Saturday, December 26, 2015

Shock and Ore

Readers following me through Blogger might well know by now that I've been conducting some sneaky back-fill this past week and before the year ends, more in the interest of putting completed posts in their allotted place than bumping up the numbers. No, really. Yes, there may be more to come. Sorry.

Anyway,  strike me pink with black and white striped heavy metal pants if by sheer coincidence I actually made some kind of deadline. Just as I was putting my review of Iron Maiden's The Book of Souls to bed, I read on the internet that the same day, Christmas day 2015 (Boxing Day here in NZ of course) marks the fortieth anniversary of the band's original forming by Steve Harris in Leyton. Blimey.
Hair of the Dark! The band in 1976 (Steve Harris far right)
Early Maiden is an almost unrecognisable thing to the casual fan, and I'm not claiming to be anything beyond that, myself. No Bruce Dickinson, of course - nor even a Paul DiAnno. Also, no Clive Burr or Dave Murray or even Des Stretton. Just 'arry and a line-up that was borne, replaced and eventually formed itself into the 1978 version that brought the band to a wider audience than Stratford's Cart and Horses, their first residency. Eddie, presumably, was still a fever dream in Derek Riggs' head, of whihc more, surely, in a later post.But there's the name, the imagery, and the beginning of the whole story, and I find it rather fitting that an ensemble which took its name from a line uttered in The Man in the Iron Mask would be the one that stuck: a fictional torture device invented by antiquarians evoking fear and dread - a bogey. It remains one of the most recognised, influential and yes, iconic band names in rock history.

Documentation of those very very early years is still a work in progress, as this year saw the release of Origins of Iron, a compilation of tracks featuring former IM members, plus there's a unoffical book out there, somewhere. There always is. We have, apparently, this era to thank for 'Wrathchild', 'Transylvania' and 'Prowler' - small acorns, indeed.

Happy anniversary, Harry!

Friday, December 25, 2015

Dark! The Herald Angels Sing

It's that time of the year again! Time for a Yuletide video while the pavlova cream turns in the summer sun.
What luck to have this arrive, somewhat sooty and crumpled in the fireplace for Christmas Day. Courtesy of the Last of Our Kind Deluxe Edition, it's another Darkness Christmas song! Now, 'I Am Santa' by no means finds the dizzying heights of the mid-2000s 'Christmas Time (Don't Let the Bells End)', but it has a certain wonky charm like the best Darkness ballads. It has Band Aid's clanging chimes of doom, a lovely retro mimed TV Special video, new drummer Rufus Tiger Taylor and his cracking big bells, and guest vocals by Santa himself to cap off a great year for the band. There's little turkey here, to be honest - but do tuck in.

And a Very Merry Christmas to all of you at home!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Alarmed Forces

[This review is synched with Jamas' over on The Truth Behind. Check it out!]

Hello, and so I done saw That Star Wars today.

Spoilers! You've now been warned , thankyou :)

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Wars Awaken (Prequel posting)

Tomorrow I'm going to see Star Wars The Force Awakens. I'm keen to see it - I won't lie, but, you know, my days of being a super huge Star Wars fan are still nearly forty years in my past.

I've posted on that thing before, so I won't rehash it here, but inevitably, this road towards the first original post-Lucas instalment in the Star Wars saga has involved me watching the original trilogy with Jet Jr.

It's been a really interesting exercise; although I own the DVDs (special editions) of the original trilogy, I haven't watched them that much, and never realy watched the moies uch outside their cinema screenings. I remember the surprise and bewilderment I felt when I missed a video night at some friends' place and they reported they'd watched the 'entire' trilogy on VHS in one sitting. Why? What could be so interesting in that? It was that far off my radar.

Jet Jr is currently Star Wars mad, the phenomenon having elbowed superheroes firmly aside, it no jostles shoulders with Thunderbirds. But like a lot of kids his age and a little older, his reading of the series is different - it's definitely for him the story of Anakin and Luke, and the Anakin/Vader connection - once encountered - is just second nature. On the other hand, me watching it with him made me watch The Empire Strikes Back in particular in a way I hadn't properly since maybe 1981 or so. And even then I was convinced Vader had to be lying. It's been... educational. Whereas Darth Vader was the definite (ultimate?) bogeyman of my childhood, to Jr he's the most interesing character in the series, bar the two main Droids of course. Of course, he's not seen ALL of the movies yet...

So, tomorrow the new chapter opens and I'm seeing it with my brother in law under the guise of 'due diligence' for our kids' sake. One reason Jr and I haven't seen the prequel trilogy is because I'm not sure he'd react that well to its darkness, so if the new movie is aimed more at mature fans (and the front page of the local paper somewhat depressingly illustrated this in photos of last week's local premieres)  then The Force Awakens might wait awhile before the young man gets to see it. It won't change things, and it won't change his love for the movies he has seen, I'm quite sure of that.

As for me? We'll see...

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Red Pique

So then, we have a contender for a new flag for New Zealand, though many of us did not ask for one, and many of us who would like a new one did not pick this particular choice. Still, that's STV voting for you, and as Cardinal Borusa said, there is only truth in numbers (and Jamas breaks down the whole fatal exercise with statistological swagger here!)

NZ Herald's Rod Emmerson provides his take on the process.
For what it was worth, I was a Red Peak man. Aaron Dustin's Red Peak, or 'First To the Light' to give it its formal title, completely passed me by in the top forty line-up, and like a few others I'd say, it completely won me over during its social media campaign to at first get on the ballet at the eleventh hour, then into the running for the final vote. Ah, but we Peakers lost and the tea towel / clip art / T20 cricket uniform one of Kyle Lockwood's two submissions (TWO! Two colour options of the same flag account for fifty per cent of the final four? I'm still astounded at this) was the winner on the day.

A popular image, flipped for continuity's sake. 
The final vote, it seemed, was always going to be about the fern - that problematic emblem that the Prime Minister repeatedly said he preferred, featured on all of the original four finalists, apparently immediately identifies us and makes other countries think we like feathers. Oh, honestly, don't get me started. I had a favourite for the first time, and it lost. I may take some time to get over it.

But when Red Peak emerged via a concerted social media campaign, it seemed at the time that the closest thing to a public nomination from the forty finalists as opposed to the Panel's four picks) had materialised - and when I read its story, I pretty much fell in love with the whole thing. But one mans treasure is another man's 'Lefty anti-Key rag' or similar, and it seemed that amidst the criticism of the final four, even a new pretender couldn't get a break. The lesson here, as a sage on Twitter remarked, is that social media is no replacement for mass engagement.

Essentially I liked Red Peak for many of the same reasons other did. It didn't opt for lazy Kiwiana symbols, it didn't kowtow to cringing concerns about identity or history, and it actually is a great design that sufficiently fulfils the criteria set by the Flag Review Panel: it was simple, versatile, timeless, had elements of symmetry, reduced well, looked great at rest and flying, and unlike the Lockwood flags, it didn't look like a make-do collision between the past and the future. I short, it looked like it had actually been thought through and designed afresh (Lockwood's is ten years old in its three iterations), and - yes, it tells a story. The creation story woven into (but not intrinsic to) Red Peak evokes Rangi and Papa, and may not be to everyone's tastes, but I like it. Maybe now we can have the flag for Paparangi?

Moving on, the final vote, between Lockwood's fern flag and the existing ensign takes place in March. I'm dreading it as a believer in public engagement, someone who is at best ambivalent about the existing design, a fan of a losing flag, and a detractor of the new alternative. I think I'll hold my nose either way, and fear I'll vote for the existing standard out of equal parts spite and good design.

Let's try this again in 25 years, for the bicentennial, shall we?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

May the Fork Be With You.

Jet Jr's birthday cake this year, taken in the quiet moments before some unspeakable scenes of disassembly and consumption.
Few Bothans died to bring him this, but there was a lot of blistering language from his parents as they put it together on a very hot day. Cutting Artoo was even more of a logistical exercise than 2010's Dalek cake.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Four Squares 4: A Bad Dream Primer

It's Halloween in the Monkeyhouse, and as a family we'e surrendered to its American Victorian trappings and just gone with it. I can pimp up a doorway with fake spiderweb like the best of 'em, and having family around with kids of Jet Jr's age gave us an opportunity to use his birthday party decorations from an abandoned attempt last year. So, on that note of ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties, here's a book review.

Like a lot of followers of Hypnogoria I am of course in great envy of Mr Jim Moon's Great Library of Dreams, and as a sometime librarian I would have to admit that I too would love to have my own collection of ephemera and weird literature.  I don't, however, hence the intact marriage among other things like being able to move around inside the Monkeyhouse. I do own this, though, and it forms part of my very very small gentleman's collection of dark folklorey literature.

Time Life's mid-1980s Enchanted World series was a surprisingly vast and thorough collection of around twenty volumes about myth, folklore, superstition, legends and such. While I cut my teeth on Usborne's triple threat of its Mysterious World books, as a child and teen I never found anything to equal it in content and look, until I canched upon this volume in the Dunedin Public Library. Oh my youth, my young adulthood - the notion that I'd spentd up to three hours perusing the folklore section of a public library for Dungeons and Dragons ideas seems at once both quaint and alarming, but reader, I did. My Uni days were very dry days in roleplaying (for which I am actually quite grateful), but discovering this text, literally set alongside great works by Katherine M Briggs and Jorge Luis Borges, rekindled my interest in simple storytelling and creepy social psychology, untrapped from the stats and To Hit charts of the D&D manuals.

Nadilla, Persian vampire or ghoul?
Night Creatures, like other titles in The Enchanted World, is a long-form work, separated into chapters, but otherwise moving fluidly between imaginative storytelling (Beowulf, the Croglin Vampire et al) and scholarly interpretation. It's a surprisingly mature read, and contains some of the most atmospehric and in places downright grim illustrations I've ever seen in such a text - which, to be honest, is part of its apeal. It takes things seriously; its universal trinity of vampires, werecreatures and hags are all depicted as murky, shadowy and bestial shapes, among its roster of artists (including Tolkien great John Howe)  one Marshall Arisman, who uses a kinetic Francis Bacon-like brush in his pieces, adding to the overall memorable effect. This book stuck in my head for years, and whenn it recently appeared in a local secondhand book shop, I snapped it up on the spot.

Not seen: Annis' collection of child pelts. Yikes.
This work actually did what I hoped it would back in the day, rebooting my interest in traditional ghost stories and weird tales, and introducing me to previously-unheard of horros, like Black Annis, Rawhead and Bloodybones and their kin. It strove to be fairly international, in its coverage, although understandably sticks close to Europe, by way of Japan and Persia; plus it's a damned-fine looking book. I've been tempted to pick up other volumes in the series, but for the moment this is the daddy, and occupies pride of place in the upper shelves of the Simian Collection

Friday, October 30, 2015

Four Squares 3: Heigh-Ho!

The Chills Silver Bullets

Nineteen years is a long time between drinks.  The last full-length album from Martin Phillipp's band was 1996's Sunburnt, which came out long after my own interest in the band had diminished. There have been releases since then - some compilations of singles and song-doodles (Secret Box, a three-disc example of the latter is a rare find and worth the effort hunting it down), even an EP - but this is the real deal. And to be honest, something of a surprise.

2015 has been a boon of a music year for me, with Dad Rock literally coming out of the walls with not only re-releases of older acts' music (most recently Jean Paul Sartre Experience's own thriple-disc set I Like Rain), but in many cases surprising new releases from vintage acts. More on them in other posts, though. Suffice it to say, that when the past comes knocking, my curiosity is piqued, and when it comes knocking as strongly as this album does, with very little to show for how the years have genuinely condemned Phillipps and his ever-changing (but more recently solidified) roster, then I get excited.

The history of The Chills, like many Flying Nun acts, is one beset with calamity, and after the heights of their early Nineties triumphs there may be no act from the label more befitting an Icarus-like biography than Martin Phillipp's group. I'd pretty much written this mythical album - its title hinted at as far back as a Listener article in 1990, well and truly off - not to mention its creator. Phillipp's liquidity, and later descent into drug addiction and the resulting toll on his health did nothing to dampen my pessimism. A return to form for a leader now being chased by his fifties, I thought, would be nothing short of a miracle.

This is one, though. The sound of this album is as though the years between Silver Bullets and 1990's Submarine Bells never happened. It's an assured return, with gentle, melodic compositions that recall The Chills at their height, pre-Gruge, pre-recording contract collapse, pre-addiction and illness - pre-Soft Bomb and Sunburnt. It's not perfect, but for a Chills album it's damned near close.

There are some real highlights here - 'America Says Hello' is one of the better outward-loking songs Phillipps chooses, amidst a suite that I don't really think are a strong one for him. Social comment floundered on Soft Bomb, and there are echoes of that album's 'Background Affair' in this and Silver Bullets' ambitious, Wilson-esque 'Pyramid/When The Poor Can Reach The Moon'. Similarly, 'Aurora Corona''s prayer to Gaia is more heavy-handed than the earlier 'Underwater Wasteland' - in fact, the album's first half is its srongest; but that said, 'Warm Waveform' is a splendid opener, with some great guitar work and whispered vocals, and I have a soft spot for 'Liquid Situation', near-monumental, but tantalisingly over too soon. The closing couplet of sing-song 'Tomboy' and 2014's upbeat anniversary release 'Molten Gold' round things out well, and point towards a sound future, and I'll be there this time. Nothing much may change, but be grateful that nothing much has, because in a music career this interrupted, miracles are worth celebrating.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Four Squares 2: Golden Years

I'm back watching The Flash, and still really enjoying it. This year the particle accelerator which made our hero's metahuman enemies is gone, replaced by a wormhole singularity which is now feeding him bad guys from a parallel Earth - Earth 2. And, of course, it has also brought in this guy:

 Yeah! Jay Garrick, baby!

The version of the Flash from Earth 2 or, as we might otherwise know him, 'old 1940s Flash' or thereabouts. It's one of the many cool things about the show that it has actually been this series which has ushered in the established comics model of multiple worlds. It was a concept that originated in the Flash comics, and it's given the show a boost that it didn't yet need, but which in an expanded DC TV universe, needs no futher explanation.

I also love the look of Jay Garrick, with his slight Dieselpunk look and the Mercury kettle helmet. Hell, I like mostly all of the old school hero costumes with only a few exceptions, and their heroes' grouping, the Justice Society of America is a territory that I also think is rich for mining.

One of the other things I did leading up to season 2 was re-connect with the Golden Age of [DC] super heroes. The sole comic I own representing that era is a revisionist story The Untold Origin of the Justice Society collected into a tidy A5-ish pocket comic book, which I picked up from a local dairy years ago on the way to an intermediate school camp. Though I never reconnected with the story or the characters, I do still really like them. In their best stories there's a simple honesty to them that genuinely evokes a Wartime, pre-Marvel era, where many of the Justice Society's members nod more to their detective comics origins - millionaires and scientists sworn to thwart crime with gadgets, physical superiority and very limited superpowers.

I also picked up a few JSA collections from the local library, the best example being The Justice Society Returns!, which owes more than a debt to the aforementioned origin story, but builds other characters into the mix and heightens the profile of some more enduring, second-tier heroes; so out go Superman and Batman, but the likes of Hourman and Johnny Thunder get a much-deserved promotion. It's a pretty good, serialised story all told, with all the major players essentially getting a chapter of their own, and if there's a deluxe reprint - well, I'd be tempted to get it.

But as I say above, I think this is an era still ripe for use in today's comic book entertainment world. There are examples already of period-era heroes - Marvel's Captain America and its spin-off Agent Carter are obvious examples, and of course DC's Earth 2, the home of its Golden Age heroes, is now a Flash/Arrow-verse reality - and of course before he was making Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, director Zack Snyder cut his superhero teetch with the Minute Men of the Watchmen cinematic adaptation. 2017 will see a Wonder Woman movie which will tell a story spread over several decades, including the Second World War - perhaps it's not unreasonable to expect a few cameos there?

For me, though, the appeal of the Golden Age superhero is one of relatability. I will never have super powers or wield fantastic gas guns, magic rings or rods of power, but the vulnerability and human frailty of many of these early year super heroes is something I find more and more interesting as time goes by.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Four Squares 1: The New Pod

Well, that hardly escalated at all.

It's been a busy month, and the month is almost over. My big October of RPG-blogging never happened - although I have been listening to a lot of SaveOrDie. Nevertheless, besides family stuff and work stuff I have fitted a few more things in. Like this:

Beyond the Sofa is another podcast I'm part of, after dipping my toe in the waters of Zeus Pod last year and watching and listening to it become the modest success that co-founder Jono Park made it. Zeus Pod is curently on hiatus while Jono works on his new life project, being a dad.

Coincidentally, BTS was born as a project between me and my good friend and fellow Dad and fan, David Ronayne.

Unlike Zeus Pod, BTS is a little less-focused on the new Doctor Who series, and in fact tok an element of my last Zeus Pod appearance as its kicking-off point. Two episodes in, and it's going well, and there's plenty more gas in the tank.

Also,we have a Facebook group. And a Twitter! And a gmail and a Soundcloud account!

Tune in!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Rolling around inside my own head

It's all change again in the Simian household as this monkey is once again donning his big boy pants on weekday mornings and slaving over a hot laptop in a typical inner city office. However, leading up to this week, and even during, the mind has wandered in non-work hours, and as nature demands, that abhorrent void has been filled - with visions of tumbling polyhedral dice.

This blog bears witness that I am not a regular roleplayer, and my life has most certainly been busier, more varied, and generally better for it. But it remains an itch that occasionally demands scratching over the years, or it manifests in weird, dead-ended, compulsive ways: podcast hunting, doodling, module downloading, idle listing of past player characters and wonderings what-if. Last week I bought a second-hand Deities & Demigods specifically for the Erol Otus cover, and sought out my 'old' (ten years old - tops) poly dice and encouraged Jet Jr to use them in his maths games for school. I'm currenty musing on posting a crowd-sourced therapy call-out under the title of 'Schroedinger's Thief' (apologies to those of you who know what/whom I'm talking about.) For that reason, the next few posts might actually involve some of these subjects, but to cut some to the chase and not clog up wordspace, here are some of my recent online RPG finds:

1. One of my new favourite podcasts, SaveOrDie, which is strictly OSR/BD&D oriented, with dashes of Cook/Moldvay and Mentzer in focus, and more than a dash of Gygax invoked. And now I know how to pronounce "Gygax".

2. From episode 111 of the same podcast, one of my favourite RPG-related songs: Mikey Mason's  Best Game Ever. Because we've all been there. I know I was.

3.  There are many many great figure paintings based on classic D&D out there, but Lead Adventures' Witchtown thread has to be the best I've seen yet.

4. Monster Manual Sewn From Pants is a blog that not only documents what it says on the tin, but is chock-filled with great ideas. Come for the button-eyed Beholder if you must, but stay to take in the mad creativity. The Werebear is ADORABLE.

5. Kobolds were never retconned into little dragon men somewhere in the 90s. That's a lie - they evolved into pangolins.

Coming soon: a long-overdue Legends of RPG Art post.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Talkin' Eds - The Book of Souls (2015)

File Under: Quite Surprising, and very very welcome.

That was my reaction earlier this year to the news that, now Bruce Dickinson has received the all-clear on his cancer treatment, the album Iron Maiden recorded before his initial diagnosis was to be recorded, the world tour to proceed next year, maybe even with Bruce in the cockpit of Ed Force One again. They're even coming to New Zealand again - I might get to see them at last!

 But first, the album.

The Book of Souls is a long-player - ninety-two minutes of screaming, solos and Steve Harris and Nicko McBrain holding the furniture down. It is, we are told, not a concept album, although some now very familiar Maiden tropes are evident here: historical figures ('Death or Glory', about The Red Baron - not the Snoopy one, mind), death (including the suicide of Robin Williams - 'Tears of a Clown'), the afterlife, and the very Maiden-styled genuflection on both where lead single 'Speed of Light' recalls the likes of last album's 'Starblind' and 'The Final Frontier' to put everything in place. Harris has removed his trademark pinstripe leather trousers and is now wearing his Prog pants, so The Book of Souls will be for most people a lengthy listen or a two-session job, spread as it is between two discs.

Fortunately with such length there's room for variety, and pleasingly, all songwriting members of Maiden contribute lyrically to the album - and the title track is a Janick Gers number! Readers of my previous Maiden posts may recall that I rate Maiden's newest member as a strong pen lyrically and musically, and of the several tracks here, the aforementioned title track and 'Shadows of the Valley' (co-written with Harris) are among the more lively on offer, and personal picks. In general, perhaps it's the impatient listener in me, but I prefer disc one (songs one through six) to the rest of the album; they're quicker-paced, more varied, referential to traditional and recent Maiden song styles and sit well alongside one another. Side two has the track that makes The Book of Souls a two disc experience - the eighteen-minute 'Empire of the Clouds'.   Penned by Dickinson this tribute to the ill-fated R101 airship is a significant piece, and not just for its length; lyrically it's well balanced (though it perhaps reads in places better than it sounds) and sensitively composed. Dickinson performs the opening piano parts, having taught himself the instrument to do so, and there's a pleasing mix of real orchestra and band. The subject matter is curious - unsurprising, perhaps, as it ticks a lot of Maiden boxes - British history, flight (blame Bruce!) and so forth, but after the slightly trainspotter-like description and detail, there's pathos, and in the song's elegaic closing, Dickinson places himself in the narrative:

"here lie their dreams/ as I stand in the sun / on the ground where they built / and the engines did run"

The subject and title reference Dickinson's own interest, of course, and the R101 connection is noted, too, in his outside investments in Hybrid Air Vehicles, operating out of the airship's birthplace. I do wonder whether this aspect of the story puts a cap on Maiden's approach to such subjects; and I reckon that the band of thirty years ago might well have instead shoehorned a reference to the airship's afterlife in supernatural lore. Somehow I don't think the omission is an accident.

In all, then, a decent album with some plodding and a luxury-length approach to editing. I think there's a good single disc album in here, at least, but tha there may be more one-off hits in The Final Frontier. The final analysis sggests, however, that after the last two or three years, we should be very grateful for a healty band's return, new album, and world tour - it may be their last, and it's the chance of that especially that will get me thinking about that concert again next year.

Cover Story:

As described previously, a nice, though a little static, head shot of your actual band ascot in Mayan get-up. Marillion album illustrator Mark Richardson seems to 'get' Eddie's look better on this cover, so I can cut him some slack - plus the white on black logo is rather nifty. Inside there are Photoshop spreads of the band as totem poles, ruined temples, and Eddie looking ticked off again - this time he's cut his own heart,   out and is showing it to us. Tsk. That boy - you just can't leave him on his own at all.

Album Tracks
For obvious reasons, nothing of the album has appeared in live form yet, so in the mean-time, we're into the realm of static images and fan videos. Godspeed and good searching, everyone...

If Eternity Should Fail
Speed of Light
The Great Unknown
The Red and the Black
When the River Runs Deep
The Book of Souls
Death or Glory
Into the Valley of Death
Tears of a Clown
Man of Sorrows
Empire of the Clouds

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Ed Games

This has been out a week now, so apologies for the dated-ness.

But, datedness is sort of the theme of this post! Iron maiden's new album is out next month, and in advance of this their new single 'Speed of Light' was released to the internet just over seven days ago.

The song is pretty cool - something of a throwback to early Nineties Maiden with Bruce Dickinson's growly voice, and a more rocking feel than the progfests of recent albums. That said, it's an opening track, and the band tend to have form on this tactic - 'El Dorado' was the taster for Final Frontier, 'A Different World' was AMOLAD's opener, and it's arguable whether either was indicative of their parent albums.

But hey, I like it. It's got a lovely Ritchie Blackmore style riff to kick things off, some nice leads from all three guitarists, Bruce sounds great (pre-cancer diagnosis, it must be said), and there's more cowbell working hard here than Waikato Stadium in a home game.

To be honest, though, it's the video that's the drawcard. I love a good video, and with Maiden I think they're something of a rarity: the early days are very much live performance-based with movie cutaways; in the Nineties these turned into slicker products that somehow didn't really sell the band or Eddie very well - some of them just tried too hard. On the whole, however, it's when Eddie'in the visuals that the videos work best, and 'Speed of Light' is a great example, being almost all about the history of Eddie and Maiden's most memorable album covers, as experienced through the medium of... video games! I have fond memories of mashing rubber ZX Spectrum keys to the background sounds of Number of the Beast and Maiden's debut album (point of fact: both games and music were likely loaded on the same tape deck.) Iron Maiden are around the same age as your common or garden home entertainment system, so the synergy of the band's evolution alongside that of digital gaming works really well. Eddie is back in his rightful punkish fright wig original form, it's witty, deferential, self-referential (count those nods!*) and, I think, more than a little essential.

A brief pause to reflect that this is not the first time the worlds of Maiden and video games have crosed paths, as the mid-Nineties compilation/video game Ed Hunter attests. Reception in the gaming mags was not kind, apparently, and it goes to show that despite heavy metal making an excellent gaming soundtrack, getting the right mix is a delicate art. I think they've cracked it this time, though. Hell, I'd buy it :)

UPDATED: Thanks to Dave R's observations, it appears I got my wish! 

*Visual references I noted:

Friday, August 14, 2015

All the Jackals and the Undead

"All the jackals and the undead just can't wait to wipe the last of us out
First there were others like us, then there were none."

I didn't intend to blog about this again, so apologies, but this has been on my mind for the whole week.

The Fantastic Four is crashing globally in cinemas, the latest in a long series of battles it has had to fight since day one. Why? Lots of reasons: director hassles, studio hassles, reboot hassles, fan anxiety - that last one for me is the clincher. Logically The Fantastic Four property should not have a large and influential fan base - its last movie was in 2007, and Marvel cancelled its comic line last year, pointedly killing off likenesses of Fox's forthcoming movie in strip form (real classy, guys). And yet I think fan activity, and in particular fan vitriol has played a large part in the negative pre-publicity of this movie. And it seems I'm not alone, here's award-winning writer Peter David's view.

Look, films are hugely difficult things to make, and lots of films - sometimes incredible films  are borne of terrible shoots. Marvel' Studios' movies have not been immune, with directors leaving films during or pre-production (Thor 2, Ant Man), and even some of its most celebrated creators seemingly swearing off the whole game (stand up, Joss Whedon.) But it makes big, successful movies, and it has a very large and very vocal army of fans who apparently resent any studio who has 'their' heroes. Two years ago it was Sony's Amazing Spider-Man, this year it's The Fantastic Four. This fan resentment, fan entitlement is expressed online on websites like Comicbookmovie, where fan made 'editorials' are the by-word for the site's existence. The bad mouthing turns into a partisan headline, and this bleeds through to modern news media which, under-resourced and fighting for relevance in an ocean of free competition, jumps at clickbait articles for its own hits - and with that imprimatur fan opinion becomes reported as fact.

Of course I'm over-simplifying, and of course FF's troubles are many. But bad press sticks, and I still think this film has been unfairly maligned by... 'enthusiasts' with questionable loyalties. And poor judgement. You kids want a Fantastic Four movie series, and you think the way to do this is to sabotage the box office of the current movie - and that the average movie-goer will notice the difference when it switches studios and turn out in droves? You're crazy. And you deserve your stereotype.

Fandom makes me uncomfortable most of the time. I've made the best friends I have ever had through fandom, and yet I take to social fandom like I take to dancing - under duress, with great awkwardness, and best left after a few drinks. It's not a club to which I readily subscribe; I just get a bit lost amongst it, Organised fandom can be a toxic thing, but it can be a wonderful and supportive thing as well - and some fan communities can be lovely, bonkers collectives of mutual enthusiasm.

And when a group shares the love with its fans, neat things can happen - like this, the official video for The Darkness' title track off their latest album. Ostensibly a song based on the character of Crow from Hawk the Slayer, more than a few reviewers have taken its defiant tone as the voice of a dying music form: pure, fun rock and roll. Fittingly then, a fan army provides the backing chorus in the track, and some appear in the video - a shambles of awkward, excited enthusiasts, bouncing, dancing, singing and just enjoying themselves. And that one particular fan - what a mover! Well played, sir. Well played.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Four on the Floor

I seem to be part of a select group who turned out to see Fox Studio's new version of The Fantastic Four. There weren't many of us! But I'm one, as was Jamas - who shares his review here. And here's my review.

I have no stake in The Fantastic Four as a comic property, so I probably don't care enough, I guess. I saw the two earlier cinematic movies, and didn't really care for them, finding them a bit too campy and more than a little silly. So, on stumping up the cash and braving (somewhat nervously as it turned out) the final, now-infamous product, I find myself preferring this version. It's not perfect, in fact it's a right Curate's Egg. But I can't find it in my heart to cal it a rotten one.  I thought the serious tone and the body horror elements were sensibly matched: it is a new take on the Four in film, and I don't know how I'd have introduced comic elements into that if I was making the thing. That said, there are moments of lightness, and some nice character moments in the first half.

The core Four are fine in their roles, and clearly not playing characters based on the mid-'00s models. I reckon Michael B Jordan brings a lot to the new Storm family dynamic in his performance, and there are seeds of the future family dynamic through the movie - Johnny and Ben's rivalry, a budding attraction between Sue and Reed, but on the whole this is clearly not a story where the heroes come fully-formed. In fact, most of the movie is about them finding their new identity and escaping their confines - it's almost all origin story.

The CG work was pretty good, the score was great, and the support cast noteworthy. There's a good story in here, possibly butchered in post-production, if rumour is to be believed. I'd say the biggest disservice done to the movie is that it doesn't have 'Part One' at the end of its title, because it is true that just as the Four are established, the movie ends. Frustratingly. A post-credits scene would have also been a great addition - not necessarily to link the movie to a Fox/Marvel universe, but to simply promise more; and I think this signals Fox's lack of faith in the project. Any accusations of cynical rights-grabs fall easily on this point; like it or not, in a movie genre dominated by Marvel's shared universe model, continuity and continuance are forgiven, perhaps even expected. 'They' will come if you only promise to build.
Perhaps, though, this movie shouldn't have been 'about' the Fantastic Four, and certainly the second half looks like... unhelpful things happened in the editing suite (maybe not by director Josh Trank's intent, though we may never know.) But I feel I'm repeating the words of others by saying the first half is pretty good, and inventive. Overall I didn't hate this movie, I suspect the current vortex of gloom is dragging down any neutral discussion on it, and I refuse to join the lynch mob. It's a decent take fluffed, that's all - and as I said, I'm just not as invested in these charcters to feel personally wounded by the changes wrought. The movie's terrible opening weekend is awful, though - I do feel for those directly involved; it's a mess. The closest comparison I can find is Ang Lee's Hulk - a stylised and singular take on a known property that may deviate a little too far from its comic origins for some fans.

The future is yet to be written. "Change is Coming", the movie's tag-line reads, and I rather fear it is. We may not see a sequel, a cross-over with more succesful Fox/Marvel properties (X-Men, the forthcoming Deadpool and maybe Gambit) looks tenunous. I find myself feeling similar to how I felt at the end of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, although maybe not as let-down. A sequel could improve, build, reinforce the sound core and casting of this movie - but I fear the revised returns and critical drubbing will just spook Fox's execs into pulling the plug. With Fox and Marvel not enjoying the same relationship as Sony and Marvel, the much-crowed and anticipated 'return of the family' to its Nineties sellers may not happen. Nobody wins this one.

But I went all the same, and I'm glad I did.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Thunderchild 1: Totally Tubular

Thunderbirds is big in the Monkeyhouse these days; both versions, and mostly with Jet Jr, who has a small version of his favourite International Rescue vehicle, plus a not-to-scale Scott Tracy to loom over it threateningly. Recently a Glad Wrap tube was co-opted into playing the part of a slightly larger Thunderbird 1,so in a foolhardy fit of paternal involvement I suggested we work together on a pimp-up project.
Plans were drawn, coloured in, internets consulted and dismissed, and measuring was done and everything. I'd like to say it took a few hours, but I can't. I can't even say it took a couple of weekends! Nevertheless, a month or so on of stolen moments between Real Life Distractions, we got the job done.
Apart from some replacement paints, nothing was purchased in the making of this model, and aside from some printed lettering (done by Jet Jr's Mum to hurry things along - not unlike other more pressing projects) everything was done by hand. Cardboard tubes, tape, PVA glue, acrylic paint and some Mod Podge and muttered swears to seal the deal. Most of the model is double-thickness card - including the nose cone which spent an hour or so wedged on a broomstick tip to hold its shape. And it has some heft!

And yes, a request has been put in for a follow-up!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Death Race 2000 (1975)

It is the distant future, the Year Two-thousand. The US is an autocratic state with an alleged enemy in France, and a nation has an obsession with the Death Race, a coast-to-coast rally where pedestrians, zealots, onlookers and even one's pit crew are fair game for vehicular carnage and point-scoring along the way. Race favourite is the shady Frankenstein, a patchwork man in black who is close friend with Mister Pesident, and wants to get closer still...

I've been thinking about watching this movie for years on curiosity value alone, and now I have - job done. And do you know what? I really enjoyed it!

I'm sure that a lot of this is down to timing. Twenty years ago I'd likely have taken this film in as a dated piece of seventies tat, much as I did Rollerball or The Omega Man. Ten years ago I'd have been a little more forgiving, but now, with my extracurricular activities involving kitbashing model cars into Mad Max-styled vehicles of pedestrian destruction, its time seems finally annointed. What a movie. Also, teenage me was an idiot. I might be edging towards the actual 100 points in Death Race's arcane scoring system, but I'd like to think I know the value of a decent Roger Corman movie.
But teenaged me was also a comic reader, and in particular a 2000AD reader. The DNA of 2000AD is all through this movie - future dystopias? Check. Ultraviolence and amoral heroes? Check. It's long been said that the initial look of Judge Dredd was based on the image of Frankenstein on the movie's poster; how satisfying then for a fan of the comic and films to see Dredd's spiritual godfather beating several layers of unholy crap out of Sylvester Stallone - Awesome! I swear that this is more a comic brought to life courtesy of Corman than the likes of Fantastic Four or Battle Beyond the Stars, and it seems fitting that the comic sequel was the work of 2000AD's Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill, when their previous creation Marshall Law bears more than a passing resemblance to David Carradine's Frankenstein. 
There's just a real anti-authoritarian, gonzo vibe throughout that transcends the occasional performances, the low low budget, and the small cast. in places it is outlandishly violent, but it is by and large he violence of cartoons, and it shares the gleeful twisted humour of Mills and Wagner's best works. The themed cars and outlandish identities (Nerothe Hero, Machine Gun Joe, Matilda the Hun) are fun, the design work a little bonkers - especially Stallone's gangster suit pinstriped helmet, and although the cast is perhaps a little too white-bread, it serves its female characters pretty well, and I must admit I felt quite sorry for Calamity Jane's lonely three-point-tun into oblivion when her time came. Plus, not knowing the twist in the story meant that I was quite taken in by Frankenstein's concluding gambit.
Time's been rather kind to this film, making the movie's more outlandish plot points almost self-fulfilling in real life, from the Fox-style cynical TV coverage, the vilification of France as the enemy of 'Amurrikkin freedom', and even the President accusing a foreign power of sabotaging the telephone network has to be the Seventies equivalent of cyber-terrorism.
So yeah, a big thunbs up from me, and a nice wee birthday present for me over the weekend as I contemplate getting closer to the age when I too might be wheeled wheezing out into the street in front of a hospital, perhaps to meet my maker under the wheels of an oncoming novelty cat-shaped death machine or something. In the mean-time I rather fancy catching this again, perhaps in a double-bill with Rollerball.

Friday, July 24, 2015

He[a]r[i]n the Hunter/s

Evening all.

Now, of late things have been quiet on Jetsam, and somewhat reactive rather than proactive. I'm hoping to address this soon by posting some creative endeavours, but in the mean-time, some more reaction in the cheapest way - a combination post! Yes, my apologies. It's nearly bed time.

So what am I reacting against? Whaddaya got? Well, how about the long-rumoured and finally confirmed return of Hawk the Slayer?

That's pretty cool. Lord knows, the original movie had enough sequel hooks in it, and if I might take a moment to be a leeetle unkind, this is a movie project that may benefit from having some of its old cast unavailable for bookings. Okay, that is unkind - I loved Bernard Bresslaw and Morgan Sheppard, and it looks like Ray Charleston is back as a very Old Crow, but Voltan must be recast with Jack Palance out of the frame and, well, I wish them all the best. As readers will know, I rather took a shine to this little piece of cinematic miscalculation, and after some very disappointing fantasy movie spectacles, perhaps small-scale fantasy might be the way forward for a while?

And while we're riding through the glen, today's news is of another long-rumoured, long-attempted follow up to an even more beloved Eighties slice of fantasyfolklore. Robin of Sherwood is getting an audio sequel! Based on a script by RoS' late, great creator Richard Carpenter, Knights of the Apocalypse has a title that promises something as big and tumultuous as the original series' The Swords of Wayland. Even better, it's in good hands, courtesy of Bafflegab (who produce the wonderful Scarifiers series), script editor John Dorney (who has produced some top-notch stories for Big Finish's Doctor Who line) and a lot of the original cast. Okay, no Michael Praed, but Jason Connery, Nickolas Grace AND Ray Winstone, plus Judi Trott and Paul Rose! I'm in. Sign me up.

What a year to be alive. Cue Hawk-inspired rock song!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Cape Expectations

This is a synched trailer review from a Batman perspective. You can read Kal-Al's Superman-oriented review here!

Over the past weekend I spent an inordinate amount of time online, trawling a handful of websites, pushing the Refresh button at intermittent intervals. Oh, and reading. I did this because I was never going to go to San Diego ComiCon – hell, I’d be hard-pressed to get to Armageddon this weekend, but virtually at least, SDCC was where it was at for me. And why? Because of this trailer specifically:
Yes, in Marvel’s absence, the weekend belonged to Warner Brothers and Fox Studios. And Disney – but dammit, every day is Disney day with or without Star Wars, so enough about that. Let’s talk about the Bat and the Boy Scout. And, also the Amazon! And the Villain – or the one we see here, at least.
The trailer was pretty much everything I’d hoped for, but most of all it’s impressed me with how smart it is. Directly referencing the climactic Battle of Metropolis from Man of Steel is a great start, and should immediately shut up the ‘concerned moviegoers’ who, three years on, are still bellyaching over the destruction wrought in Superman’s death-match with the physically superior and battle-ready General Zod. Moreso, it places Bruce Wayne in the middle of the battle, in a breath-taking sequence loaded with modern imagery. 2016 will see the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11; Zack Snyder’s choice to film the collapse of Wayne Financial’s tower from street level, and frame it from the experience of the average person in the street, can only reference one major recent real-life event. It’s brave, and it’s immediately resonating and it works. The sight of an un-costumed, quite human Bruce Wayne running into the debris cloud is jaw-dropping.
At ComicCon there was much made on both DC movie panels (for BvS and Suicide Squad) over how these movies are anchored in a real world context – yes, there are spandex(ish) suits, capes and super powers, but the real world reactions and impacts are, I think, a new addition to the genre. Super hero comics already work in a heightened version of reality, so this change down is a significant revision, and a smart move on the producers’ part to create points of difference for DC’s heroes and villains. These are deliberate images – the rooftop appeals for help from flood-bound families recalling Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, the familiar rainbow-coloured placards outside Kal El’s hearing in the Capitol deliberately recalling those of the Westboro Baptist Church demonstrations are another. Maybe more than that, they are touchstones of US culture, a trigger against what looks like Superman taking on a global work roster (saving a Russian rocket crew, appearing in a Day of the Dead gathering.) In response, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor appears to be baiting his (unseen) audience's patriotism, resorting to a national xenophobia, recasting himself as a modern day Paul Revere in the droll “the red capes are coming!”
So this is the set-up, but there's still much to see – Jeremy Irons' Alfred in the flesh as Bruce's moral core, the Joker's handiwork over a fallen Robin costume, some nifty visual echoes of Frank Millar's iconic Dark Knight Returns cover. And, of course, Wonder Woman in action - at long last!

I'm still sold on this movie, even moreso than I was with the teaser trailer a few months back, and even moreso even after liking the casting of Ben Affleck. It seems we're stuck with a grim and gritty Batman for some time yet (thank god then for the 50th anniversary of Batman '66 next year and the animated movie tribute!) but while Christopher Nolan's similarly 'real world' Dark Knight trilogy left me cold in the end, I think Snyder's Batman will be the best Batman to date; and I think the injection of super powers and godlike heroes into his world will be for the betterment of Gotham's finest.

Next trailer will hopefully show even more. Roll on 2016!

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Golden Hour

She got me when I was most vulnerable: flat on my back, sleeves rolled up, and bleeding into a plastic bag.

Flattery, gratitude, an acknowledgement of a long history of donating blood and a nice, clean (boring but reliable) record free of trips to exotic countries (Africa, the UK in the 1980s), drug use and exotic sexual encounters will get you an invitation to go that one step further into the world of plasmas donation. I was flattered, eager to please and matched the profile of age, gender and weight, so I said I'd give it a go. And this week was when I did it.

Apheresis is the technique used, a system not unlike blood extraction, but using a slightly bigger needle. They don't tell you that in advance, but I don't have a problem with needles (that shooty jabby clicky haemoglobin lance and the squeezing that follows, mind... I had a bruise on my pinky for two days!) You simply check in, lie on the reclining chair and over 42 minutes and three cycles an amount of blood is drawn out of you, fed into a centrifuge to extract the plasma, and then at the end of that cycle the blood is returned to you. Because of this, there's none of the requisite potential light-headedness or faintness after ex-sanguination, and you get biscuits and sweet cordial THROUGHOUT. And at the end you can get up, walk out and go back to work with just a couple of band-aids and an interesting story to tell.

My first experience was pretty interesting, but quiet. The room was warm (it's been a cold week in Wellington, but among the weird side effects of having your blood reintroduced to your veins alongside some residual anticoagulant is a slight chill), filled with the requisite equipment and machinery; quiet and business-like, the centrifuge in action whirred with a slight whine like an old hard drive. Above us and on the far side of the room a blackbird perched on the outside windowsill and kept leaping at its reflection in the glass, as it apparently had done for most of the week. Truth be told, I've had less interesting, weirder, and more uncomfortable hours. And unless you have a severe reaction to the experience of blood donation, there's an undeniably virtuous feeling about giving something of yourself freely that might save a life, ease suffering, make someone better.

My plasma may be used to help a burn victim, a cancer sufferer, or a premature child; it might be used to make one of three or four different types of drug or it might be used for research - Glasgow University is apparently making great inroads into synthetic blood substitutes, a great need thanks to the disastrous experience of CJD. It was, in the end, a very easy thing for me  to give - a little over a lunch hour, and a free taxi ride there and back to work, and the NZ Blood Service's need is very great at the moment because demand is high, and the alternative is to buy it from other countries.

I've given plasma twice now and will do so again.  If you are able, and have thought about doing so as well, I encourage you to take part.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Change of Base

A year or so ago, when this blog was still optimistically concerned with modelling and the works of Tolkien, Guanolad asked me whether my in-process Mirkwood Elves would be mounted in a diorama. At the time I hadn’t thought they would, as I had plans for individual bases and a little height adjustment in the offing – two birds with one stone. Mr G’s question stuck with me, however, because ‘til then I hadn’t given a great amount of thought to the group aspects of these miniatures. They’re not the same as my Company of Oakenshield who have names, recognisable features and (hopefully) personalities imbued in my conversions. These Elves, as much as I’ve worked on them, aren’t the same deal at all.

I don’t play miniatures games (or at least am unlikely to with these guys), so individual bases aren’t really necessary; and while I’m not yet ready to go the whole hog with a dynamic battle scene, I quickly came round to thinking that there could be fun in trying something more elaborate this time around, and planting my new minis in a terrain together. I considered my Balin’s Tomb model a success, but it’s just sort of there as a feature and little more, which is funny because its inspiration was the BGiME subscriber giveaway intended to fit the Fellowship minis free with particular issues. So, why not make a bigger stage for my guys indeed? So I did.

Here are the original bases, which will be re-purposed in time – it seems fitting.

And here’s the scenery stage for my Mirkwood Elves!

The base is from an electric jug – the terminal point in the middle has been sawn away and sanded down, with the hole patched with light card. Atop this is more card, pine bark for stones, sand, and various forest litter made from bark shavings, birch seeds, string (for the roots) green stuff mushrooms, and as a centrepiece, a log made from a scrap of branch found in the back yard, dried and tunnelled by various insects along the way. Thanks, guys!
In fact, nearly everything except the sand, the seeds and the jug base was sourced from under ten metres from the front door – even the scrubby plants are lichens plucked from our tree and dyed with some rather unused GW dyes. I’m really happy with it. I only hope there’s going to be enough room for all twelve Elves...

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Reasons to be Cheerful - 92 minutes' worth!

Speaking for myself and all other current events cast aside, 2015 is turning out to be an astonishing year for new albums from old acts.

A new Darkness album with their reunion now well behind them is cause for celebration. A new and unexpected album from Blur is up there with Lazarus as comebacks go, and if the music gods smile and deliver a new Chills studio album later this year as mooted, I will be a happy man indeed.

Still, the aforementioned is just new output from previously fragmented acts, free of contractual obligations or cynical nostalgia cash-ins. What's to get excited about there? Well, how about this  latest bit of good news received, courtesy of Tim B of this parish. Bruce Dickinson is now cancer-free and back in the saddle, and his band have a new album out in three months' time.

A double CD or triple vinyl if you're so inclined, including one track over 18 minutes long. I think Maiden may have finally gone Full-Prog, but ah well. Something to look forward to on the other side of winter, regardless. And I'm liking that cover art!

Still, we might need to take the afternoon off to give this one a decent listen - yes, mister B?

Monday, June 15, 2015

This Is The Day The World Ends

In the summer of 1982 the Stockholm Scientific Institute prepared an analysis of the aftermath of a theoretical nuclear holocaust set a few years into the new decade. The work caught the attention of Vatican Radio, who made much mileage over its doom-laden forecast of human annihilation and a planet reduced to desert and scavenging rodent survivors. As mention of the study was also made in this book, it also caught the attention of me and my friends mid-1984. After all, the fateful date in question for the study was the slightly more imminent June 15, 1985.

Today marks the 800th anniversary of a much happier milestone event, King John's signing of the Magna Carta, but the aforementioned date held our juvenile attentions much more, I should think. For a while, at least. A year after reading this tid-bit the thought really only occurred to me at a local youth group social, when I realised on the dance floor, awkwardly twitching to something ephemeral and of the moment, that that date had actually arrived - as in, right now. With somewhat nervous laughter I informed one of my friends, and, well, we danced on, a little more reassured - or not.
Thirty years on and the world has not collapsed into a radiated wilderness - yet. I don't recall why this anniversary popped into my head over the past weekend, but here we are, upright (or vaguely so) and here I am grown up, schooled up, mortgaged up and looking for work in all the wrong places. My adolescent anxiety/enthusiasm over nuclear Armageddon seems hopelessly quaint now, almost enviable. The stuff of nostalgia - and long may it remain so.

So in the spirit of thermonuclear nostalgia and misplaced plans, here's my get-through list for Post-Apocalyptic modelling, post-Mirky Dozen, of course. I've stuck to a short, easily-manageable list this time, even though with a new Mad Max movie out and Fallout 4 having just been released, PostApoc gaming and modelling has never been busier! 
My dreams of conquest (ruined):
1 irradiated roadside diner
1 scavenger dune buggy
and maybe,
1 Battletruck(tm) should I ever want to drop down a scale and join the kids kit-bashing Matchbox toys. Looks like fun!
Should that all fall into place then maybe I'll branch out into a Cursed Earth model and go full-Helltrekker. But that might have to wait for a few Dredd models first.

Old Saurs, New Grievances

Last week in an act of great kindness, Al shouted me a ticket to see Jurassic World. Here is my review! And here is Al's. And Jamas'.

Twenty-two year since Jurassic Park. Seven years since the death of Michael Crichton, and nineteen - nineteen years since Billy and the Cloneosaurus. One of us is getting very old, and it may not be the dinosaur. Nevertheless, and despite an advertising campign that left me a little non-plussed, I quite enjoyed this little low-budget indie movie that dared to dream. One of us may be going a little soft in the head. It's still not the dinosaur.

To borrow an already laboured description, Jurassic World is a game of two halves: in the first act of the movie you get the "ooh aah" bits - the technological advances and the realisation of the actually-running-no,-not-a-dry-run-this-time full attraction. There are some familiar elements - the journey to the Island, the rides, the fragmented family group - one of whom must learn about nurturing and responsibility, one of whom just likes big reptiles. There are several contenders for the Jeff Goldblum role of doomsayer, and a not-unsympathetic pretender to the role of Richard Attenborough's John Hammond. One thing I did approve of in this setup is the acknowledgement that this was not a simple case of history having been ignored and then repeated; human nature also plays its part - there's some hubris, of course, but also greed and fickleness. The new dinosaurs of Jurassic World are new dinosaurs because corporate sponsors want a bigger, scarier, "cooler" attraction in a time when Stegosauruses are no more remarkable than a zoo elephant to the modern punter. There's an obvious metatextual element to that, and so I sadly note that Jet Jr is watching movies that are highly sophisticated with CG effects and rendering, but that as he grows up the wonder at the skill behind it, not to mention the great leaps made since my childhood (or even 1993) will be lost on him. When the spectacular is the norm, all you can look for is the flaws.

Monty Python, 65 million years ago...
Jurassic World does have its own flaws - the main characters are pretty one-note (though I finally 'get' Chris Pratt now, I guess), and the two juvenile characters effectively kill their babysitter by abandoning her, and yes, the dinosaurs are the most interesting and well-rounded characters in the movie. But that's what you pay to see, right? So it's good news that once things properly kick off with the iRex at large and proving itself smarter-than-the-average, it's a fun ride. The chases are pretty good, even if the lead [human] female is in high heels, and by crikey the final battle is a doozy. I was actually a little sad that for an audience of people at an opening night with freebies, there was really no interaction or cheering during the feature. I know Kiwi audiences tend towards reticence at these things, but it's an element of US audience culture that I think I could bear to be part of.

In closing then, I recommend this movie. Thanks, Al! But don't bother with the 3-D, it's not that important.  Also, as cool as the ending was (with extra cheese in that closing line), I'm a little worried about what a sequel might mean for this franchise. I was pleasantly surprised this time around, movie gods, maybe we could leave it there?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The King under a Mountain, or The Hobbit reviewed part three

With the passing last week of Sir Christopher Lee, it seemed fitting to mark the event in some small way by viewing one of his films. Of his large and impressive rap-sheet I only have The Wicker Man, and so Mrs Simian and I spent our Saturday night knocking off another milestone - we finally watched The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

Let me say in opening that this is not a good movie to watch if you're after classic Lee. Much of the great man's role was filmed in isolation, and vastly supplemented by distracting CGI and an obvious body double keeping his face out of shot (a pause to recall the fate of another great cinematic Dracula actor may or may not be appropriate here). Unfortunately, the appearance, scripting and execution of Lee's role in Five Armies sums up the maority of the movie to me, also.

I went in expecting to be mildly disappointed, but came away just feeling cross. This film has no heart. It's cluttered, over-saturated, poorly-edited, narratively confused, and bogged down unnecessarily with future continuity. Throughout the production of this trilogy the spectre of Lucas' Star Wars prequels was frequently invoked, and despite my doubts, I think those naysayers were pretty bang on. 

The horse is some way back - it's a metaphor!
To me this movie's greatest failing is as an adaptation. A straight conversion from book to film was never going to be on the cards, pre-existing Rings trilogy or not; and yet as I mentioned in my review of The Desolation of Smaug, the result waters down the core of Tolkien's story with unnecessary diversions. Jackson, Boyens and Walsh's insistence on turning the story into an ensemble piece of elven, human, orc and wizard leads longside its titular hobbit and his dwarven counterpart makes the series title almost redundant. The tragedy of Thorin gets a good covering here, but it's delivered with a hammering home of other things - a made-up blood feud with a character from Tolkien's Rings Appendices; an elven-dwarven romance, Laketown refugee politics, Sauron's gambit with Smaug - also from the Appendices (the reason of Erebor being a strategic stronghold seemed a weak and unconvincing explanation given the movie's confusing geography), the fate of the elves (again) and the all-important scene-setting for the Rings movies.

On paper these additions don't look so bad - some even compliment the sketchiness of the original book in detail. But their execution here is just shoddy, and underline to me how in selling the Laketowners, Legolas' parents, Dol Guldur and Dain short on detail, the great Professor did better service to Bilbo and Thorin as characters. Here it's almost the reverse.

The extended edition is yet to come, of course. I say Enough! 

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Capes and Capability

In recent weeks the roster of TV superheroes availabe to see here in NZ has shifted. We still have Marvel's Agents of SHIELD on Thursday nights, and Daredevil is accessible to those with a Netflix account. but it's fair to say that terrestrially at least, things have quietened down for the most part. Arrow closed off a reputedly acklustre third season with more pillaging of the Caped Crusader's book of enemies and plotlines (still, if you're going to steal...), while Gotham brought its first year to a bloody close and maybe a reduction in the castlist. The biggest finale for me, though, was Flash's.

Saviour of the universe! In my house at least.
This series started with not a lot and just grew and grew. The Flash comes across to me as a second-tier DC superhero - as any of the roster are behind the Big Three of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Yet with a carefully-put together season of mainly one-off metahuman-of-the-week stories, slowly building towards recreating the comic strip's Rogue's Gallery, teasing the identity of the mysterious benefactor Harrison Wells, seeding the season with peripheral allies (Firestorm mainly, but let's not miss out those fun Arrow and Atom crossovers) before ending with a genuinely moving and breathtaking finale. You sit there in wonder that what you're viewing is a television budget show, with the requisite rules and limitations of storyline, narrative and location, and then an item of headware pops through a time-space vortex. This is a series that got my derisive wife invested on the strength of a seemingly peripheral man-child support cast member (Cisco Ramon take a bow!) brought in Mark Hamill mid-season, and then a pretty convincing CG gorilla before the curtain went down. I genuinely can't wait for the next run. It looks like anything could be possible right now with this show.

I never got into Arrow, and increasingly Gotham became a grim watch. The future Batman references were a minor addition in the end - I actually took to this series as a procedural with two great characters in Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock easily, and the lingering complaint that it's not speeding up towards the obvious finish line seem silly to me. With two promotions among the support cast to core cast for next season it looks like not much will change. I hope for the best.

Also hoping for the best: Legends of Tomorrow, which looks rather crazy and as camp as Christmas on the strength of the trailer, Wentworth Miller's ham-tastic Captain Cold and Arthur Darvill sporting a Tenth Doctor wardrobe and not entirely convincing anyone that he's taking his new casting as a time traveller entirely seriously either. I'll stay for Atom shrinking, Dr Martin Stein, Firestorm flying, Hawkgirl in costume and the occasional Flash appearances. I guess I'm in, then.
Proving not all Kryptonians are grim-faced these days

Also from the DC stable and Flash Producer Greg Berlanti is Supergirl, the pilot of which I saw accidntally thinking I was watching the epic-length trailer (sort of). So far it looks fine to me, though nothing astonishing. Comparisons to early Flash are perhaps apposite, so maybe the best is yet to come, and I do think CBS got the lead casting bang on. It hoves very close to established Superman mythology and tropes once more, and I can't decide whether this is a sensible move for a pilot or not; and of course I can't know whether nods to Kara Danvers' famous cousin in Metropolis will be a staple of every episode to come. Unfortunately, Supergirl has a large hill to climb whichever way you look at it - a legacy series based on a succesful movie franchise, a female-centric superhero vehicle, or a newcomer to a busy genre. I wish it well, because I'd love to see something like this do well, especially without the questionable 'support' of a male-centric and over-entitled fanbase.

But here I go, off on one again about comics fans. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Winter is y-comen in

Winter has arrived, and with it 2015 is halfway through. Funny old year. Some triumphs, some upsets; by early next week I may well be on the hunt for a new job, my present one quickly running out, but with this turn of fortunes perhaps an opportunity for some reinvention. A change would be nice.

Outside the workplace there's been some quiet shifting of priorities for me: I'm gradually coming around to the quite-settled realisation that I'm robably no longer a fan of Doctor Who. The old series has been in my life for over thirty years,and it's the old series I still love, but the new stuff? Ehhh. Really like Capaldi, Jenna Coleman's good, too. But the rest just doesn't grab me, and that's okay.

Besides, there's still heaps of stuff to get excited about: two of my favourite bands have put out albums this year, and two more are expected to before the year's over. Four albums is nearly three more than I usually buy in twelve months! TV's been pretty decent, and there are some witty, fun, informative and just really interesting podcasts out there forthe listening. Before I got into a regular cycle of CV updating and cover letter writing I was working on a Mirkwood-themed model (yeah - remember those guys?) and I'm thinking of returning to study. Haven't done that for a few years, but I do remember I got a lot better at it the older I got.

So perhaps the second half of the year will be a busy one, and hopefully a productive one. I'll keep the blog up, anyway.

Friday, May 29, 2015

'A diamond is only some coal that's stuck to its job'

The Darkness Last of Our Kind

Of all of the new releases in my Unexpected Year of Dad Rock, a new album by The Darkness was the least surprising, but still hotly anticipated. After years of spending time with other projects the Hawkins Brothers' return with 2012's Hot Cakes was itself surprising and very welcome, but its success couldn't be measured much beyond the album's merit as a comeback - and that's a kind of album which can be fraught with options. New direction? New dynamic? Old school styling to win back the lost faithful? In the end Hot Cakes took a turn for 'more of the same, but moved on a little', with the band being in their thirties, family men and with quite a lot of water under the bridge, the return was 'enough' for all concerned. But even in the world of the comeback, you're only as good as your next album - so what of the follow-up?

Time has again moved on, and on either side of Last of Our Kind The Darkness have lost a drummer - first their core stickman Eddie Graham, then not long after LOOK's release, drummer for this album Emily Dolan Davies; but I think it's an element of the band's newer resilience that they've weathered these changes and forged on, aided for the time being by second generation rock royalty, Rufus Taylor, son of Queen's Roger.

For its efforts the album is something newer also - no older compositions dusted off and given a studio polish (a la Hot Cakes' 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us'), but all new songs, and a new energy. Opener 'Barbarian' is a rip-snorter with a great heavy riff and measured falsetto, and sets the tone for an album about heroes, villains and invasions - see also 'Roaring Waters' which matches 'Barbarian's' story of Edmund the Martyr's fall with the Sack of Baltimore. But that's enough history lessons, because the only history for the remainder of the album is that of 'the rock'. 'Open Fire' is very much Electric-era Cult, and 'Mighty Wings' takes heavy stylistic cues from Queen's Flash Gordon soundtrack with its synths and posturing lyrics. Before you write that one off, though, Dolan Davies' drums in 'Wings' are indeed mighty, and it demands loud volumes to be played at.

I'm less enamoured with the ballads on this album, though Hot cakes' ones weren't hitting the same spots as the band's debut either - but for wat it's worth, I quite enjoyed bassist Frankie Poullain's
 vocals on 'Conquerors'. Not a bad album ender - though if you're a fan and a little more discerning, the Special Edition of this album contains four extra tracks including some belters in 'I Have Always Had the Blues' and the Van Halenesque 'Million Dollar Strong'.

In all, LOOK is a big mark up from The Darkness' previous two albums, and easily reaches the top two of a discography of, er, four. It makes me want to hear more, and that's what albums, debuts or comebcks or mid-career ones, are supposed to do.

And I haven't even mentioned the title track. Oh, hang on - yes, I did.


Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday Night Local: Shona Laing - 'Soviet Snow' (1987)

Let's go back to the Eighties. The mid-Eighties. The Cold War's not yet over, and we don't really trust those Russians, but we also don't want to go to war with them because what would follow would be a Very Bad Thing for the entire world. This dread of brinksmanship and the possibletipping point into nuclear oblivion is seeded throughout a lot of creative works from this era - even music. Even here in little old, Nuclear Free (tm) New Zealand.

Soviet Snow hails from Shona Laing's big comeback album South (1987); this version is a revamp of the earlier one on South's predecessor, Genre. In the time between albums the Cold War has lingered, perhaps a little less worryingly than the early 80s, but other, equally worrying events have unfolded.

At the time of its release I took the song's title literally, being aware of panic across Europe of fallout drifting with weather currents across Europe and as far as Ireland following the catastrophe at Chernobyl. Laing's song of course was composed before the reactor meltdown, but the incident allows a second reading of the song's chorus and, if I might be so bold, grounds it a little:

Now we're wide awake, the world's aware
Radiation over Red Square
Creeping off to cross Roman roads
Fear of freezing in the Soviet snow
One eye on the winter - oh, just a hint of Soviet snow.

So there's that, at least.

The video is pure Eighties - all big caps CG text buzz words and video montages. And of course, there's the Soviet and Russian imagery and iconography, none of it demystifying the Soviet Union of the Eighties, but anchoring it in a jumble of popular associations, a visual word association game. Laing is a far cry from her long-haired, freckled teenaged Seventies self with spiky, cropped hair (the infamous 'femullet' is, as far as I can remember, only a feature of the video of her bigger hit (Glad I'm Not a) Kennedy), her face intruding from angles, like Rodchenko's Lilya Brik. One more single, Drive Baby Drive and Laing's career would shift again, back out of centre stage; but this song at least freezes a moment of Southern Hemisphere pre-Glasnost anxiety, two years before the Wall would fall and the thaw would begin.