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Robo-Skeletons Versus Epic Heroes

October 31, 2011 4 comments

Well, it’s the season to be spooky, so I’d thought I’d finally get round to a book that surprised me and that I enjoyed quite a bit; The Fall of Damnos 1 by Nick Kyme.

If I’m honest, I wasn’t expecting a lot from the book; it’s a novel set in the 40K2 universe, and features the near-perfect warriors of humanity, The Ultramarines3 bashing the hell out of spooky robotic skeleton monsters, the Necrons4. The plot is quite straight forward; ancient mechanical horror rises from the depths of the densely populated mining world Damnos, and Space Marines turn up to punch said antediluvian menace in the face. I was expecting an action packed diversion, a rip roaring tale of adventure starring lantern jawed heroes smacking villainous villains, peppered with gritty darkness .

By the way; In this story, Damnos falls Just so you know.

And I got all that. What I wasn’t expecting was to walk away feeling sympathy for all of the characters, including the Necrons. The trick to a good action story is to make the reader/viewer/listener care about characters involved, and The Fall of Damnos does this by giving us an insight into the daily routine of the main characters, we see Ultramarines politicking in a ‘Greco-Romans in Space’ sort of way, we see the inhabitants of the doomed planet getting on with the daily routine and most interesting of all, we see the Necrons politicking and vying for favour and power within their own ranks. Given that Necrons are basically gothic cyborgs, this is a bit of a treat. It’s nice to see the evil robot monsters get a chance to actually be villains, rather than yet another faceless threat.

It’s not without its flaws; Kyme spices up the Ultramarines by giving them a bit more of political bent, and this isn’t explored strongly enough to be compelling. As fun as a 40K version of HBO’s Rome would be, Fall of Damnos really doesn’t have the space to cram it in, this is a book about big men with big guns shooting horrific monsters. The Ultramarines felt fairly interchangeable to me, and though this paralleled nicely with the robotic hordes, this element didn’t engage me strongly enough to work. Personally, I found the characters that happened to be ordinary people the most interesting; dragged into a war between titans, the human characters, from the plucky resistance fighters to the despair driven commander moved the story forward for me.

If you like the 40K setting, and like well written space marine battles, this is for you.


1: I deliberated a lot about writing book reviews; I’m a writer myself, and I’m especially interested in so called tie-in novels because I do love playing in other peoples creative sand-pits.
2: The fun thing about “tie-in” fiction is that the author can add depth to an existing world, yet they only have to explain aspects of the world that are relevant to the current story. That means the writer can litter the book with references for the fans, without alienating new readers. Its nifty, and I like it, though critics of “tie-in” fiction misunderstand this element entirely.
3: In the past, I’ve described the Ultramarines as “The Manchester United of the Astartes”. By which I mean they’re so popular and ubiquitous that people fall over themselves to find reasons to dislike them, because fans always like to whinge about the team at the top. The football metaphor doesn’t really work for other space marines, so I am unable to work out which chapter recently defeated the Ultramarine 6-1 in an Inter-Astartes Soccer Match. Probably the Imperial Fists.
4: Necrons are a peculiar mix of Undead monsters, cybernetics-gone-wrong and horror-from-beyond-time. They fit the classic sci-fi cliché of Cybermen and Borg, but also have an occult twist to them that reminds me of the darker sort of Cthullhu Mythos story.

Categories: Books, Reviews Tags:

Rocky with Robots

October 24, 2011 1 comment

A recent trend in movies is to take a successful toy range and turn it into a movie. Battleships is coming out soon, and we’ve already had films based on popular Eighties toys like G.I. Joe and Transformers1. Real Steel seems to follow in this tradition by being based on Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots2. For those of you not familiar with the toy, it features a two robots in a boxing ring, and you pound buttons until one of the robots gets hit in the jaw and pops.

The movie follows pretty much in the same vein. It’s a boxing movie with giant robots in it. It’s set in world where people have grown bored of watching two adults pound the hell out of each with their limbs and instead pay to watch two robots being guided by adults pound the hell out of each other instead.

Man I used to pound the hell out of those things

The plot of the movie is pretty straight forward. Hugh Jackman plays down-on-his luck ex-boxer who lacks the patience and outlook to do well at the new hi-tech sport, making his way with the scraps he can find. Along comes his estranged, 11-year-old son, played by Dakota Goyo3, and together, after more than a little heartache, a lot of Father/Son bonding/arguments and buckets they team up to bring us buckets of robot on robot action.

Is it cheesy? Hell yes. Is it schmaltzy? Again, yes. Is it fun? You betcha. The baddies are nicely bad, the heroes are flawed yet sympathetic and you really find yourself rooting for the heroes at the end. They’ve blended every ‘kid does good’ and ‘Boxer on the come back tour’ movie together, and added giant robots, and it works. The robots look great, the acting does the job it’s supposed to and again, and it made my inner-eleven-year-old make little happy sound.

Now where’s my Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots…


1: I do wonder if they’ll do Visionaries. It’d probably be in 3D, but hey, Visionaries…
2: A toy, that wikipedia tells me, came out in the 60’s. It must have been still around in the 80’s, because I had a ‘made in Hong Kong’ version and it was one of favourite toys when I growing up. (And I know it’s not actually based on the toy, but it’s funnier this way.)
3: last seen as young Thor, in Thor. And surprisingly not saccharine for mop-topped blonde kid.

Categories: Reviews Tags:

Rockets, Rayguns and Really Nice Tea

October 20, 2011 Leave a comment

In case you didn’t know, I’m running a larp event at Hebden Hey Scout camp, the weekend of Friday, 30th March 2012.

It’s called Rockets, Rayguns and Really Nice Tea, and it’s a game that evokes the excitement of Dan Dare action stories and the creeping horror of Bernard Quatermass.

It’s a set in a world of two-fisted justice, rocket powered heroism, hidden horrors, lurking conspiracy and exploration. Square jawed heroes team up with brilliant academics and savvy politicians to unearth the wonders and horrors of a world still reeling from the Second World War. It is an alternate history larp that features very little steam, hardly any punks and a huge amount of fun.

Want to know more? Some handy, printer friendly downloads are here:

Setting information and timeline
Societies
Event Invite
Rules of the game
Equipment List
Booking Form

You can also email Rocketlarp(the at symbol goes here) gmail.com.

Did I mention it's a system that uses NERF? It uses NERF.

EDIT: A quick update. As described elsewhere, I eventually gave this project to very good friends to handle. They’ve done amazing things with it and you can find out more up to date information here:

www.rayguns.co.uk/

Categories: Geek

Inner City Versus Outer Space

October 17, 2011 2 comments

Riffs on the idea of an alien invasion have been redone countless times. Marauding creatures from beyond the stars have been defeated by everything from cowboys to Santa Claus in the past. But Aliens versus South London Hoodies? There’s a novel idea. What happens when you take a tedious British movie about urban decay and how tough it is to be a youth on the streets and drop alien monsters into the mix?

The result is Attack the Block. Director Joe Cornish1 has taken UK Film Council money and made a B-movie reminiscent of the sort of fun films Hollywood used to make in the 80’s, such as Critters, Gremlins and CHUD. It’s refreshing to see a British movie that’s fun for the sake of being fun, and a B-movie that isn’t trying to be anything else. That’s not say it’s not got subtext and clever social parody; of course it has, it’s been partially funded by Film4 so we expect that, it’s just that’s also has big monsters eating people.
The story is tight, the characters fun and interesting. Humour is injected throughout the movie, but so is a constant feeling of danger and terror. One flows naturally into the other, neither is particularly forced.

(c) Film4

I wonder what would have happened had the aliens landed in Glasgow...

I would say that the first five minutes of the movie are the least promising; it really does start out as yet another British movie about how crap Britain is, even though those opening scenes are done suberbly. Maybe it’s the strength of the opening scene or the raw talent of actor John Boyega’s performance, but I utterly fail to have any sympathy for the lead character, Moses. Whereas the rest of the hapless hoodies all seem to be kids way out of their depth, Boyega’s “Good kid in a bad place, doing the best he can” fails to elicit any empathy; I suspect I’m supposed to feel for him, but I don’t. Boyega is simply too convincing as a thug. In a way this is a good thing as it lends a heavy dose of pathos2 to movie.

If you have a spare couple of hours and like monster movies of this ilk, you could do a lot worse than check this out. I hope to see more from Joe Cornish in years to come. It would be awesome if the UK could continue to produce this sort of scary fun.


1: Jo from Channel Four comedy programme Adam and Joe. Sad to say, no toy pastiche action in this movie. I’m sure someone will do one.
2: Pathos is like salt; you may not notice it’s missing when you first tuck into your meal, but once it’s added, it can improve things immensely.

Categories: Geek, Movies, Reviews Tags: ,

He looked out and said to me “run for your life!”

October 15, 2011 2 comments

These days, it seems you can’t be a fictional hero without having your own tourist attraction. Batman and Spiderman have their own roller coaster rides, Harry Potter has an entire theme park.

So what about The Doctor from the titular show, Doctor Who? Well, in a sort of way, he does. Crash of the Elysium is a Doctor Who themed theatrical production in which the audience play the starring role. Half ghost-train and half stage-play, you come face to face with one of the show’s most terrifying monsters, all the while running for your life. The overall experience is very evocative of everything we love about the show; thrills, chills, scary monsters and friendly time travelling space-wizards. The production is a theme-park ride with class and style, which is what you’d expect for such a venerable TV-show.

(c) BBC

The acting is superb and engaging

Crash of the Elysium is of course, brought to you by Punchdrunk a theatrical company who specialise in this sort of thing. The show begins gently (like all good theme park rides) and then picks up very quickly, one moment you’re browsing some dry looking museum exhibits and the next moment,you are in an environmental encounter suit, face to face with mild peril. I won’t say much more about the plot, but if you do get to see the show, I defy anyone to attend and not get completely sucked in.

The production is also firmly part of the current Doctor Who series. Co-written by show supremo Steven Moffat, it features nods and winks to the ongoing series all the way through. This is no ‘tribute’ to the show, this is another episode of the current incarnation of The Doctor presented in a unique way.

Crash of the Elysium is one of many show’s that premiered earlier this year at The Manchester International Festival, and you will be able to catch it as part of the London 2012 Olympic cultural celebrations. If you can, do bring along a small child, or borrow a friend’s small child if you don’t have one of your own. I attended the ‘Over 13’s’ show and it was mostly adults, despite the show being written for children, as some of the plot points are aimed squarely at the young. That said, everyone attending immediately turned into delighted (and well-behaved) children, utterly enchanted by the production, the plot and the acting. My only criticism is that it only an hour long, and that I’m going to have to wait till next year to go on this ride again.

Categories: Reviews, Theatre Tags:

Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief

October 12, 2011 3 comments

They are, broadly, two different ways you can tell a story about spies; one involves gadgets, explosions, exotic locations and beautiful women. The other tends to involve paper work, surveillance, anonymous corridors and grumpy looking old men. We tend to be more familiar with the former, which is a pity, as the latter can be every bit as thrilling and exciting. Good spy thrillers mix action with paranoia to keep you on the edge of your seat throughout the story.

The movie Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is two and half hours of grumpy old men being extremely paranoid at each other. As unappealing as that sounds, it’s very good. But then, of course it is, because each component of the movie, from the script to the direction is exactly right. The cast is brilliant; any film that sticks Toby Jones1, Gary Oldman and John Hurt in a room together would have to try pretty hard to fail, and Tinker Tailor does not disappoint. At the start of the movie, they spark of each other brilliantly and this sets the atmosphere for the rest of the feature. The rest of the cast are equally superb; Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect as the steadfast and brilliant Peter Guillam and Tom Hardy is equally superb as the heroic yet tragic Rikki Tarr.

 George Smiley (c)Working Title Films

Gary Oldman has been Sid Vicious, Dracula and now George Smiley. That makes a strange sort of sense, in many ways.

The sheer weight of talent on the screen is enough to carry the movie through. However, as it’s a clever adaption of a John le Carré directed by Tomas Alfredson2. The result is brilliant, and I firmly expect it to sweep up all the Oscars. Even the imaginary ones.

In essence, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a period piece about Cold War paranoia. This is a movie that is soaked in the fear and misery of the that time. The 70’s back-drop is drab and grim, nobody smiles and everyone is expecting the world to end in nuclear fire at any moment. Every element of the movie, from the direction to performances drips terror of an age we were all very happy to see the back of. This is not a spy-movie, this is movie about Intelligence agencies and the paranoia that surrounds them.

If tense, brilliantly directed, superbly acted dramas about paranoia, creeping despair and the spying game aren’t your thing, then avoid this. Otherwise, go see it if you haven’t all ready.


1: Yes, it’s another review about a movie with Toby Jones in it. What can I say, he’s probably one of the best actors around right now.
2: He directed Let the Right One In. Y’know, that brilliantly evocative vampire movie that was doing the rounds a couple of years ago? If you’ve missed it, seek it out.

Categories: Geek, Movies Tags:

Far too clever for a Cardinal

October 6, 2011 1 comment

History, they tell me, is an excellent source of ideas for storytellers. The more cynical like to say that history is itself an excellent work of fiction.1 When I look at the more recent trend in “Historical” drama, I can see their point. These days, a mere retelling of history is not enough to hold the interest of the general public. It has to have sex and violence in it, and luckily, most history does.

The Borgias2 is a case in point. Historically, The House of Borgia is fascinating. Pick a family member at random and we have reports of murder, fraud, blasphemy, betrayal and all sorts of sex related shenanigans. They also happened to be doing all these things just as the Renaissance was kicking off, so you have interesting people doing interesting things in interesting places during an incredibly important period of history. This pretty much makes The House of Borgia a big shiny jewel in the crown of historical drama.

Holiday Grainger asLucrezia Borgia i (c) Showtime

Lucrezia Borgia, looking nothing like a member of goth band, The Sisters Of Mercy.

It’s rather a pity then, that actual historical fact is a mere footnote; instead the show concentrates on telling a cracking story which is sort-of-true if you squint a bit. Luckily, there’s so much good source material provided by history that it’s almost impossible to do a story about The House of Borgia badly, and The Borgias is well written, directed and cast, though thoroughly over the top.

The plots are fairly Machiavellian, which is spot-on, because this is a show that features Machievelli as a supporting character. Enough attention is paid to history to make it feel authentic without it being a history lesson. If you want to know about 16th Century Italy, read a book. If you want sex, violence, fabulous frocks and an engaging story about power and madness, watch this.

Jeremy Irons is marvellous in his papal splendour, and plays the role of the cunning, clever and quite insane Pope Alexander VI to the hilt, hardly a piece of scenery goes unchewed. The rest of the family are equally marvellous, François Arnaud plays Cesare Borgia as an almost noble yet conflicted man, torn between being a little bit evil and incredibly evil, and Holliday Grainger gives us a demure, slightly naive and yet incredibly deadly Lucrezia Borgia. I am very glad that rather than pitch Lucrezia as a femme fatale from the start, we get a steady run-up to it. The entire first series really does seem to be a prologue for the madness to come, and as history is only given a passing nod, anything could happen. A good start, but one that I hope will improve with subsequent series.


1: A news editor I used to work with used to describe history as “Human interest stories that have stood the test of time”. I sort of like that.
2: I’m talking about the recent 2011 TV series produced by Showtime here. Rather than the 1981 BBC production of the same name, which, if memory serves, suffers from not being as good as I, Claudius. By the way, if you’ve not seen I, Claudius, then you really should.

Categories: Reviews, TV