Archive for the ‘Geek’ Category

Star Wars Clone Wars (2003)

I am a great lover of puns, so naturally, I have no problem with people using today’s date, May The Fourth, as an excuse to make sneaky little Star Wars references to each other. It’s also pretty fun that others wave their geek flag around by throwing in other sci-fi references , random quotes and the like1. So really, I should talk about Star Wars again.

As I’ve stated before, I don’t think the movies are anything terribly special. To me, it’s the shared universe and the fact that it’s given various arty types an excuse to produce epic, space fantasy style tales that matter. One fantastic example is Genndy Tartakovsky’s Star Wars: Clone Wars2. Set between Attack of The Clones and Revenge of The Sith, this is short cartoon series produced by the same guy who brought us Dexter’s Laboratory, The PowerPuff Girls and of course Samurai Jack.

Jedi versus Sith; Six movies worth of conflict summed up in one frame.

Of these, the Star Wars cartoon most resembles Samurai Jack; itself a series about a swordsman fighting futuristic creatures. In Star Wars: Clone Wars, we get a series of short stories, each one a snap-shot of an epic inter-galactic war. The focus of many of these tales are the Jedi. The animation resembles Tartakovsky’s previous work, whilst maintaining the iconic Star Wars look. So for example, Padmé Amidala looks both cute and exotic, whilst also cool and deadly. Emotion is conveyed in a very simple, easy to comprehend style, and because it looks so simple, we accept it, move on and thus allow the story to draw us in deeper. (It would be unkind to point out that the cartoon version of Anakin Skywalker is more expressive than the live action version. It’s also true, sadly.) It’s also filled with visual reference to previous Star Wars cartoons, and lovingly crafted cues and homages to the broader franchise.

As Star Wars is so ingrained into the culture I’m a part of, I have no idea if it works out of context. I think it would; warriors doing cool things are a pretty easy idea to get a handle on and enjoy, after all. Star Wars: Clone Wars, really is the best thing to come out of the prequels, and is the closest thing to the promise of a War in the Stars that the Lucas franchise has come up with thus far.

1: It’s also a little dull, which is a sad and inevitable consequence of something becoming part of the background culture. For some, there’s a fine line between liking something because it’s fun, and liking something because everyone else does. Once the line is crossed, there’s a chance people will simply repeat the same lines and make the same noises simply to have something to say, rather than out of a sense of joy. Inevitably, the thing becomes mundane.
2: Not to be confused with the CGI series of a similar name, which came later.

Categories: Geek, TV

The Avengers – movie phenomena of the year

April 30, 2012 2 comments

Apparently, if I hadn’t gone to see the The Avengers 1 this weekend, the geek police would have turned up at my door and taken away my geek card and nerd privileges. Or something. It’s mostly pointless to pretend to review what is rapidly turning out to not only the box office smash of the year, but the younger generations equivalent of Star Wars. 2

Go see it, if not to prevent people from endlessly telling you to go and see it. If you’re a comic-book fan you’ll emit little squeals of nerdy delight, if you like big budget hero movies, you’ll love it. The rest of you will find the performances engaging, the wit sharp, the heroes pretty and the plot doing its best to not get in the way of the fun.

More interestingly, the The Avengers shows that the super-hero movie has finally reached the point where it can not only emulate the more intricate elements of the comic book format, it can excel it. Namely, the idea that you can set multiple stories in the same place. This isn’t particularly news, recurring characters have been a feature of films in the past, but this is the first time that the concept of a shared world, spread across multiple movies, has taken centre stage.

Avengers. Assembling. Never seen in Ikea.

Audiences have proven that they can ‘buy into’ a coherent world and setting, in this case the Marvel Universe. Remember, The Avengers is not just set in the same world that the Thor, Captain America and Iron Man movies were set in, it also (technically), exists in the same place that Ghost Rider and Blade exist. In theory, any of these characters could turn up in a movie with each other, and though it’s unlikely that Marvel will produce a romantic comedy featuring Spider Man’s Flash Thompson and Patty ‘Hellcat’ Walker3, it’s more possible than it was last year. Moreover, other franchises will now try the same trick. I expect to see Batman taking on Superman sometime soon. 4

The other thing it means is that comic-book geeks are now mainstream. But then they always were; The Avengers (and their corporate rivals, The Justice League) are modern versions of god-like pantheons, a repetition of the stories of heroism that we’ve been telling in different ways since we could tell stories. It’s just this time, when we tell, they are explosions.

1: Apparently it’s actually “Marvel’s Avengers Assemble”, presumably to distance it from the 1998 movie “The Avengers” that completely misunderstood the classic TV series of the same name. Personally, I’ve always found comparing the British Avengers (a super-spy TV show with incredibly weird moments) with the American Avengers (a super-hero comic book with incredibly weird moments) a nice study in the differences of cultures. Also, the British Avengers actually have stuff they want to avenge, but that’s a different rant.

2: My generation’s Star Wars was Empire Strikes Back. Pity today’s adolescents, their big Hollywood movie was The Phantom Menace.

3: Patsy Walker is an interesting example of the weird adaptability of the Marvel Universe. She began life as a character in ‘teen romance’ comics, and was eventually re-imagined as Hellcat, a kick ass crime-fighter in tight spandex. Imagine if you will, a version of Sleepless in Seattle where Meg Ryan suddenly becomes a deadly assassin, beats up Tom Hanks and then goes on to save the world from shape shifting alien monsters. I’d watch that movie.

4: Of course, a lot of TV is connected to other TV. At least according to the Tommy Westphall Hypothesis, which isn’t the name of a rock band, it’s an odd little idea that much of American TV is a child’s dream.

Categories: Comic Books, Geek, Movies Tags:

Rockets, Rayguns and Really Nice Tea

April 23, 2012 Leave a comment

As you may have gathered, I ran a larp event sometime ago. It went well, apparently.

Rather than try and explain it, we’ve thrown together a video that combines photos of the event alongside one of the games easter eggs; an audio tape detailing a disastrous mission to mars. Enjoy.

Categories: Games, Geek

John Carter

March 19, 2012 3 comments

Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom series were, for me, part of growing up. A bunch of weirdly fantastic, metaphysically strange adventure stories where a relatively two-dimensional1 dude is thrust into a world of princesses, monsters, mystics and double dealing. And all of this takes place on Mars.

So, being the sort of chap that I am, I was pretty excited by Disney’s John Carter2, and having come in with low expectations3, enjoyed it immensely. It’s pretty flawed; a lot of the charm from the original novels has gone in order to update it to modern tastes, but at its heart, the feature stays with the essence of original books; Mars is huge, strange and filled with the profoundly weird and exotic.

Brought to you by the man who invented Tarzan.

The four-armed, green skinned Tharks, on which much of the original story revolves, are interesting and likeable. The martian princess4, who is essentially the central character, is interesting and engaging. Sadly, the actress cast for the role is pretty rather than strange-looking, but the performance is powerful and the character is strong and independent, as it should be.

As for John Carter himself? Meh. He’s eye candy and carries the story forward the way he’s supposed to, by being a proxy for the viewer. This is a true fantasy movie, and the books that inspired it have been huge influence on more familar films; elements of the Barsoom books can be found in big chunks of American Fantasy and Sci-Fi stories from Superman to Flash Gordon, from Star Trek to Star Wars.

Does John Carter does its legacy justice? Yes, just about. The sad fact is that by making a movie that would appeal to a larger market, they’ve cut away the true strangeness of the original work (which is just under a 100-years old), and we are left with a movie that fails to excite the average non-geek and merely teases the truly nerdy amongst it with a vision of what was almost great.

Also, the White Apes looked brilliant.

1: Lot’s of pulp-action heroes are relatively simply drawn. Critics pan the Twilight novels for a rather flat female lead whilst conveniently forgetting the vast army of near-perfect male heroes in all sorts of fiction aimed for boys. Flat can be fun, if the rest of the world is vivid and interesting.

2: Much has been made of the fact that the movie is not called John Carter of Mars. Thing is, that would also be misleading, as the movie is broadly based on the first Barsoom book, Princess of Mars.

3: It’s worth pointing out that this isn’t the first time the book has been adapted. Asylum got there first.

4: Hey, this is a Disney movie? With a princess? I demand that Dejah Thoris be added to the list of Disney Princesses. With any luck, she’ll team up with Mulan and kick the arses of the rest of them, drilling some self-reliance, confidence and self respect into Ariel, Belle and the rest.

Categories: Geek, 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

In defence of Stargate: Universe

January 20, 2012 5 comments

Stargate:SG1 is, in many ways, the closest America has come to producing a show with the depth and joy of Doctor Who. Though very different, both shows enjoyed a flexible format that required the lead characters to investigate and explore new things. In keeping with an established formula for TV shows, SG1 was responsible for two spin-offs Stargate:Atlantis and Stargate:Universe.

Atlantis stuck to a formula established by the original show; an over-arching race of baddies, a reason to go to a different planet every week and political shenanigans threatening to destroy all the good work of the heroes. The main deviation from the original show seemingly happened by mistake. You see, the stars of the show where meant to be the ruggedly handsome Colonel, the Whiny Nerd and two interchangeable Combat-Wombats1.

The actual stars turned out to by the Whiny Nerd and his sarcastic chum.2. So when it came to Stargate:Universe, they’d learned the lesson that square-jawed action heroes don’t always equal interesting. Universe is filled with flawed characters, so much so that the entire premise of the show was based around the consequences of having the wrong people in the right place at the right time.

I also loved the design classic sci-fi feel to the set design.

Unlike the previous two shows, Universe exiled its cast from the any sort of support, and distanced itself from decade’s worth of mythology.

And you know what? It really worked. Every show was filled with internal conflict. It didn’t really matter what monster of the week threatened the heroes in any give episode, because we tuned in to find out what was happening to the characters. Would the young, naive genius with a low self-image finally find his self-esteem and maybe love? Would everyone realise that the go-get-‘em jock type was actually a bit of jerk? Would I ever stop thinking that Robert Carlysle’s character was nothing more than Trainspotting’s Begbie in a tweed jacket?

A lot of the fans hated it, and I can see why. The first two Stargate shows are all about luck and optimism. One can take on city hall and win (and by city hall I mean a vast army of intergalactic warlords). Science and romance tends to win out, though a little brute force tends to help out. Universe had utterly different themes; cynicism and struggle where the order of the day, problems would not go away once someone had shouted “SCIENCE!” at it and the conflict was almost always internal, rather than some horrid threat from beyond the stars. Which made for great television, but after 10+ years of seeing Stargate Command take on gods and win, I can see why fans were disappointed. They wanted bright heroic romance, not dark struggle.

Which is a pity, because the show was all about triumphing over the impossible. Universe also suffered from being compared to the new Battlestar Galactica, which, despite stylistic similarities, it really was nothing like. It had arch-plots, an established setting, and was clearly designed to run for a long time, whereas Battlestar Galactica suffered from being a mini-series that went on too long.

Sad to say, Stargate:Universe got cancelled before we really gave it a chance to get going, and joins the long line of sci-fi TV shows that could have been a contender, if it had only been given a chance.

1: Sadly, not actual wombats. Actual wombats would be more interesting. Especially if they had guns.
2: Rodney and Zelenka; the great unfinished bro-mance story. If they had their own show I’d watch the shit out of it. Seriously, natural chemistry, comic-timing and sarcastic science speak? Awesome.

Categories: Geek, TV

The adventure-game magazines of the Eighties

January 12, 2012 4 comments

Back in the mid-eighties, Fighting Fantasy1 books where everywhere; young geeks devoured them, and the bookshops where filled with a myriad of titles and their imitators. For the dedicated fan though, this wasn’t enough. The books painted a fantasy world, but the fans wanted more.

Cue Warlock, the short-lived Fighting Fantasy Magazine. For a fraction of the cost of one of the books, you could get a brief fix of your growing gaming habit. Better yet, you got to glimpse the development of these worlds. Warlock, featured maps, articles and monster profiles, and was pretty much a basic primer on how to build worlds. Many of these features would later be further developed into source books for Fighting Fantasy’s main setting. What made it stand out from the other fantasy gaming magazines of the era was the sense that things where being created before your eyes.

Smell the nostalgia. (Though it could just be the smell of old magazines.)

That and the mini-adventure stories. If you can have adventure books, then surely you can have adventure short-stories, and the idea that one can delve into a spot of gaming on a short bus trip has always appealed to me. I find that adventure books tend to be single sitting affairs, I open the book and try and finish it in one gulp. I may come back to it later to play other options, but if it’s any good then it should feel more like a thrilling fairground ride than watching a TV series.

The cool thing about short-form adventure games is that you can indulge and then leave them alone. They’re quick, fun and pretty much ideal for wasting time in those short moments. Even though the old Fighting Fantasy novels are now available as apps,2, I‘ve not seen short-story format adventures in the modern formats. Which is sad, as the appeal of the e-books is their portability. This is why I tend to read short stories on the train, after all. I’d much rather delve into a sword and sorcery game than play Angry Birds, especially when I’m in the mood for something a bit more interactive than a regular book, but I also want it to last the length of my journey and no longer.

Warlock, by the way, only lasted for 12 13 issues, but in that time developed two imitators. Proteus was filled with the contributions from fans, and some of these were very good. It was all about the adventure-game aspect, and lasted a little bit longer than Warlock. Also of note is the sadly very short-lived Dice Man. Edited by 2000AD legend Pat Mills, Dice Man was an adventure game anthology that let you play the characters form the 2000AD comic. The stories where told through comic panels, and this quirky little bit of comic book history was recently paid homage to in 2000AD’s Prog 2012 with a fun little Judge Dredd story.

I do wonder if this sort of thing will make a come-back. We have the technology, after all, and I recently discovered they’re as fun to write as they are to read. It would be nice, and I do get the feeling that they are due a glorious come-back. Time will tell.

1: Adventure Game books require the reader to make choices, rather than passively reading the story. All books draw you into a different world, but only Adventure Game books let you hit things once you’re in that world.
2: There is also a new generation of these games such as Jonathan Green’s Temple of The Spider God, exclusive to iPhone. Hopefully you’ll be able to read them on other things soon enough.

Categories: Books, Comic Books, Geek