Archive for February, 2012

Eternal Law

February 27, 2012 3 comments

If you were very lucky, you will have missed ITV’s recent attempt at genre drama; supernatural stinker Eternal Law1. The idea is quite a nice one; angels in the form of man take the guise of barristers to defend the innocent, typically fending off similarly disguised demons as they do so. Potentially, this could have been a great mix of court-room drama and supernatural adventure.

What we got was a poorly acted, badly thought out melodrama. It’s almost as if the producers thought that the idea (which though nice, isn’t terribly original) would be strong enough to carry the whole show by itself. The problem wasn’t just one element; this was a potentially brilliant, genre defining TV show let down by a lack of decent stories. Plenty of good ideas and yet not a single one of them was handled well.

The main characters had a lot of potential; the naive and child-like Tom, the bitter yet savvy Zak and the mysterious and capable Mrs Sherringham may have been a bit cliché, but they were strong enough to carry the story. Sadly, instead of letting the viewers getting to know the heroes, we instead got a lot quick fixes and most of the problems in the plot seemed to be resolved either by having the heroes shout at someone, or another character having an inexplicable change of heart.

Great idea, pity about the execution

Eternal Law was filled with some great moments; two angels sitting on top of York Minster having a swift drink talking about saving the world through better legal-aid sold the show to me initially, as did the various one-liners. After all, few shows ever get to have someone say “Hosanna singing ponce”. But nice set scenes do not a story make, and it’s main problem was that it couldn’t decide if it was a low-budget courtroom drama show or a low-budget supernatural thriller. By trying to be too many things, it ended up being nothing.

The real shame here is that not only has the show been cancelled, every botched job like this makes it harder for similar ideas to take their place. Eternal Law wasn’t a bad idea, it was just badly made. It’s tempting to poke fun at the show, but its so poorly put together that I suspect strong language may somehow make it fall apart. I haven’t the heart to be mean, because it’s so naff that I feel sorry for it.

If you want an interesting take on the divine and infernal interfering with the affairs of man, I recommend you check out Chris F Holm’s latest book Dead Harvest instead. Not only is it a better idea, it’d make a cracking bit of telly.

1: Previous efforts to make interesting genre shows have included Primeval and Demons. Whereas the former probably deserves its own post, the latter was the forgotten offspring of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Coronation Street without any of the charm that might imply. Best let sleeping Demons lie.

Categories: Reviews, TV

District 9

February 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Human beings like making up rules for things, and quite often this a good thing. Driving a car is much safer if everyone sticks to the agreed upon rules, and games like chess are pretty rubbish without any sort of system1. But sometimes we make stupid, arbitrary rules that make no sense, such as “You can’t have an intelligent sci-fi movie that is also action filled and fun”. Typically, this is an excuse to justify some rubbish blockbuster, but it is complete nonsense and I can prove it. Take, for example, District 9.2

District 9 is one of those sci-fi movies that uses fantastic elements to comment on real world issues. An alien spaceship becomes stranded on Earth, specifically Johannesburg in South Africa. The aliens are taken off the ship, and put into slums and ghettoes. The responsibility is palmed off to a third-party, corporate interest and mankind does its best to exploit the wealth of technology that has landed on their doorstep whilst trying to ignore the now stranded aliens, pretty much leaving them to rot.

The look and feel of the movie evokes a believable, news report style feel to it all

Sounds preachy? It’s not. It’s a rip-roaring sci-fi action movie, which uses documentary-footage as interesting framework. The story is told from multiple perspectives, and over time makes us understand actions of everyone involved, even those we aren’t going to particularly like.3

Comparisons to 1988 movie Alien Nation, which begins with a similar sort of set-up, may seem a bit inevitable, but the two movies couldn’t be any more different. Alien Nation is a buddy/cop movie that owes more to the likes of 48 hours and Red Heat than it does to any sort of serious look at race relations; it’s ultimate message is an optimistic and happy one from the start, whereas District 9 is a much darker, more gritty view of the world. It assumes that mankind is venal, selfish, lazy and easily repulsed by things it doesn’t understand, though also capable of being something much better. This isn’t a feel good movie, but it is honest, and by being blunt, becomes more real than any slow moving, lecture driven, overly-worthy sci-fi drama ever could be.

District 9 is smart sci-fi in which big things go boom and weird stuff happens. It’s also thought provoking, clever and brilliantly executed, and well worth your time.

1: I mean after you balanced the King on your head and stuck a pawn up your nose. After you’ve done that, the entertainment value has pretty much gone.
2: Apparently, this project came about because a feature based on the video game Halo fell through. Now, that could have simply been another silly blockbuster, but we could have had something that changed the rules on franchise movies. Ah well.
3: It’s easy to make us care about the lead character and the various aliens in the story. But there’s even a point where we feel a pang of sympathy for the villains of the piece. Like many stories about the alien on the doorstep, District 9 is a tale about being human.

Categories: Movies

Black Dynamite

February 20, 2012 Leave a comment

In recent years, Hollywood has not only looked to its past for new ideas, it’s also began to be brutally honest about its history. This has yielded some great movies, but one you may have missed is Blaxploitation1 parody/homage, Black Dynamite.

Nostalgia works best when it’s done with open eyes. This is doubly true for parody. Black Dynamite is not just a pastiche of the highlights of the Blaxploitation genre, it’s a love poem to a wealth of cinema history that many of us disregard.

The plot of the movie follows the adventures of Black Dynamite, a Vietnam veteran and former CIA agent who cleans up the streets in response to his brother being killed. So far, so clichéd, but then, that’s the point. Dynamite is an excellent martial artist, a genius and of course, a superb lover. As the plot of the movie gets more and more unlikely, Dynamite’s near super-human prowess gets equally ridiculous. This allows the movie to start with a parody of the better examples of the genre and then continue to poke fun at more shoddily produced films that where so popular in the Seventies.

A near perfect parody of the genre

In addition to being genuinely funny, clever and well observed, the attention to detail on the feature is incredible; for a start, its shot on the sort of film they used back in the 70’s. Deliberate continuity errors are made, as anachronisms. If you aren’t into the sort of film , Black Dynamite is parodying, you’ll find it amusing. If you’re a massive nerd who happens to know that Rudy Ray Moore used a red boom mike (and frequently kept it in shot), you’ll be bowled over. 2

At its heart, Black Dynamite is one of those American comedies where they layer the jokes on thick in the hope of making you laugh. The reason it makes you laugh so loud is because though many of the gags will fly straight over your head, the sheer volume of ridiculous, genre driven laughs will crack a smile, even if you’ve never even heard of Shaft.

1: Blaxploitation is a genre of movie that came from the 1970’s. They tend to be set in the USA, and feature a heroic black character (usually a man from the ghettos) fighting corruption on multiple levels, and are typically action-driven crime thrillers like Shaft.
2: Okay, you and the one other person in the world who noticed that. Nerd.

Categories: Geek, Reviews


February 17, 2012 2 comments

Some movies are weirder than others. Take, for example Pulgasari. A North Korean monster movie, set in feudal times may sound pretty odd to begin with, but it gets even stranger when you realise that this was a movie produced by recently deceased dictator and all round bad guy, Kim Jong-il.

It gets stranger; Jong-il was a big fan of Godzilla movies (and at the time, merely the son of a tyrant), and had decided that he was going to boost North Korea’s movie industry. Rather than simply invest in film schools and encourage home-grown talent, he decided to go for the Bond-villain route of kidnapping an actress called Choi Eun-hee, who happened to be the ex-wife of a South Korean movie-maker called Shin Sang-ok, who was kidnapped by North Korean agents shortly afterwards. Kim Jong-il then imprisoned the pair and forced them to re-marry. Only then did he ask them to produce movies for the state. 1

So what about the movie itself? Well, it’s a big budget monster movie, in the style of Godzilla, that was made back in the Eighties. This means many of the effects rely on a guy in a rubber suit2 thrashing around and knocking down lots of models of buildings. This actually lends a lot of charm to the picture, which it needs when you consider it’s rather dark origins. It’s a period piece (as if they could make this even stranger), and it features lavish costumes and sets, as well as a huge cast. It’s also only 90 minutes long, which is about the right sort of length for this kind of thing.

Cute, in a goofy looking giant metal eating monster sort of way

Like most good monster movies (and it is a good example of the genre), the plot focuses on the human elements, whilst the monster moves the story forward. At its core, Pulgasari is a tale of ordinary people overthrowing tyranny. The titular monster’s creation story is one of tragedy, it being created through the dying wish of a humble blacksmith forced to starve to death by an evil king. The creature grows by eating iron, and because most of the metal belongs to the kings’ army, it attacks him and his forces first. Eventually, of course, the monster turns on the people and has to be destroyed, but only after a great price has been paid.3

Much has been made of the story by those looking to read a deeper political context into the feature; it’s hard not to given the movies origins but in this case it really is a well made but dumb monster movie. I gather that the original folk legend the film is based on goes much the same way; it’s a parable on the dangers of wealth not being shared rather than a searing critique on a totalitarian regime. The monster turning on the people is more to do with that being a convention of the genre rather than any sort of social commentary.

Oh, and in case you haven’t gathered, this is a foreign movie with subtitles. So of course, the Americans remade it; it’s called Galgameth.

1: Seriously. The pair eventually escaped, by seeking political asylum with the Americans during a business trip to Vienna back in 1986. Shin Sang-ok changed his name to Simon Sheen, and went on to produce the 3 Ninjas series of kids martial arts movies. They have Hulk Hogan in them, which is all you really need to know.

2: Kenpachiro Satsuma, no less, the chap who played Godzilla from 1971 to 1995. The costume itself was produced by the legendary Toho Studios, the firm that produced all the original Godzilla movies.

3: Those aren’t spoilers by the way, that’s how monster movies are supposed to work.

Categories: Geek, Movies, Reviews

Star Wars, in many dimensions

February 13, 2012 7 comments

The Phantom Menace has recently been re-released in 3D. Apparently, I’m meant to be outraged by this, which is odd, as I wasn’t that worried about it back in 1999 when it first came out. My friends and I made a day of it, and all in all, it was a pretty lovely day with nice food, good company and a decidedly average special effects film at the end. Many of my friends and acquaintances seemed outraged that the movie wasn’t very good, which confused me a fair bit, because as far as I’m concerned, none of the Star Wars films are that great1.

George Lucas has said in the past that the thing he loves most about the franchise is the fun that kids have playing with the various toys, and this tells us all we need to know; Star Wars is not only a brand, but an excuse to go out and play with our imaginations. By a combination of accident and design, it has become a way to indulge in escapism, in any way you prefer. The actual movies are neither here nor there. They simply open up a rich and detailed fantasy world, one created by a vast number of people, and I don’t just mean tie-in writers and game designers. The reason Star Wars persists is because anyone who has enjoyed anything with the Star Wars brand on it has used it to tell tales that they have come up with themselves.

This should have been your first clue to not take it so seriously.

The reason people got so angry about the The Phantom Menace was less to do with the quality of the feature and more to do with the fact that many of us had already written that movie in our heads, countless times.2 Few of us will have actually expressed that story in any meaningful way, but the joy of Star Wars is that it’s a fantasy world we can easily share with others. It’s easier to play let’s pretend when we’re all on the same page after all. George Lucas created an amazing sandpit for us to explore, and then years later, we begrudge him for trying to bring new toys to the playground, rather than just leaving those toys in the corner and getting on with hard work of making stuff up.

It also doesn’t help that the Star Wars franchise moved on from its motion picture origins long ago. They are table top games, computer games, cartoons, novels and a plethora of excuses to dress up as people from that world. Many try to compare one experience to another, without stopping to consider that it doesn’t matter how you’re telling a story, the fun part is the story, not the medium. Granted, some people tell the tale better than others, but if are willing to try, you can find a Star Wars inspired thing that will please you. Lucas created a shared world and a common language that we can all enjoy, if we’re inclined to do so.

Of course, he also used that franchise to make himself rich and the brand frequently gets rented out to sell us things we don’t need or want, but that’s civilisation for you, using Yoda to sell mobile phones is no more irksome than using Robin Hood to sell breakfast cereal.

So the next time someone asks you to care about Star Wars, ask yourself, is it the brand you care about, or the stories you can use that brand to tell?

1: I’ll concede that The Empire Strikes Back is a great bit of Science Fiction Fantasy, but as it’s sandwiched between two decent but not spectacular movies, it isn’t all that.
2: Had people come out of the The Phantom Menace with full Jedi powers and a fully functioning laser-sword light-sabre, they would have still have found something to complain about.

Categories: Geek, Movies

Order of the Stick

February 10, 2012 1 comment

Rich Burlew’s The Order of the Stick has been in the nerd news recently due to the fact that it’s raised over $ 600,000 via Kickstarter1. For the uninitiated, The Order of the Stick is a webcomic that parodies the game of Dungeons and Dragons2. The core joke is that everyone speaks in game terms as if they where a real thing, because to them, they are. So when someone gets hurt, they talk about hit points, job interviews involve discussions about experience point totals, etc. This may seem like a barrier to non-gamers, but the nerd humour is just a side-line to the main plot.

Y’see, The Order of the Stick is deceptive piece of work. Take the artwork, for example. They’re stick men and women (hence the name). Simple art, yes? You would be forgiven for thinking so, but it’s nothing of the sort. These designs are incredibly simple but at the same time very well realised. Simple yet appealing character design is one of the major goals of any good artist. (Take Snoopy for example; Iconic, instantly recognisable and also very simple.) Each element is carefully thought out and very easy on the eye. And its genius is that most people have noticed how complex it is, and yet they enjoy it none the less.

Yes, you can be deep and clever at the same time

Simple, clever, funny, deep. Order of the Stick.

The same applies to the story. Amidst the gags about hit points and story clichés, Burlew has snuck in an epic-fantasy story that is not only a parallel to the likes of A Game of Thrones and The Lord of The Rings it also comments on the structure of fantasy story telling itself. The world is has detailed as any of its epic cousins, and just as grand in scale and design. These simple looking stick people grow and develop. We care when they are hurt and cheer when they succeed. The reader grows to care about them, just like you should when a story is told well. Yet even the concept of character development and growth is examined, parodied and made entertaining. The author never lectures, he simply shows the reader the mechanisms of storytelling whilst claiming to be a simple storyteller. Burlew is a magician who shows you exactly how the trick is done, and at the same time, you don’t notice yet still wonder how he does it.

The Order of the Stick is a stick-figure cartoon gag strip. It’s also a rich and complex work of art with a fundamental understanding of how we tell stories. Of course it’s based around roleplaying games, because many of our modern storytellers learn the craft by rolling dice to fight dragons. It may not have been the creator’s intention to deliver such a grand endeavour, but this is where he has brought us. This is why it is so beloved by its fans, and why it is doing so well.

You can check it out here, though I should warn you that it is epic in length, don’t try this in a single sitting.

1: Kickstarter’s brilliance is that it tells the user that they’re being philanthropic whilst at the same time being a great place to look for bargains. It lets everyone play at being an entrepreneur, even those of us with little money.
2: Specifically the Third and Third-and-a-half-editions of the game. This may seem as a minor technical point to some of you, but it was D&D’s third edition that changed the status of the game from ‘something that was once relevant in the eighties’ to part of the popular culture, mostly due to some very clever handling of the intellectual properties associated with the game.

Categories: Comic Books, Geek, Reviews


February 6, 2012 1 comment

Why aren’t you watching Castle?

For the uninitiated, it’s the show that Firefly star Nathan Fillion did next. It isn’t sci-fi, it’s a cop show1 and revolves around the adventures of Detective Kate Beckett, (played by former Bond Girl Stana Katic) and an incredibly successful crime writer, Richard Castle. (Played by Captain Tightpants himself, Nathan Fillion.) Beckett is a gritty New York cop on the edge, looking for the scumbags that have done her wrong, whereas Castle is a care-free, fun loving thrillseeking crime novellist who brings with him the power of imagination. Together, they fight crime.

Sounds cheesy, doesn’t it?

The pen. Mightier than the sword. But not mightier than a gun that shoots pens.

It is. It’s as clichéd as it sounds as well as silly and light. A classic cop show, the sort that many of us grew up with. If elements of it seems familiar, it may be because one of the main writers for the show was Stephen J. Cannell2, who wrote the Rockford Files and The A- Team.

American crime dramas are ten-a-penny but Castle is one of the few which focuses less on the crime, and more on the crime fighters. The show is filled with cross-genre references (and frequent nods to Firefly) and has had stories centring around comic books, alien abductions, steampunk parties and superspies. Each ridiculous premise is taken on the chin, without the show ever descending into parody. Fillion’s larger than life hero makes it easy to suspend disbelief, and as the show never actually crosses the line into pure fantasy, what we end up with is a cop-show that pretends to be as grime filled as the streets of New York, but instead happens to be filled with fun.

There is, of course, a will they/won’t they sub-plot going between the two main characters. Of course there is, it’s that kind of show. The support characters have their own sub-plots and romance things going on, and the world of Castle breathes. The show works because not only is each member of the cast distinctive and interesting, they’re important. We care about Castle’s family and the other detectives in the precinct. The lead character may be a care free clown, but as the show progresses, we grow to understand why.
Castle draws us in with charming little references to geek culture, entertains us with Fillions charm, makes us laugh with a cleverly arranged sight gag or subplot and then just as we get to relax, it reminds us that it is a cop show and that in crime stories, horrible things happen to good people, and because we have invested into the characters so much, we love it.

1: Rather than Crime Drama, which is a terribly broad term. Sherlock is a crime drama, as is The Killing. Cop shows tend to be less intense, and have good guy cops versus bad guy robbers. Or to put it another way, are more likely to be escapist and fun, rather than thrilling and gritty.
2: Cannel passed away about a year and half ago. He was an incredible talent, and great scriptwriter and also happened to be dyslexic.

Categories: TV