/checks, damage etc). The mage's friends, however, can see normally within this magical cloud - which lasts for one combat round per two points of IQ of the spellcaster.
WHIRLPOOL OF FLYING FIREBOLTS (T), IQ: 12, EN: 3, R: IQ
All targeted by the spell suffer 2d6 damage from the firebolts, but then the next round (and for a number of rounds after equal to half the mage's IQ), the entire area is enveloped in a violent snowstorm that causes all within the area to make all die rolls (to hit, saves, damage etc) at -2 and if anyone rolls a "15+" on a to hit roll, they must immediately make a 3/DX save or fall over.
RITUAL OF SEEKING (T), IQ: 16, EN: 6, R: see description
This is a ritual for mages who wish to "teleport" another (willing) person to a location, but wants to avoid some of the issues inherent in the normal teleportation spell (Magi Carta, pg 148).
The mage and his subject must agree a short-term purpose for the journey the subject is to be sent on and one or other of them must know the location where the subject is to be sent (see Magi Carta pg 148 for standard teleportation restrictions, range etc).
The mage sits beside an unlit fire, which the subject the spell is sitting in. The mage casts specially-prepared powder into the fireplace, which springs to life (without harming the subject of the spell) and creates a pair of glowing rings of light around the subject.
A moment later he is then transported to the agreed destination and has a number of combat rounds equal to the wizard's IQ to complete the object of his 'mission'. Once completed - or when the when the time is up - the subject (and one other willing person within 10ft of him) will be instantly transported back to the location of the mage, who may not move from beside the fire for the duration of the ritual.
If the subject was successful in his objective (ie the time limit didn't expire) and returns unhurt, he (and he alone) may, if he wishes, be dispatched on a second journey - as long as the objective is similar to the first trip. This all counts as a single ritual no matter how many jaunts the subject ends up taking.
Should the person being sent to achieve his mission be slain while on said mission, the ritual spell will be broken and the wizard who cast it will suffer 1d6 physical damage and a temporary loss of 1d6 IQ (which is regained at the rate of one point per day of total bedrest).
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