Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Dudley Town [Review: The Casual Vacancy]

Not so long ago I read a series of novels, each opening with the exploits of a complex but sympathetic child, spoilt but misunderstood by his parents, the subject of so many misfortunes and bizarre happenings, somehow always cast as the bully. Sadly for the most part, these novels left poor Dudley Dursley's tragicomic plight unresolved while following the adventures of some annoying kid who goes to boring wizard school.

There's no sign of a Dudley Dursley spin-off yet, although surely it's only a matter of time. However J.K.Rowling's "novel for adults" The Casual Vacancy can at least act as a temporary fix - it's set amongst an entire town of Dursley-ish neurotic and insecure middle-classers, desperately trying to keep their idyllic village separate from the nearest council estate. Small-mindedness doesn't get any smaller than UK local politics, and the novel begins with the death of a much-loved councillor who had championed the cause of the estate.

At times this still seems like a children's novel: the village teenagers play a large role and part of the story is told from their viewpoint, including their own understanding of their parents' lies, secrets and scandalous dealings. The characters and their long trains of thought are undeniably Rowling - perhaps this is a key element of a Rowling-trademark style. Also despite the many topical issues that crop up, there's the sense of writing for a readership from a previous age that also permeated the boarding-school world of Harry Potter.

The main purpose of this novel seems to be for J.K. Rowling to let off some steam - free from the constraining world of children's literature she can write freely about sex, drugs, death and the unfairness of the adult world, leading to a traumatic climax and ending that I doubt she could have pulled off for Potter. Or could she? Other writers such as Michael Morpurgo and Jacqueline Wilson have successfully written children's fiction that brings in adult realities.

I thought this was an excellent although perhaps not outstanding novel. It's certainly enjoyable and occasionally shocking.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

"We Can Get You Some Really Cheap Gear" Screening: Tight Shorts Club

I'm looking forward to a screening of "We Can Get You Some Really Cheap Gear" at the Tight Shorts Film Club, at the Wenlock and Essex in Islington, on 26th February. You can find out more about this regular film event and annual competition here.

Reich For The Stars [Review: Iron Sky]

Vivian Wagner: “They’re Nazis… from the moon.”
President: ”They’re the only guys we ever managed to beat in a fair fight.”

A U.S. space mission, funded as part of a presidential re-election campaign, uncovers a terrible secret – a Nazi stronghold on the dark side of the moon. Black astronaut James Washington (Christopher Kirkby) is captured and interrogated, and SS captain Adler (Götz Otto) is dispatched on a mission to Earth in search of technology, accompanied by naïve Nazi schoolteacher Renate (Julia Dietze). When the inevitable space Zeppelin invasion follows, our last line of defence turns out to be President Sarah Palin (Stephanie Paul - good but not quite Tina Fey), and the illegally-armed space battleship George W. Bush, captained by the President's advisor Vivian Wagner (Peta Sargent.)

It appears that the Nazis are up to many of their old tricks – eugenics, indoctrination and propaganda, torture, building doomsday devices, subjugating women, internal power struggles, and “curing” Washington's blackness, although there’s no mention of anti-Semitism or the Holocaust.

Iron Sky (2012) does not exactly glorify the Nazis – rather they’re the pantomime villains we supposedly love to hate, just as they were in the Indiana Jones films. However the point of the film seems to be that modern day politics might be just as bad – for example in one scene Palin and Wagner are persuaded to adopt Nazi propaganda for a successful campaign speech.

Iron Sky is a low-budget melodrama that should be viewed through thick sense-of-humour glasses. There’s a lot of fun to be had if you go in with fair expectations – expect a bit of hit and miss when it comes to effects, acting, script, and be prepared to laugh at the right places and occasionally the wrong places. This is also not the first time we've seen space Nazis - obviously Star Wars is full of thinly veiled Nazi-like characters, and I am also reminded of Mel Brooks' History Of The World Part I, and a particular sketch at the end of the film (if you've seen it you'll know the one I mean) in which, in the space of about a minute Brooks manages to be more tasteless, more daring and funnier than this whole film.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Unearthly Children [My Favourite Martian bloghop]

Our galaxy is now known to be full of planets of all sizes, including small rocky worlds a little like our own. It’s no longer unreasonable to say that the chance of life emerging elsewhere in the galaxy is pretty good.

However there’s no reason for that alien life to resemble our own human civilization. Our own intelligence is just a good survival trick that helped us to colonize a particular niche. Most of the Earth’s other inhabitants manage just fine without smarts, or, in a few cases (dolphins, octopi, social insects and certain plants) they seem to use them in a different way.

In my opinion many aliens in science fiction appear too human, in both appearance and motivation. Sometimes this is to the good – after all, a lot of sci-fi is metaphor or allegory, but sometimes, frankly, it’s just lazy. Cat-like aliens are another issue – I’ve blogged about them in the past and will do so again. However it’s always good to see, or read about the exceptions: this post is dedicated to my favourite aliens who are truly alien.

[Tripod: Jeff Wayne's The War Of The Worlds stage show. Photo: Sci-Fi Gene]

H.G. Wells’ Martians: the blog hoppers amongst you will be pleased to discover that my favourite aliens are indeed Martian. In his classic novel of alien invasion, Wells imagined an ancient species shaped by the environment of Mars and by their own evolutionary history: mentally supercharged but physically frail after tens of thousands of years of dependence on their machines.

Runners up:

Alastair Reynolds’ Shrouders and Pattern Jugglers, the aliens of Revelation Space. Shrouders are inscrutable hermits, hidden behind deadly shields, while the Jugglers hide in plain sight: an intelligent sea capable of communication, exchange and barter but still unpredictable and equally mysterious.

The Borg: most of Star Trek’s aliens are just people with prosthetic skin features or pointy ears and mullets. When the Borg first appeared, for a while they were something genuinely different – even though Borg units still have a humanoid shape (fair enough, they are the absorbed bodies of other Star Trek species) the Borg collective intelligence was an unstoppable force unlike anything on Earth. Sadly later episodes featuring the Borg Queen or liberated units such as Seven of Nine gave the species back too much humanity.

The Xeelee: Stephen Baxter’s aliens are master engineers, working on galaxy-wide projects with purposes utterly beyond human imagination – so our predictable response, since we can’t understand them, is to throw stuff at them.

Finally the Alien itself, the xenomorph which has no humanity, just a hunger to seek out prey and complete its lifecycle. Its appearance, while designed to play on basic human fears, is perfectly unearthly.

I concede that it’s hard to write or portray something truly alien, just as it’s hard for a writer to come up with any character that is not, somehow, a facet of their own personality. But it’s not impossible – and it’s worth going that extra light-year to make your alien species a little more credible.

We are not alone! This post is part of the My Favourite Martian bloghop, hosted by http://www.thegeektwins.comhttp://justadashofgeek.com and You can find out about the bloghop and other participants here.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Orc-hestral Maneuvers in the Dark [Review: Orcs]

Things I learned from Orcs (2011)
  • The job of Park Ranger is one of the most dangerous professions on Earth.
  • This job mainly involves testing the strength of drugs confiscated from park visitors. Repeatedly.
  • Orcs are allergic to bright light – but only at night. Sunlight is apparently OK.
  • Orcs are phenomenally accurate archers – but only during the day.
  • Orcs hate golfers and canoeists and campers. Especially golfers - so maybe they’re not all bad.
  • Every US National Park has a locked arsenal containing all manner of firearms from shotguns to Uzis.
Let’s face it. Orcs are basically armoured, fast zombies and this is basically a zombie film but about orcs – it even climaxes in a shotgun siege.

I know the job of policing queues can get nasty quickly, and of course some people might, quite understandably, become a little irrational when informed that the Balancing Rock at Balancing Rock National Park has been removed for health and safety reasons. However this National Park does seem slightly oversupplied in the weaponry department – and have they considered the possibility of bears breaking in and stealing said weaponry? To be fair, this existential drama is set in the US where the right to arm bears is enshrined in Constitution.
The Orcs are played gleefully by an army of small actors – dwarves? children? Hobbits? Difficult to tell with all the armour and prosthetics. Cynical bad boy ranger Cal (Adam Johnson) and by-the-book rookie Hobie (Maclain Nelson) have real onscreen Yogi and Boo Boo chemistry between them, making a gooseberry of eco-warrior Katie (Rennie Grames).
This movie is a lot of fun but not quite the unofficial Lord Of The Rings spin-off it would like to be, and frankly, there’s not nearly enough face-eating.

Friday, 11 January 2013

We Can Get You Some Really Cheap Gear [Trailer]

Trailer for my animated short film "We Can Get You Some Really Cheap Gear." I've taken the full version offline (temporarily) so this will have to be your Lego fix for the moment. More news about this film soon...

Friday, 4 January 2013

L33T! [Elite: Dangerous]

Congratulations to David Braben and Frontier: the Elite Dangerous campaign has reached home base, smashed both stretch goals and broken the record for the highest successful Kickstarter target, and is about to close having raised one and three-quarter million pounds of startup cash. Along the way a whole shelf of Elite universe novels have also been successfully launched and a new form of meta-funding invented, and LBC presenter Julia Hartley-Brewer was rendered speechless at the suggestion Elite Dangerous might prove to be more fun than a slinky. So now David you have no excuse: go and write the damn game.

Unfrigateable That's What You Are [Review: Battleship]

I'm not going to get into the thorny question of whether Hasbro's latest movie adaptation Battleship is a good movie or not. I mean, what is this, some kind of review? Instead I'll mostly focus on some of the outstanding triumphs this movie achieves, and you can decide for yourself whether these historic achievements alone justify the price of admission.

Battleship outstanding triumph #1: Which family members did they kidnap in order to persuade Liam Neeson to appear - and act - in Battleship? This sure beats Alec Guinness waking up with a hangover to discover that "George Lucas talked me into playing who?" Henceforth in all future reviews Mr. Neeson shall be referred to as Liam Neeson (Battleship).

Battleship outstanding triumph #2: The rules of the Battleship game really do get translated into the plot. Navy gunner Rihanna calls out grid co-ordinates as the crew fire shells at the alien vessels. They are invisible to radar, so although large enough and close enough to see with a cheap pair of binoculars, the crew decide to guess their location indirectly based on movements of ocean sensor-buoys. One sailor also states with great conviction that the aliens can't see the human ships either. They so can.

Battleship outstanding triumph #3: further adaptation of the Battleship game. The aliens deploy an explosive that actually resembles a Battleship peg - and only sinks the ship when several pegs have been fired into the hull.

I think I've made my point. You can see a lot of thought went into this adaptation and surely it's faithful enough to the source to satisfy the legions of fanatical Battleship players worldwide.