Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Under Hill

I've been required to do a fair bit of travelling recently. A bit of flying (I love landscapes from above), and a lot of driving. Though New Zealand varies region by region, and certainly it's not the postcasrd travelogue recent movies have CG-ed up, there are parts of this country that are gorgeous in their mute simplicity.

As a young Simian I would travel the main highway to Dunedin with my parents when visiting family down there, and from the back set of our car I'd watch the contryside change as we travelled further south, becoming hillier, greener, the low slopes and mrangeds alternately withdrawing and approaching as we wound our way through places with evocative names: Blueskin Bay, the Kilmog Hill, Pigeon Flat, Flagstaff . As I grew older and took books with me for the journey these places would become proxies for Tolkein's Middle Earth locations: Weathertop, Amon Hen, the Dead Marshes, the Misty Mountains, Mirkwood.

Kilmog Hill by Ian@NZFlickr

For me, reading has always been a very visual experience. I'm unable to follow a story unless I can build a picture of it in my mind, with locations, casting (for want of a better term) and so forth. I've no idea if this is normal, but it's been the habit of a lifetime. Similarly, my Dungeons & Dragons experiences were also visual, and informed by the same landscapes I travelled though at the time. Travelling through the lower rolling countryside of the Kapiti Coast and lower Manawatu, Rotorua's Waioekea Gorge, and the Rimutaka incline brings back those fancies of a younger me, head full of roleplaying and fantasy scenarios. What armies of goblins and unspeakable creatures lurked inside those emerald grassy domes carved by rivers and wind?

Landscape plays a part in roleplaying, but I'm interested to know how much this matters to players from different locales. I was of course extremely fortunate to have literally just outside town the countryside that would become Peter Jackson's Middle Earth (and no, I've not yet made it to Matamata/Hobbiton!), but did city-locked Inner Birmingham and Greater Manchester players of my generation plant themselves in fantasy worlds built from their surroundings? Did the experience of players in the US work the landscapes seen from their bedroom and car windows into the same sweeping prairies and cliff and pine tree panoramas that the likes of Larry Elmore made a career painting into the rulebooks I lost myself in?

Answers on a postcard. Really.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Suicide is Painless

This month I had a stop-over in Gisborne for work. It was wet, I don't know anybody there and was a bit anxious about what was in store for me the following day, so rather than cooling my heels in a motel room with bad telly I took in a movie. I saw Suicide Squad in a small-town cinema at a late session with six other people including three of the local youths - loud voices, confident swagger, armfuls of candy bar popcorn and selfies galore. What the hell I thought, they may be more the movie's dynamic than I am.

But in the end I didn't mind Suicide Squad and some parts and characters I quite dug. It's certainly not the ultraviolent hoodlum gangster flick I feared it would be, and is more likeable than Batman v  Superman, and though it fell a little drunkenly between stools (namely the grimy urban vision of David Ayer's original shoot and the dayglo gonzo of Trailer Parks' reworking) it falls just short of recalling some mid 80s B movie fare in giddy pleasures. Perhaps I responded to this movie from a background in comics like 2000AD's Strontium Dog and Bad Company, where motley bands of outcasts find their honour in the spurned work of normal men, and redemption the insurmountable odds of doomed battle. Truly, Squad is to date the most comic-strip looking of the modern superhero movies, relishing in its colourful grotesques.

I find my reactions are frustratingly akin to those of others. - yes Margot Robbie, Will Smith and Viola Davis carry the movie. But yes also Jay Hernandez deserves more recognition for his doomed Diablo, and Joel Kiniman does a lot with his character Rick Flagg's character - enough, in fact, that I'm sorry the movie didn't make more of Flagg and Deadshot's grudging alliance seen through his eyes; the normal man amidst Amanda Waller's crew of deadly circus turns. Jared Leto is hard to gauge - he's simply not in the movie enough, and could have been edited out for the most part, which isn't to say I wouldn't want to see his Joker return, it's just that Squad is not a Joker movie whatever the marketing and trailer might have led everyone to believe. 

But, like Batman v Superman before it, Suicide Squad has turned out to be a different beast from the slick production the trailers promised. It is a little lumpy in places, and the third act looks like it's had some chops that would make F4ntastic Four snigger. The musical cues are all up the wop in places and in others are about as blurty and welcome as the soundtrack to a DIY programme. Cara Delevigne dances about as well as I do in her big scene, and there are other casualties along the way. Katana and Killer Croc hardly get out of the gate and are timidly underused, the former especially as Flagg's hired muscle. Boomerang has to feature in the Flash movie if there's any justice. We just see too little of him, and a comic foil with his rough unrepentant charm would to my mind be more fitting than Harley's "irksome" self-aware needling. 

But Jeez - it's not the end of the world, and it's not cinematic trash. It's guilt-free gung-ho hooligan heroism, with a powerful foil in Davis' Amanda Waller (essentially the true villain of the piece.) Its part in the DC cinematic universe is well-earned with some fun and effective cameos by two Justic League members, and its graphics are awesome. It's by no means perfect, but I can't help liking it. Let justice be served - let's see them again. 

Postscript: Justice has of course come to this movie, weirdly enough. The critics have been effectively silenced, and Squad has become the Little Blockbuster That Improbably Did. It's out-grossed Captain America : The Winter Soldier without a Chinese release, and out-profited Iron Man, its soundtrack has just gone gold, and it's Will Smith's most profitable movie. It's made a star of Margot Robbie and Harley Quinn into a future movie lead. This despite a lingering well-below-par critical score and acknowledged production and editing issues. The future for Suicide Squad looks bright, I'd say, though some of the above will assuredly make it an interesting one. And I can't wait to see what makes it onto the Blu Ray.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Lead Time Lords: The Twelfth Doctor

Hullo! And welcome back to a new instalment of this lumbering series. There's more to come, so sit down, grab a stiff brandy and settle in.

Here, then, is the Twelfth Doctor, in the form of Crooked Dice Studio's lookee-likey Tucker Newman (great name.) Up until very recently CD were the only game in town for a Twelfth Dr figure, but new licence-holders Warlord Games have just teased everyone with their (slightly taller) version of him in his Hell Bent duds - hoodie, red 'lectric guitar, stupid f***ing sonic specs and his journeyman walk looking for all the world like the Mid-life Crisis Doctor he's sadly become. God I hated last year's season - for the most part. They do say no-one loathes Doctor Who more than Doctor Who fans.

I do digress, because the figure here is Peter Capaldi's marvellous, abrasive, alien Doctor in his first year, replete with his Hartnellesque lapel-hooking finger, his magician get up (check out that flash of red lining!) and that majestic pair of eyebrows. Why, I was so intimidated by those space caterpillars that I didn't dare finish painting his eyes for fear of catching the wee man's baleful gaze.

There was a bit of planning here, but no modification needed. It's a beautiful sculpt by CD's reliable Ernst Blofeld sorry, Veingart. Simple but effective, with the aforementioned overturned Crombie jacket front to break up the navy and charcoal stovepipes (I cheated - it may well be an all navy ensemble, but I wasn't going there.) He was a pleasure to paint, with a great likeness and very forgiving face (except the eyebrows, obviously) although I expect I may yet return to him to tidy up some of the blue and maybe... maybe, attempt those eyes. The cobblestone base is mine and I'm rather chuffed with it.

Cripes - he's looking my way again. Aargh!

Monday, August 1, 2016

Video Affects: 'Wuthering Heights' - Kate Bush

It's a point of historical fact that for probably the first years of my life my family don't own a modern TV. Ours is big, blocky, and black and white. When we finally have the luxury of two TV sets, the old one is housed for a while in the bedroom of my older sister, and on it of a Saturday evening she, my brother and I will watch the early evening fare before bedtime. Probably The Dukes of Hazzard, The Incredible Hulk or Little House on the Prairie. But crucially also, among my sister's M*A*S*H and Scott Baio posters, some tidbits of pop music via classic chart show Ready to Roll. I am eight years old, and about to have one of the great frights of my life.

Picture a night-black studio, its floor smothered in dry ice fog. Out of it and strobing with the same video feedback trick that made The Jackson Five's Blame It On The Boogie so memorable, is something more starting. A ghost. A wailing, wide-eyed spectral woman in white with a high pitched mournful song that could only itself be about a ghost. At eight I think I've heard of a banshee - and this seems the most accurate depiction of one I could imagine. Somehow, I think the song's creator would approve.

Kate Bush's oeuvre has always had elements of the supernatural and horror about it, from Hammer Horror to Experiment IV, the opening snippet of Night of the Demon leading into Hounds of Love to the wonderfully (and literally) batty cosplay on the back of fourth album Never For Ever. But no song is as redolent as Wuthering Heights, its Gothic imprimatur well intact. Unsurprisingly for what follows, Bush is a revelation - and Wuthering Heights sets out her agenda with aplomb. Eerie, arty, outsider music of a kind which ought not to be able to escape its Seventies trappings were it not for Bush's own ability to follow the trend and her ability to reinvent herself.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. For the moment this is the first time I'll ever see Kate Bush, and I'm ready to run to the hills in terror. There are two videos for Wuthering Heights; this is the lesser-seen one, but it's the one that will haunt my nights for a good few weeks to come.