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Sam reviews: Minister of Chance, episode 2

by on Jun.05, 2011, under Reviews

avatarI’ve already sung the praises of the first episode of the Minister of Chance. Having waited for quite some time for the release of the second episode — it was delayed by negotiations with iTunes — I was right there at the download button as soon as it was available. I then had to wait until I had enough free time to listen to it, because MoC isn’t like an audio book, where all the work is done for you; and it’s not like television, where the combination of audio and visual data lay on a veritable smörgåsbord of story. The soundscape is rich and detailed and requires active listening to pick up all of the audio clues to what is going on.

But don’t let that put you off. It’s an effort well rewarded.

Minister of Chance

The first episode saw Kitty follow the Minister through a door to another world. Although this is part of the extended Whoiverse, there has been no mention of Time Lords or Gallifrey and certainly no TARDIS. The Minister gets around by creating doors between worlds and crossing the ice-bridges between them — those of you who have seen Thor might ponder the parallels with their take on Bifrost being an Einstein-Rosen Bridge. He’s not the only one, either. He is searching for a character called the Horseman, and all we know so far is that it’s vitally important that he find him.

As the episode starts the Minister and Kitty have been captured and are being held prisoner in the dark; a nice touch, as thus both the world of the listener and their world are sightless. Their captors intend feeding them to a monster as an entertainment spectacle. Here they find someone else from Kitty’s world: a man called Sutu who describes himself as “a simple farmer” and says he was gathering mushrooms when he saw a light and followed it then found himself on a very similar-sounding bridge to the one Kitty and the Minister used. Kitty sees him as someone to talk to who isn’t condescending and annoying; the Minister apparently sees him as another asset to help them escape.

In the meantime Professor Cantha is hard at work as a prisoner scientist. Although she’s supposed to making weapons — they may claim that science is ineffective, but magic doesn’t build rockets — she is not too busy to engage in philosophical debate about relative morality with her guards.

Thus the two strands of story weave in and out of one another, and I shall leave discussions of the plot aside at this point for fear of spoilers.

Once more the audio is immersive and evocative. One of the many moments that stood out was a scene in which they were wading through deep water: the sound was spot on. The character development is incredibly clever. Kitty is loquacious almost to the point of verbal diarrhoea, while the Minister is reserved and absorbed. He can be very dismissive of Kitty — “When I want your opinion I’ll shoot myself” — but she has the confidence and self-belief to stand up to this. This uneven relationship reflects the relationship of the listener to the storytellers. Kitty’s character is that of someone who is constantly asking questions, in an almost childish manner, and is hardly ever quiet. This method of explanation compensates for the lack of visual information without any need for forced exposition. She is depicted as being utterly confrontational, as if she knows no other way to be. She is, fundamentally, a pest, and so the badgering for answers does not come across as being contrived.

The Minister, on the other hand, being reticent and obviously highly capable and intelligent, offers the sense of there being a bigger picture yet to be revealed. For instance, he demonstrates Holmes-like deduction in the opening scene to determine where they are, what’s going to happen, and how to escape. This he feeds to Kitty, and therefore the listener, in bite-sized chunks, ordering her about and telling her and Sutu to do things on the pretext that they need distracting to give him time to think, but when in fact they are making escape possible. By the time the escape plot has borne fruit it is clear that he worked out all of this before the episode started. We are then left wondering what he was so busy thinking about while they were supposedly distracted from bothering him.

The Minister has a capacity to treat terrifying situations logically that will be familiar to Doctor Who fans, and a similarly dismissive attitude towards the prospect of a horrible fate. At one point he says to Kitty “Try to die quietly,” suggesting that if she is eaten by a monster the worst thing that could happen would be for her to continue bothering him with incessant chatter. He also has the same trait of seeming more than willing to sacrifice himself for others, only for a later reveal to show he had something up his sleeve all along.

Professor Cantha’s character is fleshed out, too. She’s a guerrilla Ben Goldacre who knows more about the worlds beyond hers than she’s letting on. She is absolutely committed to what she knows is right and not shy about claiming moral superiority. She points out, by reflecting the prejudices of the guards against them, how ridiculous those prejudices are. She is a pacifist Tony Stark: like him, she builds something other than a rocket right under the noses of her captors. You’ll have to listen to the episode to find out what, though.

By the end of this episode, although we have not gained much in the way of knowledge about how the politics work, or what led to this state of affairs, who the mysterious Horseman is (despite getting to meet him, at last) or what exactly makes it so vital the Minister finds him, we have a far better grasp of the characters and how they relate to one another. I found the relatively small amount of plot development to be greatly encouraging, as it meant we could concentrate on character motivation.

We have a man, of sorts, who refuses to carry a gun, because the “trigger’s too far from the consequences” and yet who can cause more bloodshed than anyone else by turning the aggression of others to his advantage. He uses people as his weapons. Into his company Professor Cantha, a pacifist so committed she would die rather than build a rocket, sends Kitty, a girl of uncertain origins and tremendous strength of will and body, with only one request:

“Do you hear the screams? Don’t teach Kitty that.”

Why would she do that? Kitty is reluctant to go and yet Professor Cantha persuades her, despite knowing what sort of a creature the Minister is.

That I am left with this question above all else makes me very happy. I have seen far too much plot driving character of late, and it delights me to be experiencing a story in which the events that happen do so because the characters would behave that way, rather than hand-waving some motivation or excuse as explanation. The badinage between characters is something I don’t get to see enough of these days, as well.

If I had anything less than positive to say at all it would be only that occasionally it can be hard to follow exactly what is going on, particularly when sound effects are standing in for actions. For instance, at one point the Minister leaves in the middle of someone talking to him, and the only clue is a soft thud. Later conversation clarifies but there were a couple of times when this wasn’t the case. Two or three moments like that mean very little against the overall whole of very good quality and well-realised sound.

The Forest Shakes confirmed for me that The Minister of Chance is intelligent writing underpinning talented performances and high production values.

Highly recommended, and all for a meagre £1.29.

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I am a terrible fangirl

by on May.04, 2011, under Reviews, television

avatarOff work sick with a severe chest complaint that this morning has seen the doctor put me on Hulkinator medication and yet another course of antibiotics1. So, apart from doing a bit more research and coming up with a whole new line of plot to explore for the Russian piece (working title Winter’s Weeping) and fiddling about a bit with ideas for the fixed-gear zombie utopian near-future piece (Carmageddon? And yes, I did say utopian, if only because cycling on the M4 around Bristol has been a long-standing fantasy of mine), I’ve been pondering the last two episodes of Doctor Who.

I’m a fan. I’m not a Whovian, because my credentials extend only as far as owning the box sets for Eccleston onwards and watching certain episodes of Tennant’s run when I’m in serious need of cheering up. I haven’t read or listened to any of the extended universe (with the exception of the Minister of Chance) and have no desire to buy any of the classic titles with Tom Baker or the rest. Well. Maybe the Romana episodes, but only Romana 1. I admit that I own a copy of the terrible movie, number 8’s only TV outing, poor chap, and have a better than average grasp on how the Time War is supposed to have affected his mental state in the ensuing generations (and then only because the average person couldn’t give a stuff). But that’s as far as it goes. Seriously.

That makes me a bad fan. I’m pretty bad at being a fan in general. I’m a bad Marvel fan, too.

Why am I a bad fan? Well, as far as I can tell, the job of a fan is to squee relentlessly about how awesome something is and find excuses for any and all flaws (cough Liev Schreiber cough the hair cough what they did to Deadpool cough NO I HAVEN’T FORGIVEN THEM coughcoughcoughcoughcough). A fan is not supposed to hold up a creator’s offering and judge it with a critical eye. One is supposed to celebrate the NEW and EXCITING style and the INNOVATIVE use of VISUALS and HIGH DRAMA.

David Tennant got me interested in the New Who. It was his fault. Tennant’s Who was brilliant, genius, dappy, occasionally unpredictable, deeply flawed and carrying a deep, desperate sadness inside him because he knew where the bottom line was and knew what it was like to stand there and hold fast despite everything in the universe wanting nothing more than him to give up and give in. Where Number 9 was still on the rebound from the Time War, Number 10 had come to grips with the awfulness of what had happened and the things he had done. He wanted to be better than that while still knowing, somewhere, that he was already the best because there was no one else.

He was that kind of man.

I was sad when Tennant left, but Matt Smith’s entrance showed promise and it was Stephen “Blink” Moffat who was taking over. Stephen “I wrote all the really good ones” Moffat. I mean, it couldn’t not be good, right?

And yet, by the time I’d got to the end of the series and was gnashing my teeth over the Bill & Ted ending (acausal loops being a particular bugbear of mine), the complaints regarding Russell T Davies’s tendency towards the Doctor = magic/God/Messiah were looking unfair, to say the least. RTD’s Doctor had limitations. Even at the end, in Waters Of Mars, when he did get a bit God-complexy, the humans turned round and demonstrated that he was really being monstrous and that limitations on power are a good thing. Doctor Ten said “Time can be rewritten” and did so. But the people who needed to die still died.

Doctor Eleven said “Fezes are cool” and handed plastic Rory the sonic screwdriver that would release him from the Pandorica, because plastic Rory had used the sonic screwdriver to release him from the Pandorica. And that’s not magic/Godlike? Where are the limitations if time can be rewritten and all he has to do is decide to do something in the future so that something in the past can make that future possible?

Don’t get me started on the Christmas Special. Jumping the shark is so boring, like the blue stabilisers. Let’s take the shark for a ride instead. And, while we’re at it, change the thought patterns of someone in a way that renders the events leading up to the episode unlikely at best.

Gnash, gnarr, gnash.

Thus we come to the new series, so hotly anticipated it achieved the highest ratings of any BBC America show ever, and set the fandom abuzz with effervescent praise:

…the credits roll and a nation is left yelling at the screen in shock and awe.

http://www.cultbox.co.uk/reviews/episodes/969-doctor-who-day-of-the-moon-review

Really. Personally I was left with the sour taste of disappointment and the feeling that I’d been watching some sort of alternate-universe Doctor: Ultimate Doctor Who as opposed to Earth-616 Doctor Who.

Back in Forest of the Dead River Song had this to say:

When you run with the Doctor, it feels like it will never end. But however hard you try, you can’t run forever. Everybody knows that everybody dies. And nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever, for one moment accepts it.

Apart from a short bit of preamble, The Impossible Astronaut kicks off with the Doctor saying that it’s time to stop running then, not to put too fine a point to it, wandering over to an ambulatory spacesuit and getting himself (apparently) shot to death.

So. Here we are. We have begun with the impossible. We know that the Doctor isn’t dead. For one, this is the start of the new season and it’s called “Doctor Who”. I know they carried on Taggart after Taggart died, but still. It wasn’t terribly successful. There are also the Singing Towers at Derillium to consider. The Doctor sees River there — it’s the last time she sees him before the Library — and gives her the red sonic screwdriver. That was “her” Doctor. Fairly late in his timestream, almost at the end of hers (we’ll come back to that). Older, wiser, someone who has made entire armies turn back (and I don’t think she was referring to the night at Stonehenge). I don’t care that they’ve burned the body. Moffat might have once suggested that Matt Smith’s Doctor will never regenerate again but I doubt that one writer or actor can claim to own a character like the Doctor in that way. We could argue that Easter Island, Jim the Fish and the visit to the Singing Towers come before the invitations to the Impossible Astronaut Picnic. Just because Derillium was the last time River saw the Doctor before the Library, it doesn’t mean that was the last time the Doctor saw River. But still, Taggart Law applies. He’s not dead. It’s only episode one.

Then the Doctor reappears (bazinga), 200 years younger, calm as you please and for some reason is reluctant to go adventuring until Amelia Pond persuades him with fish fingers and custard. When has he ever been reluctant to go adventuring? Remember the episode in which he met Martha Jones in hospital? There they are, on the moon, contemplating going outside for a wee look.

“We might die,” says the Doctor.

“We might not,” says Martha. Big grins all round, she’s a girl after his own heart and has earned a space in the TARDIS.

Oh and the instruction to Amy and Rory to go off and make babies… ENOUGH WITH THE PREGNANCIES ALREADY. Seriously. What is it with Moffat and the idea that women should be, or be about to be, or have been not too long ago, pregnant? It reminds me of Absolutely’s Mr Nice relaying the facts of life to his children (scroll to 16’53):

“People get married and have babies. Any questions?”

The Doctor, under the written supervision of Mr Moffat, appears to be utterly obsessed with humans having babies. River Song gets kids after being uploaded to the library. In The Lodger the Doctor advises Craig and Sophie how many billions of people there are in the world and tells them that’s the number to beat.

It is possible to be successful, happy and fulfilled as a female without having produced more humans. Not having children is a valid choice and it bugs me that Moffat is giving the message that the natural and inevitable and desirable consequence of a woman building a stable heterosexual relationship is pregnancy and motherhood.

Leaving the baby-factory undercurrent aside, hard as it is in this particular double-episode, which is all about making babies, there are the inconsistencies.

I don’t mind confusion. As a matter of fact I enjoy a lack of exposition where that exposition is unnecessary. However, I do not enjoy the feeling of having to go back and rewatch something several times because the failure of things to add up makes me think I’ve missed something, especially when it turns out I haven’t. Here are a couple, although there were more, and I’m not going to start on the last series.

The Doctor asks Rory if he remembers the 2000 years of looking after Amy in the Pandorica. Rory says yes. How does that work? They restarted the universe. The universe that exists now isn’t that one because it has Amy’s parents in it, for a start. Rory is no longer a Nestene duplicate, so how could he remember? He wasn’t there. And if he was there, is he still plastic?

When Amy is at the children’s home, why does she resort to putting the black marks on her skin even though she (apparently) still has the implant (which, by the way, was enormous and would have bloody hurt, not to mention rendered the hand practically unusable)? Let’s, for a moment, consider that between first telling herself to get out and seeing herself with black marks, she has been sucked away in the time machine first seen in The Lodger and no longer has the implant. Why then, is it found on the floor in the room from which she is ultimately kidnapped rather than the room with the Greys hanging from the ceiling? That loose end had better be tidied up at some point, and not by destroying the universe again.

Has the Doctor ever been the sort of person who would blithely give the whole of the human race a post-hypnotic suggestion to commit genocide? Because that’s what he does, and I’m not accepting the argument that it was the Silents (or Silence, I’ve seen it spelled both ways) that did it to themselves: without his intervention the message would not have been distributed. He was also just a little bit too gung-ho happy in the final shoot-out too. This is Doctor Who, not Gunfight at the OK Corral.

And, assuming that this worked, by Moffat’s own rules Amy and Rory should already have been programmed to respond to the sight of one of the aliens by killing them because they were both born long after 1969.

River’s assertions that they are living their lives back to front doesn’t add up either, not when you take the Singing Towers at Derillium into account. Are we really supposed to believe that the time the Doctor gives her the red sonic screwdriver, knowing she is going to her death, as old as he is then; that the day he cries over her he doesn’t kiss her? She doesn’t get a kiss from her “old fellah” on the last time she sees him before she goes to the place where she will die? He was all up for a quick snog from Madame de Pompadour but he’s not going to give Professor River Song a farewell kiss because the next time she sees him he won’t know her?

Funny thing is, this means you’ve always known how I was going to die. All the time we’ve been together you knew I was coming here. The last time I saw you —the real you, the future you, I mean— you turned up on my doorstep with a new haircut and a suit. You took me to Derillium. To see the Singing Towers. Oh, what a night that was. The towers sang, and you cried. You wouldn’t tell me why but I suppose you knew it was time. My time. Time to come to the Library. You even gave me your screwdriver.

And, even assuming, for the sake of argument, we look at this from only her perspective, because she hasn’t been to Derillium yet, this still doesn’t make sense because she’s just seen the Doctor when he’s 200 years older than the one she saw the time before. The evidence is already there that:

We’re travelling in opposite directions. Every time we meet I know him more, he knows me less. I live for the days when I see him. But I know that every time I do he’ll be one step further away.

isn’t necessarily true. As an experienced time traveller, who knows that it’s possible to go forwards and backwards, she should know this.

The deliberate use of “dropped from the sky” by both River and Amy in order to confuse Rory was lazy writing. Yes it’s just a saying. But while it’s one that could be used of a man who arrives unexpectedly in a blue, time-travelling spaceship, it’s not likely to be used of someone with whom one has grown up in the same small village. The idea of Amy describing Rory, the boy from her village, as dropping from the sky is utterly implausible and done purely to make Rory and us think that maybe it’s the Doctor she loves after all. That’s blatant manipulation purely for the purposes of dramatic effect and the audience deserves better. We’ve had an entire episode devoted to which of the two Amy loves that way: it has been resolved. Move on.

It may well be that confusion is the new black and actually everyone is very happy to be left with far more questions than answers. It’s fair enough that people like the feeling of not having exposition laid on with a trowel and everything tied up neatly. Maybe they prefer the big special effects and the bangs and the gun battles and the melodrama. Perhaps what I see as being mashed together so that the joins are still visible is really a brave move in not pandering to audience expectation.

And yet I can’t help but feel like I did when they remade The Italian Job — the original was tight, witty, sharp, poignant, even camp. It was genteel. It had a mellow kind of joyful exuberance:

“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”

The new one was slick, polished, modern and had big bangs that were celebrated as opposed to being cause for exasperation:

Charlie Croker: That’s Left Ear. Demolition and explosives. When he was ten, he put one too many M-80s in the toilet bowl.
[Cuts to the exterior of a toilet stall. Suddenly the door bursts open from an explosion. The toilet is spraying a fountain of water up]
Kid On Left: Damn, that was cool. How did you do that?

I am afraid that the new Doctor Who might be falling into the pattern of characters conforming to plot, like so many things I used to enjoy. In this case the plot is brighter, bolder, BIGGER and more WHIZZ-BANG EXCITING with LOTS OF HECTIC ACTION and THINGS GOING ON. Have we forgotten that it’s possible to do lots and lots of running without it ever tipping over the edge into frenetic?

I really hope not.

~>0<~

1: According to various sources there are between 1 and ~4kg of bacteria in the human body. Given that I’ve been on antibiotics of one sort or another for around 2 weeks now, you’d think I’d have lost some weight. But no. Dammit.
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Sam reviews: Portal 2

by on May.02, 2011, under games, gaming, Geekery, Reviews

avatarWhile everyone else was rolling painted eggs down hills, chasing after Easter bunnies and stuffing themselves full of chocolate, my main concern about the penultimate weekend in April (other than the trip down to Lincolnshire for my mother-in-law’s birthday) was the release of Portal 2.

Portal 2 cover
In a gaming world where most of the action titles seem to be taking the “increased difficulty = more monsters and more shooting”, finding a title that is engrossing, has a good narrative and doesn’t rely on ultra-violence is quite difficult. I haven’t bought a new adult action game since Bioshock 2 — I’ve been buying things like Little Big Planet 2 and Rabbids titles instead. Compare Resistance: Fall of Man with its sequel, FEAR likewise — I haven’t gone near Dead Space 2 because the original took that to a frustrating extreme. There is only so much I can cope with button mashing through a fight only to run straight into another one with barely enough of a break to regain a couple of health bars.

Portal 2 is a breath of fresh air in a room stale with the scent of testosterone, cordite and spent shell casings.

It’s a puzzler, much like the first one. The first one, however, had us join Theseus after entering the Labyrinth then bug out as soon as the Minotaur was dead. In Portal 2 we get to see a bit more of Crete and the Kingdom of Minos.

Gameplay is similar to the first offering, although there is less reliance on laying portals in exactly the right place with impeccable timing and more on figuring out the correct sequence and making use of the portals to achieve the seemingly impossible. While I had a considerably frustrating time with the original, lacking the precise hand-eye co-ordination required to make accurate portals at high speed while flying through the air, I found Portal 2 to be just frustrating enough. I liked the logical progression of problem solving. Rather like doing a crossword, it’s necessary to gain an eye for it, to learn the rules and the patterns. There is a sense of accomplishment in gaining the mindset required to solve the puzzles. The achievement here isn’t being able to slaughter more and bigger and stronger rabid creatures: it’s being able to solve ever more complex puzzles that on first glance seem impossible until a solitary patch of white turns into the end of a thread that will lead you through to the exit.

There are nods to the original in the use of some of the same test chambers, run through the decay mill. If you are expecting the game to be as short as the original you are in for a shock at the point you think you have escaped into the outside world. The use of the derelict original facility to bring in a whole new set of puzzle types and give some background to the Aperture Science facility was enjoyable, seasoning the very dark storyline with welcome humour.

Another point for which Valve has my undying love is that our protagonist is a woman. But she just happens to be a woman. There is a point halfway through the game where GLaDOS says “She did all the work!” If you have been concentrating on the gameplay rather than laying out portals to get a look at your character, and know nothing of the game, this is the first time the sex of the character is clear. This isn’t Silent Hill, where being female inevitably leads to a plotline involving maternal instinct; or a reason for pneumatic busts à la Lara Croft; nor the ridiculous posturing of Bayonetta. Portal 2 passes the Bechdel test with flying colours, even when one of the women involved is a potato. (Spoilers!)

“Oh, it’s you. It’s been a long time. How have you been? I’ve been really busy being dead. You know… after you murdered me? Okay look, we both said a lot of things that you are going to regret. But I think we should put our differences behind us. For science. You monster.”

Chell

"And then you showed up. You dangerous, mute lunatic."

I couldn’t have been happier had a Big Daddy removed his helmet to reveal he was actually a Big Mummy.

We haven’t started on the co-operative level, and there are several achievements that I missed on my first run through, so there’s plenty of gameplay in it yet. If you fancy something a bit more cerebral than your standard first-person shooter, where difficulty isn’t measured in how many times you die in a sequence before you learn the spawn patterns and get your timing just right, I can thoroughly recommend this engaging and satisfying number from Valve.

I won’t spoil the ending, but yes, there is a song.

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Sam reviews: The Minister of Chance

by on Apr.10, 2011, under Reviews

avatarMy last copy of Fortean Times carried a plug for something interesting, although if Frood hadn’t spotted it and waved it under my nose I would have missed it. Knowing that I’d developed a bit of a thing for Doctor Who of late, he pointed it out to me and I’m very glad he did.

Minister of Chance poster

The Minister of Chance is a Doctor Who spinoff describing itself thusly:

The Minister of Chance is a new form of entertainment – a radiophonic drama – made using a combination of film and radio techniques and delivered by podcast. It is the first, but we hope not last, of its kind. By painstakingly constructing soundscapes we create worlds that you can drift into wherever you are.

The titular character was introduced in Death Comes to Time, which I haven’t heard but may now have to seek out for background (although I’m not sure I like the idea of Ace becoming a Time Lord). I do not think it is necessary to have heard that work to enjoy this, however.

The prologue, which is free on youtube, sets the scene: Paul McGann gives it some as Durian, a particularly nasty piece of work who straight away shows that politicians have no need to carry personal arms when they can offer plausible threats of much worse. It seems to be a straightforward sort of fantasy affair, with a bit of added science, but then this is just the teaser.

Episode 1 is available for download for the measly cost of £1.49, which is much less than a pint and much more worthwhile. In this we meet the rest of the main characters, and find ourselves in a beautifully realised world in which science is banned in favour of magic that doesn’t work. The scientists are labelled charlatans and frauds and outlawed, while a witch inhabits one of the primary positions of power. Even as you listen, thinking that their rockets don’t work by magic, their weapons don’t work by magic, asking yourself how can they say that science is a hoax, it is clear that those in charge are all too aware of this. Magic, then, is the opium they feed their people while denying them access to anything that would cause them to question.

Into this come Kitty, a feisty young girl of uncertain origins and unusual abilities, and an unnamed stranger who has a cold dispassion and no-nonsense attitude and who knows so much that his science looks like magic. He’s going to show her things that are as wonderful as they are unbelievable, she’s going to teach him that his brilliance runs the risk of him underestimating those around him, and you are along for the ride.

The Minister himself reminds me of an early Doctor, back when he was young enough to want to act old (I loved that explanation given by Tennant in the Comic Relief special for why the Doctor has been getting progressively younger). Kitty is a good, strong character who is full of confidence and knows how to handle herself. Jenny Agutter’s Professor Cantha is another strong female character, holding out for science in a world where doing so is decidedly dangerous.

The rest of the cast is seasoned with a who’s who of classic British science fiction. It’s almost as if they filled a bran tub with actors from Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who and pulled a few out at random. Having not seen anything from Paul Darrow since Hercules, I was delighted to hear him back in laconic action. Sylvester McCoy is another actor we’re more used to seeing in the role of the good guy.

The soundscapes are immersive. With no special effects to fall back on the writing carries everything, and it is more than up to the task. I am impressed by how clearly I was able to “see” what was happening and I am eagerly awaiting the release of the next episode.

The continued future of this series is dependent on getting the funding, and they more than deserve it. If you like science fiction and pine for the days when budgets were so low the writing had to make up for it, and did; if you want to support talented artists producing great work; even if you just want to hear Avon say a naughty word — head over there, click buy, and make sure to put your headphones on. You won’t be disappointed.

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Sam reviews: Eden Log

by on Apr.08, 2011, under movies, Reviews

avatarSome of you may remember (or not) that I had flu at the end of last year. Proper baby-eating Bishop of Bath and Wells flu. Well, said flu damaged my lungs a bit and so when I caught a cold last week it went straight to my chest and stayed there.

Seriously. My training is thoroughly jinxed this year.

However, there was a bright side. Just as I have a rule about taking a punt on music, I have a rule about taking a punt on DVDs, and a few months ago Amazon sent me one of their “You’ve shopped for these things and so we thought you’d like this” emails, in which the items on offer were cult science-fiction world cinema.

Yeah. Niche.

Anyway, one of the DVDs I picked up at that time, what with them all being less than a fiver, was an odd little number called Eden Log. Frood and I started watching it but it was quickly clear that it wasn’t Frood’s sort of thing so I put it away for a time when I could watch it myself. Being stuck at home ill was an ideal opportunity.

Eden Log posterEden Log is the 2007 directorial debut of Franck Vestiel. He also wrote the screenplay. If I had to summarise it, I’d say it was a cross between Pandorum and Silent Running with a bit of Logan’s Run thrown in for good measure. In reverse, if you can possibly imagine such a thing.

The film opens in the pitch black, and I mean pitch black. There is very little lighting and the lead character, impressively played by Clovis Cornillac and at this point nameless, is obviously freezing. The goosepimples on his arms look hard and prominent enough to grate ginger and the breath misting from his mouth has a realism that I don’t think could be achieved by CGI. Even his guttural grunts suggest the sort of forced vocalisation that anyone who has ever tried to exert physical effort while that bloody cold will remember all too clearly.

In what I think is a move that is either very brave or very French, the lighting remains intermittent, the colour scheme almost monochromatic, and the camera intimate for a considerable period while our protagonist finds his way to what appears to be an abandoned, dilapidated facility where he is greeted by an automatic message directed at newcomers. It talks of workers gaining citizenship by sacrifice and it is obvious, immediately, that there is some whitewashing going on here. It is pitched perfectly to alert the viewer to the desperation of the anonymous incomer: you know that whoever heard this for real would be so relieved to make it this far that he wouldn’t look for the small print.

As the film goes on it becomes clear that the “Eden” of the title is not achievable to those who approach from down here in the dark, and that, other than the ones running the place, those who derive the most benefit are kept in equal, if metaphorical, dark about what exactly is needed to sustain their quality of life, while those down below take mortal risks to provide it.

It is Yggrdrassil gone bad, a study in absurdo of what might happen if, in harnessing Nature, man should choose to use a martingale and the dregs of society as mulch.

Like many takes on this subject, including Hollywood budget-busters, as Man’s Disrespect for Mother Nature is a well-worn trail in storytelling, it over-simplifies and hand-waves the science and in places gets the science so wrong it becomes unintelligible. Couple this with the lack of exposition and reliance on metaphor and the film is, at times, horrendously confusing. But the performances of the two lead actors — the aforementioned Cornillac is particularly good, although Vimala Pons does as much as anyone could with the limited material available — are excellent and Vestiel’s determination to see what he started through to the end without mollycoddling his audience is admirable. I can’t even complain about the treatment of the female lead: there is one scene of rape that is so carefully done I could only quibble if I ignored the context entirely, and as this is a story entirely centred on Cornillac’s character I refuse to be upset about Pons getting less screen time. What she does get she puts to excellent use.

I confess I wasn’t entirely sure I’d grasped all of the story when it came to the end — like Valhalla Rising it left the viewer to come to his or her own conclusions about exactly how what happened actually happened. And, like Valhalla Rising, I looked it up afterwards because it was intriguing enough for me to want to know what other people had thought.

If you like your science fiction straightforward and your horror gory, leave this be. There’s no blasting off and nuking the place from orbit. There is no man vs monster. In this man is the monster, both figuratively and literally. There is scant dialogue and some viewers may find that there are sections where the use of hand-held cameras becomes a little nauseating, although it is not done for effect (it’s by far less irritating than it was in Cloverfield).

It’s not what I’d call a great film but it is an interesting one. The cast and crew cared about this, and it shows, despite the lack of resources available. It’s not as good as Moon but it’s many times better than most of the science-fiction films I have seen over the past few years. It’s a proper story, actually trying to say something, rather than a buffet of special effects and sexy actors pretending to kick ass in implausible scenarios.

Eden Log has the spirit of Aeon Flux the original series rather than Aeon Flux the movie.

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Sam reviews: Ulladubulla Vol 2

by on Feb.25, 2011, under music, Reviews

avatarEvery so often I take a random punt on some obscure album, most frequently these days as a result of hearing something on a computer game.

It was Last.fm that spurred my most recent gamble.

Ulladubulla Vol 2 is a cash-in on Ulladubulla, itself apparently gestated within a PS1 game of which I have never heard.

I’m a big fan of the original musical War of the Worlds. When I was about 5 I couldn’t choose between that, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells or Vangelis’s Spiral as my favouritest things ever (which might say a lot about me). I’m considerably older now, and have a bad trance/dance habit, because it makes the endless hours on the turbo more bearable. When last.fm pitched up the Dario G remix of Brave New World I thought “Hello!”

My take-a-punt limit is around 4 quid, and it works like this: I hear a track I like. I find the album on MP3 download (if it’s not downloadable all bets are off). If the number of tracks on the album I like sufficiently to buy individually is large enough that it would cost more than the album, I’ll take a punt, up to the limit of 4 quid.

In other words, when Ln > A ≤ 4, where L = liked track, n is an integer smaller the number of tracks on the album and A is album cost.

Ulladubulla sneaked in on the boundary at £3.89, with 4 tracks I was sure I liked, one I thought I liked, and 17 tracks on the album.

I tweeted my initial review in realtime, and it went like this:

• Took the 4 quid punt. Papa Ootzie’s opener is creepy in a Stranglers, Men In Black gone really dark kind of way.
• Zube’s Horsell Common & the Heat Ray is Will Smith meets Ghost Dog. Initially I flinched but it might be a grower.
• Oooh. Tom Middleton’s Cosmos re-edit of the Eve of the War has some fat reverb reminiscent of Pendulum’s grabbier stuff. Like.
• N-Trance turns Forever Autumn into a dance track. Not as bad as I feared. Wouldn’t be out of place on a chillout mix.
• Onto Max Mondo’s The Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine. Unconvinced. Needs more effort 2/5.
• There are weird noises in the background that make me think Shaggy is going Bombastic on a Martian. Um. Niche.
• Stephen Murphy’s light-handed approach to the Red Weed is interesting. Layers whimsy over the creeping horror.
• Todd Terry vs David Essex. Wangst turns chirpy cockney. Who’d’ve thunk?
• OMG. WTF has Max Mondo done to Julie Covington? KILL IT WITH FIRE!
• That was the first track I was forced to skip because it was just too awful.
• Hybrid’s remix of The Eve of the War is the sort of track you’d find on WipeOut HD. Before you replaced the soundtrack.
• Stephen Murphy’s Dead London is what happened when Jamie took his magic torch into the 28 Days Later universe.
• Sticking an Alan Parsons-esque piano/drum riff on a track doesn’t make it a remix. The Spirit of Man (Spirit of Dub) gets 1/5.
• Dario G’s Brave New World. Am liking it already. Take THAT traffic queue! I am fixie ninja! Choke on my l33t filtering skillz!
• Ben Liebrand’s remix of the Eve of the War is making me giggle. I don’t think that was the intended reaction.
• OK. Max Mondo’s Horsell Common and the Heat Ray is what got me started on this, so it can’t be that bad.
• And oddly, it’s just meh. Of all the tracks so far it doesn’t really stand out in anyway, good or bad.
• DJ Keltech’s take on same song reminiscent of the final levels of Rez. Multiple layers of implied architecture
• Zube assaults the Spirit of Man and leaves it beaten, broken, bleeding, humiliated and suffering from PTSD in a corner.
• Ulladubulla vol 2: worth the 4 quid, but only because it would have cost 40p less to buy the 4 best tracks (out of 17) individually.

Having listened to the album a few times since then, I’d largely stick with the above (particularly the kill it with fire comment), with a couple of additions.

Although Zube’s take on Horsell Common isn’t as bad as it first sounds, when you are stuck on the turbo in desperate need of distraction you start listening to lyrics. Maybe the effort was doing something weird to my brain but the lyrics to that particular track seem to be particularly offensive, advocating a degree of cultural and xenophobic paranoia so intense I am amazed the Jeff Wayne estate was willing to allow his name to be associated with it. I could be convinced I were imagining it were it not for the fact that (a) I’m not; and (b) the lyrics of Zube’s Spirit of Man remix convey some equally dubious sentiments.

On the other hand, I am more enamoured of Papa Ootzie’s opener, the Eve of the War, which takes a look at the situation from the Martian POV and would make a nice little flash piece:

The problem is, of course, the humans.
Mars is incapable of sustaining life: our efforts to sustain the biosphere are exhausted. The water table and temperature decrease annually, as does our population. The only consequential course of action is the conquest and occupation of Earth, our young Sun-neighbour. The means and methods for this attack are already being realised. A large scale hydrogen accelerator will be constructed. This will launch suspension pods carrying the assault forces…

Unlike some other reviewers, I’m not certain that it is fundamentally wrong to update the original musical with rap and dance tracks. Taking stories and transposing them to a contemporary setting is done frequently enough: why not musicals? I’m less convinced (to put it mildly) by Zube’s attempt to shoehorn an attack by Martians into a rant about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and his take on the Spirit of Man, which seems to be a Daily Wail-inspired rant about peedoes and immigrunts rather than a celebration of human perseverance and determination.

I’m not disappointed in the album, particularly, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a taste for mash-ups that shouldn’t work but sort of do and four quid burning a hole in your pocket. If I were a sackperson with her very own poppit and a retry button, I would not buy it again.

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The Lapins Crétins

by on Aug.07, 2010, under games, Reviews

avatar I’m a Playstation girl. I’ve never been one for the cutesy Nintendo games and so have not been tempted by one of their consoles. My gaming platforms have evolved from Pong (ohgods, that shows my age) to the Atari 2600 (Pitfall and Enduro Champion badges in 1984, thankyouverymuch) to the ZX Spectrum and thence, with a gap of some years, to the PSOne and its descendants.

I succumbed to a DS in March, after buying one for my mum, because I enjoyed the Brain Training on hers and had a hankering for some Syberia type action. Then, when I was over in Galway visiting Splinister‘s household in July, they introduced me to their Wii. More precisely, they introduced me to Rabbids Go Home.

You see, Splinister knows me very well, probably better than anyone else on the face of this planet (barring Frood, of course), and considers me to be a serious gamer: a serious gamer with a bizarre fondness for really odd, quirky, stupid games like Katamari, and an intense liking for crazy, mischievous critters like Stitch and sackpeople. Splinister also knew I have an injured foot that I’m supposed to be staying off as much as possible, and I suspect she calculated that a game that pushed all my buttons might induce me to keep my arse on the sofa instead of running around chasing the dog.

Bwaaaah!

Rabbids Go Home is a game in which you have a trio of mutant rabbits, one of which is in a shopping trolley, one of which is pushing the trolley and the last of which is inside your wii remote. The aim of the game is to drive around a world ruled by the legions of Greyface, shouting at people to make their clothes fall off and nicking all their stuff to build a pile big enough to reach the moon because the moon is big enough for all the rabbids to sleep on at the same time. It’s like Katamari done by French Canadians. It is, quite simply, TEH AWSUM.

There are plenty of reviews out there that claim it is too easy. The same could be said of the various katamaris and that doesn’t mean the game is awful, far from it. It’s certainly straightforward, and the learning curve is shallow — you’re only driving a shopping trolley around, after all. On the other hand, the single player game requires that you drive your trolley through each item of stuff you want to collect, and that gets pretty damn tough in the later stages, when you’re pushing a cow with a ticking bomb on it around herds of spiky cactus or bouncing a highly infectious patient in an isolation bubble around high-rise construction machinery and homing grenades.

What makes this game, however, is the humour. It’s the sheer glee that has gone into it. Everything — the way the rabbid you have selected for abuse inside your remote stares at the live electrical socket with nervous, desperate, impatient anticipation while you dangle it in front of his eyes, or the way he giggles delightedly when you beat the crap out of him with a giant glove; and the crazy Moldovan Gypsy music — is bubbling with effervescent joy. The attention to detail in the rabbid behaviour is worth the price of entry: one of my favourite touches is the way he sucks in his breath and stands very still for you when you wield the tattoo stamp, and there is possibly nothing quite so funny as a pair of rabbids with a pneumatic drill.

Occasionally a game comes along that casts a console (or an accessory) in a new light. Little Big Planet did it for the PS3. (Antigrav did it for the EyeToy, and I will never understand why development on that ceased.) Rabbids Go Home, for me, did it for the Wii. On the pathetic justification that I will be off training for a few more months at least, I went and bought a console just so I could play this game and the sequel, due for release later this year.

That’s about the highest recommendation I can make.

Got a sense of humour? Get Rabbids.

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Dr WTF?

by on Jun.27, 2010, under Reviews

avatarI haven’t spoken much about Dr Who this series. There’s a reason for that.

I was unimpressed, generally, with the last series. It felt too contrived, with a soap opera plot squeezed in there sans lubrication. It felt the way the X-Files did after the series stopped being about Fortean events and became Fox Mulder IS Whitley Streiber’s lovechild!

There were a couple of episodes written by Steven Moffat I really enjoyed, notably Blink. I was therefore as happy as the next person to see Mr Davies hand over the reins. I was less happy to see David Tennant depart, as I’d particularly appreciated his depiction of one of British television’s most iconic characters.

That said, Matt Smith has been brilliant and I’ve come to like him even more, which makes it inutterably sad that the writing this series hasn’t lived up to his talent.

I wish I knew why. It reminds me, in a way, of Stephen King: limit him to a short story or a novella and he’s a fantastic writer. Give him the leeway of a full-length epic and he becomes overblown and loses focus about halfway through. Or Sam Raimi, who shouldn’t be given lots of money because he works best when constrained and forced to use his talent rather than his budget.

The first episode of the current series was promising. It sort of went downhill after that, most notably because they spent so little time doing anything other than running around Earth meeting historical characters, reinventing history without so much as a by-your-leave, and then hand-waving it all away with the oft-repeated refrain “time can be rewritten”. So, you know, don’t worry about the non-existent Van Gogh paintings, or all that stuff about Amy’s childhood being responsible for the appearance of the soldiers when the Romans invaded Britain. The Pandorica (um, surely?) is honestly a real thing, and its resemblance to Amy’s history book is, well, never mind. That was a recursive plotline that we couldn’t be bothered finishing.

I watched, entertaining myself wondering where all the little loops and tricks were going to lead, building a mental cat’s cradle of knots and switchbacks and finding solutions that would tie them into one beautiful whole that would have had me jumping up and down crying “All is forgiven!”

And, briefly, I thought we were going to get it.

But no. Moffat gave us a paradox loop in order to provide a recursive plot-thread that might as well have had Amy waking up saying it was all a dream and all the loose ends were destroyed in Big Bang 2 so none of them matters any more.

How did the Doctor escape? The same way Bill and Ted got the keys to rescue their history project from gaol. Why was Amelia Pond so important? For the same reason that Zaphod Beeblebrox survived the Total Perspective Vortex.

I’ve tuned in each week so far because I love Matt’s Smith’s Doctor so much. I’ll continue to tune in for the next series for the same reason, and hope that River Song gets more time on screen. Maybe the resemblance to the original Romanadvoratrelundar is not entirely coincidental.

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Weapon of Choice

by on Jun.05, 2010, under games, gaming, Geekery, Reviews

avatarThere are a couple of games that have stayed with me as I have progressed through the various ranks of consoles I have owned and enjoyed throughout my time as a gamer (and I’d betray my age if I told you my first console was Pong). Nothing from the old Atari 2600 has survived the various upgrades, although I first played R-Type on a ZX Spectrum, when a dodgy joystick meant the only way to progress was for us to play in pairs, with one gunner and one pilot. By gum Frood and I rocked that game.

As far as I know they are not planning on releasing a version for the PS3, which is very sad. But I’ve kept my PS2 so I can still play R-Type Final.

The other reason I kept the PS2 was so I could continue to play the other game that I’ve bought every time I’ve upgraded my console: WipEout. WipEout Fusion is, in my opinion, the best of the various WipEouts. Sadly it’s one of the few games that doesn’t port properly over to the PS3 — after a certain number of tracks are opened up the game starts crashing.

Of course I have WipEout HD, and there are some features that are great improvements. The screenshot facility is great, and I have gone into geeky paroxysms of obsession trying to get the perfect picture (and so far failing, but enjoying the process). The ability to import your own soundtrack is also fantastic, as previously we had a complicated setup involving a Sony stereo system with a games function that allowed us to connect the audio output of the PS2 to the stereo, where it would be mixed with whatever CD happened to be playing. Turn down the in-game music, turn up the sound effects, stick some Crystal Method on the multichanger and you’ve got yourself a thumping race soundtrack.

Sadly, however, the tracks don’t live up to expectations and I do miss the pitstops. I’ve spent most of my life living in shared households with friends and we had our own language and terminology, some of which was game based. “Jeopardy” was taking a three-lap race with only one pit stop. “Double jeopardy” was taking a three-lap race with no pit stops at all. In the current WipEout you regain ship energy by consuming weapons, and it takes some of the risk out of it: skipping a pit-stop commits you to flying your socks off to cross the line before you crash and burn. They’ve also got rid of the shortcuts, which is really sad. I’ve spent many a happy afternoon sending my ship down strange side-roads in an effort to find the shortest (and therefore fastest) route round a course.

Then again, the head to head mode in the current version is much better, and I like that you can select which tracks you want for a multi-race challenge against a friend. I haven’t tried the online version, so I can’t comment on that.

Still. I miss Mandrashee.

Perfection, of course, would be importing the tracks from WipEout Fusion into WipEout HD. Then we could get a picture of Munky falling off the moon.

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Sam reviews: Sherlock Holmes

by on May.30, 2010, under movies, Reviews

avatar I’m coming to this party late, as per usual — I should review Iron Man 2, if I want to be current, but I haven’t decided what to make of it yet. So, in lieu of that I shall review another Robert Downey Jr flick: Sherlock Holmes.

This is a fairly standard pseudo-occult, looks-like-magic-but-isn’t Holmesian adventure that those familiar with the character will recognise instantly. Conan Doyle is famous as a debunker of charlatans: his Fortean interests ranged from table-rapping and Spiritualism to the Cottingley Fairies, the latter of which he ardently supported and hoped would encourage a wider acceptance of paranormal phenomena:

The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life. Having discovered this, the world will not find it so difficult to accept that spiritual message supported by physical facts which has already been put before it.

I’ve always thought it either ironic or tragic that someone who wanted so much to be convinced about the objective reality of mysticism had his most famous character so frequently unmask the apparently supernatural as no more than a midget with filed teeth (or a dog covered in phosphorus) in a dénouement that has since been dumbed down into Scooby Doo’s janitorial miscreants.

The Baker’s Street Irregulars as pesky kids, indeed.

Assuming storytelling can be seen as a writer’s way of living out his fantasies, I wonder what Holmes’s debunking of the occult said about Conan Doyle’s feelings about what he had gained from Spiritualism.

Sherlock Holmes movie poster

RDJ was pretty good, though

But back to the film before I ramble off on some convoluted discussion of Thesophy and the history of British Occult practises. I’ll end up on Elizabeth St. George and voodoo lemons if I’m not careful.

The settings are reminiscent of From Hell, in a manner that manages to be slightly less grubby despite the apparent squalor in which this Holmes seems to live — I suspect that this dirt and untidiness is supposed to indicate Holmes’s preferred bachelor state of existence, or a focus on ‘higher’ things.

But this is Lock, Stock and Elementary, My Dear Watson, full of explosions and witty one-liners and fake homoerotic tension. We’re encouraged to infer that Holmes is threatened by a woman who wants to take Watson away from him and his own feelings for the American adventuress and criminal who is dangled as the poisoned bait throughout.

Robert Downey Jr does an excellent job playing Robert Downey Jr with an English accent, demonstrating that it’s not only Tony Stark he can make behave like an arrogant asshat. I found Jude Law to be engaging in a way that, for me, is unusual. Rachel McAdams was competent enough as the beautiful but dangerously able Irene Adler, even if she did end up having to be rescued by the men (there’s a suppressed rant in there) and Kelly Reilly was sadly forgettable, although I don’t think that was her fault. Mark Strong appeared to be asleep — I know he can do better and if he’s playing Sinestro in the new Green Lantern he’d better or he’ll upset the fanboys. Eddie Marsan gave the sort of understated, underused and quietly plausible performance I’m used to seeing from British character actors…

It’s not really very Holmes, though, is it?

I had watched Shore and Attanasio’s House for some time before Frood pointed out the obvious. What amused me the most about Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes was that he resembled House more than he did Holmes. The effect was a rather like taking a sample of text, running it through Google’s translation engine to turn it into Icelandic and then reversing the process.

The recognition of the existence of material Jolt twentieth century note with great ruts in the mud and their will to make it recognize that it is a glamor and mystery of life. Having discovered this, the world will not find it so difficult to recognize the spiritual message supported by physical incident that has already been submitted to him.

It’s still recognisable but it’s possible to see traces of the process.

Sherlock Holmes is a film based on a series of stories and books by a Scot of Irish descent writing about an Englishman, flavoured strongly by a TV series based in principle on the same tales in which an American is played by an Englishman, and which itself stars an American playing an Englishman.

There’s something delightfully silly about this.

Having said all that, Guy Ritchie’s take on the titular character is not one that necessarily invites any level of analysis. It is possible to take him as he is presented: Holmes meets Tyler Durdan; a man with the mental aptitude of a genius and the personal inclinations of a street thug, his refined aesthetics reduced to tuneless plucking of an abused violin and passing sartorial judgement on his best friend’s choice of waistcoats. The fiendish plots and inductive reasoning originally used to demonstrate the genius is here replaced by the false Chekhov’s Gun that is showing Holmes calculating entire sequences of fight moves followed by performance of the same, and a tan line upon a lady’s finger. The exotic and esoteric machinations of the evil-doers become misdirected unrequited love and a widget with a superfluous arc generator that doesn’t even spark.

House relies on an esoteric knowledge that we, the audience, can’t possibly hope to match. Ritchie’s Holmes relies on flash-forwards and withholding basic information until it’s time for it to be explained to us as if we were blind children.

I wonder what Conan Doyle would have to say about that.

If you want a good re-imagining of Holmes, I can do no better than recommend —highly— The List of Seven by Mark Frost. Yes, that Mark Frost.

I’m re-reading it myself right now.

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