Sunday, 29 May 2011

Film Review - Attack the Block

tl;dr review: Attack the Block is an amusing film with well paced action, intricate plotting, well-rounded characters, cool concepts, great lighting and cinematography and a strong social message, yet it remains something of a failure. This is a movie that is never quite sure as to what it is, being neither a horror nor a comedy, but if you can look past the tonal ambiguity then you'll find an entertaining movie that is both smart and subtle.


Attack the Block opens up to a scene that espouses normal comic fare to rather an extreme degree: a young woman is robbed by a gang of bandana masked teenagers on the streets of London. It's perhaps too courageous a start, chopping away empathy we may have had for the main characters. From the outset it is obvious that this is the movie's intention, and over the course of the movie these characters will become more rounded and we will be able to see why they do what they do and come to understand them in a different light. This is a tricky story to tell, and one not particularly important to either the horror or the comedy side of things.

The armed robbery is interrupted, however, when a strange dark hairy creature with glowing teeth crashes into a car nearby. The lead mugger, Moses, and gang give chase, cornering it and killing it before dragging it's carcass around town in order to show it off and find away to get rid of it. None of them can identify it, and far too readily do they accept the idea of it being an alien. Really, this doesn't hurt the movie: we know its an alien, and to have the characters draw that question out would just be annoying. Before long the teenagers are back on the street, having witnessed more alien landings, in an attempt to hunt them down.

Attack the Block offers a number of horror and action set pieces that are memorable and striking, yet take it away from it's supposed comedy foundation. Fireworks are used to great effect in  particularly visually effective sequences, as the beleagured team try to escape through corridors of the tower blocks. We get a well paced and impressive chase sequence and a moped samurai charge into fireworks. All of these certainly worthy moments for a sci-fi/horror, but they do leave the comedy at the door. Sure, humour can be drawn from the absurdity of the scenarios (especially the last one I listed), but there are no real jokes. It's not long before it becomes clear that watching Attack the Block as a comedy does not really work.

That's not to say that when the comedy does come along, it isn't effective. Luke Treadaway as the posh-boy stoner, particularly, adds a great amount of levity to the various situations the hapless gang find themselves in. Whilst it is very much a funny film at times, the comedy takes the backseat here. Nonetheless, the film is played off in much the same manner as films such as Shaun of the Dead, leading to rather bad tonal disparity.

It's definitely not scary though. The aliens are potential very scary, but the fact that our first encounter with one of them leads to the main characters killing it rather diminishes any fear you may have felt for the characters. Coupled with the way they start off in such a negative manner, you'll never really feel scared for them even if the danger feels genuine. For horror to work the focal point has to be the weakest one, and although this is the case, the team are resourceful enough to kill a few without a death so this never really feels the case.

Nonetheless, this is an intricately plotted story. A car is destroyed at the start, and then a few scenes later when we first are introduced to Treadaway's character he mumbles soemthing about "getting it home safely". Later, we see him hit the unlock mechanism on a set of keys, prompting the broken car to click open. It's little moments like these that really make Attack the Block worth watching, subtle lines and scenes with great pay-offs both on the dramatic and comedic sides of things.

The characters are larger than life and cartoonish, which throws the tone into even more confusion. The people who populate this world feel reasonably well developed, especially for a movie that at times threatens to be an ensemble cast. Each of the characters feels distinctive, and more than just single note. The acting, too, is strong, although I found John Boyega rather too stoned faced as the leading man. Rather than being compelling and brooding, he just came off as too distant.

On the visual and directorial side of things, Joe Cornish shows very much a steady hand on his debut. The cinematographyis very nice, and the whole piece feels stylised without being distracting. It's a polished product, and certainly feels like it has been guided by a practised hand.

Really, the thing about this movie that makes the biggest impression is the tonal ambiguity. A shame, really, since under that is a very good movie. Personally, I think it is best watched as a sci-fi action film with strong comic relief, as it is clever and well structured and very much an enjoyable romp.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Novel Review - K.J. Parker's The Folding Knife

Basso the Magnificent. Basso the Great. Basso the Wise. Basso the Murderer. 

The First Citizen of the Vesani Republic is an extraordinary man. He is ruthless, cunning and, above all, lucky. He brings wealth, power and prestige to his people. But with power comes unwanted attention, and Basso must defend his nation and himself from threats foreign and domestic. In a lifetime of crucial decisions, he's only ever made one mistake. 

One mistake, though, can be enough.  


I'm a big fan of K.J. Parker: last year, The Company left a definite impression and the free short stories floating around the web convinced me that it was more than just one good book. This book, really, is the book that sets my admiration for Parker in cement.

The Folding Knife concerns the life and exploits of Bassianus Severus, or Basso as he's referred to the majority of the time, the First Citizen of the Republic of Vesani. As the blurb states, Basso is an incredibly intelligent man, massively self-absorbed and seemingly in possession of the world's supply of luck. We meet him at a very young age and follow him to the point at which the prologue (a forty years later deal) kicks in. What you have here is more or less a typical rise and fall from power. At least, in summary it would seem that way.

So is it? Kind of. Truth is, it's never made particularly clear what the story is about. It'd be hard to argue against the novel being a character exploration, but at the same time the character is never actively focussed on or explored directly. The story will spend lots of time going over details of banking manoeuvres and international politics and military procedures, but barely an emotive word finds it's way into Parker's incredibly readable prose. Only in dialogue is emotive sentiment expressed, and even there far more is left unsaid than actually vocalised. So whilst I'd argue it is a character study, it doesn't really do much direct character studying.

The novel resolutely refuses to draw upon a typical arc that is assumed from a"rise and fall" type story. No event or plot point has simple or clear narrative ramifications. A lot of the time events feel almost incidental and heavy with meaning at the same time. It's a very unusual balance that is struck, but one that works, somehow.

There is a tendency, too, within such stories to cast the main character in something of a MacBethian tragedy, and again The Folding Knife would seem to fall pretty well into that category based on summaries. Much of the morality play is so confused as to become as hard to untangle the proverbial Gordian Knot, however, and clear cut drama is in short supply. If this is a tragedy, it's not playing by the typical rules.

Or maybe it's a political thriller? The politics is most definitely a focus here, unlike the aforementioned character development. Primarily we see Basso's manoeuvring within his bank then within his position as ruler of Vesani, with wars and assassination attempts and economic manipulations on an international level. The writing contains a constant momentum that makes this story such a breezy and engaging read despite it's levels. The most obvious label for this book, on reflection, would be a fantasical political thriller, but I feel this glosses over the core of what makes the novel so compelling.

Rather than the apparent ambivalence weakening the novel, this lack of focus works with Parker's subtlety to tell a very powerful story in between the lines. The unusual structure, too, does not suffer where you might expect it to from it's apparent looseness. This is an intricate tale, told through symbols and details, and it retains an unpredictability of sorts despite the fact that we've already been told that it ends.

Near the end, one of the characters speaks about how everything, in the end, boils down to an us vs them situation. Ironic, considering just how complex everything in the story winds up being. This is a world where there is no clear reasons or set outcomes, with characters who are embodiements of grey morality. It's a complex and ambiguous novel, an easy novel to read and a novel that requires thought to dissemble. More than any of these, it's a story. And a darkly humourous, subtly tragic and fast paced one too.

Easily the best thing I've read by an already formidable writer, and it very much deserves your time.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Comic Review - Gail Simone's Wonder Woman

So I'm finished with Gail Simone's highly acclaimed run on Wonder Woman. First impressions? Well, I'm rather ambivalent to be honest. After the already reviewed The Circle, her run consist of the following collections: End of the Earth, Rise of the Olympian, Warkiller and Contagion. Instead of commenting on them all individually, I am going to give a perspective on the whole series. I'll white out any spoilers.

Wonder Woman, the only daughter of the Amazonians, was charged to bring peace to the land of the mortals. Years, and many super villains, later we find her working as a government spy and still struggling to bring peace to the world. There's a romance blossoming between her and her partner agent (codenamed Nemesis for some silly reason), and following a violent struggle during which the Amazons attacked America, all the Amazons have been banished by queen Hippolayata from Thymscira. Well, almost all, as we saw in The Circle. The Greek gods seem to be missing, too.

This is the platform Simone has to work with, and over the course of the run she implements many shifts in the status-quo. These changes creep in slowly as the story dictates, but their raminfications are never, I felt, really dealt with. For, although this is very much an introspectively focussed comic, the pace is blistering and I'm sure the amount of fights works out at about one per issue. So despite a more heavy emotional focus, this is a fast paced comic with lots of action and super heroics. Sounds great, right?

Well, yes and no. This attempt to marry the more enjoyable parts of the form (fast paced super heroics) with a more character focussed core is very much applaudable on paper, but never quite works in execution. Rather than marrying the two aspects, Simone makes the action subordinate to the internal stuff: Wondy can win any battle if she just sorts out her self-esteem issues. The physical threat to Wondy is rarely credible, and she loses so rarely that there is little here to dissuade the notion. As a result it takes much of the tension out of the action: putting something so de-emphasised right in the spotlight also means that the comic isn't developing it's stronger facets. I didn't really have a problem with this at first, but when she just kept winning it started feeling repetitive too.

For me, this problem really kicked in around the third volume. During the second she kills what is meant to be the devil without much difficulty, and that kinda worried me, but I was willing to role with it. In the third she meets a creature named Genocide - said to be part God - that tears her a new one and steals her lasso. It was a great twist: Wondy had been brought low and her iconic weapon had been taken from her. It really seemed to raise the stakes, and was a great moment. Problematically, however, on her way to the hospital she gets up and declares herself ready to fight again. She gets her best friend and Wonder Girl with her, changes clothes and she's fine again. When such a devastating beatdown can be cancelled out by five minutes of rest, it really devalues any injuries Wondy receives. She then fights with Genocide - her and her friends - to a standstill before he blows up the building and escapes. She then beats the Cheetah (she's as fast as the flash!) just afterwards. I realise that, in their own comic, heroes are always going to be overpowered, but after this series of events and Wondy's single handed beating of Genocide after this, again without any medical attention, the comic ceased to have any real threats. It might as well have been called "Wonder Woman Wins". Oh, she also kills the god Ares with one hit.

The real problem here, is that by proliferating the comic with action, action becomes a very big part of the comic. Simone relies on action, perhaps out of a fear that comic fans wouldn't read something more internally focussed, but undercuts the action all the same.

In my review of The Circle I speculated as to why Wonder Woman is not so popular as her contemporaries. I forgot to mention the overwhelmingly male audience in comics, and her being female somehow. This comic, however, suggests another alternative: Wonder Woman is a boring character. Simone's run has been praised as capturing perfectly who Wondy is, and I can see that. She pays a lot of attention to clearly laying out Diana's personality and beliefs, as well as her fighting abilities. Simone has a very strong and plausible idea of who Wondy is, and it's very boring.

Wondy spends all her time thinking about how good other people are, or how to save people. She embodies a very vague selflessness, and although Simone does well with what she has to work with, leading to a few very nice moments, she's still stuck with a character who seems to lack any real flaws. There's just something so vague and wishy-washy about the character that fails to be compelling. Maybe she is meant to be more than human, more perfect, but that doesn't make it any more fun to read.

Then there's the gender issue I had with it. In Wonder Woman, the stories are always going to be more female orientated. Quite right too; comics are far too male dominated and mysogynistic currently. The problem here, is that Simone seems to have done the opposite. Men in this are all a bit shit. Some of them kinda come good later, but all of them exist as hugely inferior to the women characters, or to be victims of the female characters. I have no problem with female characters taking the dominant roles in comic books, but doing what men too often do with women isn't a good idea. Towards the end the balance shifts to a happier midpoint where some male characters have a degree of competence, but that still doesn't change the annoyingness of what went before.

One thing that really stuck out was the characterisation of a scientist called Dr Morrow. I'd only encountered him once before, in 52, where he was an imposing and charasmatic character. A dark genius, arrogant and conceited. He was a very strong and imposing presence - of all the mad scientists, he was the most powerful and imposing one. Here he isn't even the same character. Sure, he looks the same and still builds evil androids, but in this he spends his whole time cringing and grovelling. I'm all for reinterpreting characters, but one of these comics seemed to have just gotten it wrong. Not exactly a criticism, I suppose, but definitely a point of confusion.

The pace that everything unravels at hurts the stories too. The inner turmoils are rarely given time to breathe, and the mysteries are not given enough of a build-up. There were a few reveals in there that I hadn't even realised were meant to be mysteries. Not in the good "oh, that makes so much sense in retrospect" either. Just underdeveloped. It means that certainly schemes end up feeling contrived and half-baked. A lot of cool concepts and characters do go to waste. My frustration at Kane Milohai's death, after a fight that got all of four panels, was really quite pronounced. I'd have loved to have found out more and explored the ideas around him, and the whole hawaiian pantheon.

I've been very negative so far, so perhaps I should look into the positives:

Her characterisation is very good. The villains are crafty and intelligent, but often well developed and complex. Generally they have understandable motivations, although she's not above throwing in a bit of ol' fashioned evil for the sake of evil too. Alkyone is a very well developed villain, and Achilles is an interestingly balanced character, although, like Diana, he comes across as rather wishy-washy. As I said before, the strongest part of her charaterisation of Wondy is the representation of her foreigness. She makes sure and contextualise everything with her Amazonian upbringing.

Although underdeveloped at times, her plotting shows a practised hand too. She uses chekhovs guns effectively, builds a few very nice climaxes and  is subtle in much of her foreshadowing. The pace of the stories may cause problems, but it also ensures the story never lingers or drags and retains a strong sense of momentum. The run does seem to just come to a very sudden, and unfinished feeling, end however, suggesting that her run was cut short.

By trying to have a more internal focus, Simone is doing something fairly original in comics too. She's trying to add depth, and make action an expression of emotional struggles, none of which are a bad idea. There is an ambitiousness here, and a depth of writing that I'm sure is not all that common. For this, Simone's work certainly deserves praise.

Whilst I've a lot more bad to say about this series than good, I'm still not sure I can say I dislike it. It doesn't do much clearly wrong: the gender issues is just as present most other places, the internal focus is an attempt to add depth and she can only work within the confines of the Wonder Woman character. Really, what tips it is just how untouchable Diana is as a character: all of her physical struggles she is never really in great danger, and all of her emotional ones are so ridiculously selfless that they come out as rather insipid. Perhaps it's that all of her internal struggles are narrated straight at us. Perhaps, if the internal struggles had bee implied more than told this comic would have been a much stronger one.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Update-y date-y doooooo.

Since I'm pretty terrible for promising blogs then not delivering, I'm gonna do a quick run down of stuffs and my thoughts therein. Might be a topic on any one of these, maybe not.

1 - Finished Simone's run of Wonder Woman. Mainly, I'm kinda ambivalent. Will definitely do a full blog on this.

2 - Gaiman's much anticipated Dr Who episode was on last night. It was well written, charming, funny, clever, dark and had real heart. I find myself, however, not really in love with the episode. An excellent comparison would be The Girl in the Fireplace: both very well written and interesting and sophisticated, but with a resonant emotional and character core. I found I could never rate Girl in the Fireplace as high as it possibly deserved: more that I could admire rather than love it, so to speak. Same principle can be applied to yesterday's episode.

3 - Read the first volume of Morrison's Batman and Robin. Feels like, almost, the most simple thing Morrison has ever written, yet incredibly awesome nonetheless. Simple being a comparative mind.

4 - Probably canned the short story. Gonna give it one last try tonight, otherwise I'll just whip up some small pieces of flash fiction.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Musings on the Three-Act Structure

So in my 20th Century Boys I made reference to the Hollywood three-act structure, and it got me thinking. Because, when it comes to writing, I’d be loathe to assert that the Hollywood formula is the pinnacle of writing, I’ve been thinking about what films successfully go with something different.

No Country for Old Men
  - The Coen Brothers are quite good at this as a whole. It's been too long since I saw Fargo or The Big Lebowski to comment, but NCfOM is a terrific example. For much of it's time on-screen, it seems to be more or less typcial thriller with a western taste to it. Everyone talks with that deep south parlance, but otherwise it is a thriller about a man being chased by a cold and ruthless killer. At his home a detective tries to work out what happened, why this man is chasing them and who else is involved. But what is actually happens in this story is that the old sheriff is main character here, and it is his story we are following. Thus when we get to the third arc, suddenly it's all change and all of the pay-offs are wrong and the film's final scene is, well, unexpected. There's a couple of fake arcs in here, but this is a very unconventionally structured story.

Pulp Fiction - Pretty much all of Tarantino's films have convention breaking structures too, and Pulp Fiction is the easiest and most obivous one. We see our heroes' journeys in the wrong order, and getting resolutions before and after journeys. If you've seen the movie, this one is pretty self-explanatory really.

And suddenly I'm scrambling for examples. Trainspotting probably does this, but I'd need to rewatch it to refresh my memory. I remember lots of people claiming that Scott Pilgrim Versus the World doesn't follow the three-act structure, despite the fact that I see three very clean cut and obvious acts. Hell, Ramona even changes her hair colour to tell you that a new act has begun.

There is a common trend in writing to embellish the three act structure with a very short fourth act. Only highlight the following text if you've seen Alien, which has a very good example of this: When Ripley has gotten off the mainship, escaped onto that shuttle - there is a cool down, a drop in tension. The movie feels finished. Then it turns out that she can't just escape the alien, she has to defeat it too, because the alien has followed her off the self-destructing main ship. Basically, this establishes that the supposed climax of the movie was misdirection, and now we get to see the real climax. It's fairly common and abide to the the three-act rule pretty hard and fast, so it doesn't really count as breaking out of that structure. Christopher Nolan seems fond of doing this too, what with Inception and The Dark Knight both doing this.

So am I overlooking some obvious ones? Are there any better film examples of unusual structuring? Is this a big gap in my knowledge, or is it rare to see good movies not using the three act structure?

Film Review - 20th Century Boys: Chapter 1

The 20th Century Boys saga begins in 1969 when a young boy named Kenji and his friends write The Book of Prophecy. In the book, they write about a future where they fight against an evil organization trying to take over the world and bringing about Doomsday. Years later in 1997, a mysterious cult being lead by a man only known as Friend has emerged and gained strong influence over society. A series of catastrophic events begin to occur, mirroring the prophecies made up by the young Kenji. The greatest fear is that the climax of The Book of Prophecy will become a reality: on December 31st, 2000, a terrifying giant virus-spreading robot will attack the entire city of Tokyo, leading to the end of mankind. The only people who know about The Book are Kenji and his childhood friends. Who is Friend? Will Kenji and his friends are able to save mankind and live to see the 21st Century?


20th Century Boys: Chapter 1

This movie, right from the outset, faces an intimidating task. Not only is the source material (a manga by Naoki Urasawa) massive and complex, involving a long, looping plot; it also happens to be my favourite manga of all time. One of my favourite stories in any medium. So for it to really impress me would be incredible, because no matter how much expectations are tempered, it's always going to be compared to the source material. Really, any adaptation should be looked at as it's own beast, but for a fan of the source material, with all the best will in the world, this is never going to be the case.

The story decides to deviate immediately from the comic, showing us a number of seemingly unconnected scenes. We get a rather cliche speach from a little boy about fighting against the odds, and how that makes you a man; we get a child dancing to T-Rex's 20th Century Boy as it is piped over the school sound system; we get a man trapped in a prison cell, talking of how he was arrested for drawing manga. The latter is our framing device, as the rest of the story is being narrated by the man in the cell next to the beleagured artist's. This is not perhaps the ideal start to the movie - the scene is a good five to ten minutes of the artist telling us how bad everything is and how sad he is, whilst sad string music plays in the background. For the first substantive scene in the movie, it lacks urgency and feels a bit too early to be trying to pull that one on us.

So then it flashes back - through the boy's speach about being manly - to Japan in 1996 and this boy apparently grown up and working in a convenience store. Here it is established that he still lives with his mum and is taking care of his sister's child after she left the baby and disappeared one day. It is a jarring shift from the dark and grimy prison, played mostly for comedy in a very bright and lighthearted style. This is something of an overarching problem in the movie, as the direction seems more 70s British Sitcom than Hollywood. Sure, there are a number of nice flourishes, but the directing adds a levity to the story which often isn't appropriate and sets a tone that, when coupled with the dark and action-packed plot, creates a fair amount of tonal dissonance, especially as the film advances.

Soon, this little fella comes into play:

This symbol is saturated throughout the story, the mystery hook. When this symbol keeps turning up in the places of mysterious events, it is revealed it is connected to a shadowy cult. Lead by a man known only as "Friend", this cult is growing rapdily, and quickly gaining influence and becoming a menace. For our protagonist, Kenji, this symbol and the events that are linked to the cult have an eerily personal significance: when he was young, he and his friends designed the symbol and plotted the course of destruction as a game. Now, it seems, someone is taking their youthful games and turning them into a deadly reality. And so it is revealed that the enigmatic friend must be one of the people who was part of young Kenji's friend group.

Considering my adoration for the source material, it might be considered odd to complain that there is too much of the manga in here. The Lord of the Rings movies took on a previously thought unfilmable story, and turned it into a film - adapting rather than recreating - and this is the key to it's success. 20th Century Boys, however, gets snarled up in the complex and winding structure of the story that flowed out oh so well in comic. It decides to espouse the Hollywood three act structure, stay true to the original, and the result is clumsy and convoluted. We get flashbacks by the bucket-full, flashbacks within flashbacks and both the plot and central character arc seem to meander indecisively forward. En media res is horribly abused in this film, whilst it flowed smoothly in the manga. It also seemed that to try and be so faithful to the story within the confines of a trilogy was way too ambitious.

When trying to evaluate performances from a different culture, it can be difficult. Different societies have different norms when it comes to displays of emotion. Nonetheless, I found the cast was more or less convincing. Karasawa felt maybe a little too hapless and comedic for most of the movie, but carried the later serious scenes with enough to make him seem like the transformed Kenji. Really, his was the performance that whole film rested on; for this part of the story, 20th Century Boys has the spotlight stuck firmly upon him.

This film trilogy is purportedly the most expensive Japanese cinematic undertaking ever. And although they decide to preserve the story's structure, espousing the more adviseable Hollywood structure, they decide to ape Hollywood habit of gratuity over subtlety. Some of the most powerful moments of the story are played out here with a frankly silly level of big budgetry. Emmerich would be proud. Urasawa's storytelling and art was always at it's strongest when he was making use of subtlety, and the film suffers for ignoring this.

20th Century Boys is probably an entertaing story to the patient casual viewer. It's complex and convoluted structure, coupled with it's propensity to be more cartoonish, mean that most people are unlikely to be won over. The story is still there, there's still a great story here - but read the manga. Let's hope the sequels can change my mind.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Scotland's Made it's Choice

On the 5th of May, Scotland made it's choice. The build-up was pretty poor to be honest - all of the parties were looking rather samey and indecisive. The leaders were lacking in charisma, the policies were largely being ignored and there was almost an intangible sense of apathy radiating from the public. The voter turn out was roughly 48% at the end of the day, and I kinda get why. Hell, more than a few times I sat back and looked at the candidates and considered letting my slip go unused.

We have four main parties here; well, okay, we have two. Like Britain as a whole, Lib Dems have never been a big political force, but the Tories are not particularly bigger in more recent times. Last election was something of landmark, because it was the first in the history of the Scottish parliament to see Labour knocked off their seat, replaced by the Nationalist party (SNP).

Now the SNP have the first ever majority government in the Scottish parliament. Hell, the Scottish parliament was first constructed in a manner so that there wouldn't be a majority government. The ethos behind proportional representation is that it forces parties to deal with each other, so more than just the majority's interests are represented in government. The SNP have taken the system designed to make an outright victory incredibly difficult, and have won an outright victory.

This is made more confusing by the fact that during the last elections - the British General Elections - Scotland went Labour by an almost unanimous landslide. Despite being a strong Labour seat, this was confusing because other typical Labour strongholds like areas of the North of England and Wales saw the Tories make up a large amount of headway and steal a good number of seats from Labour. In contrast, Scotland only gave one seat to the Tories.

So why the disparity? Well, a few things occur to me.

Firstly, it could have been that SNP aren't rated to have any clout at Westminister. It is likely Labour who are best seen to represent Scottish interests, as the English Tories are perpetually cast as the villains North of the border. It's a simple case of applying different standards to the UK and Scotland in elections.

Secondly, it could be that the fact is, despite going to Labour, Scotland still finds itself with a Tory dominated hung parliament. This may have had a disillusioning effect on the Scottish population which was already more in favour of the SNP, albeit marginally. Since this proves a vote for Labour doesn't mean much, why not go for the other party identifying itself with Scotland?

Because, at the end of the day, that is what this boils down to. The SNP are seen as the Scottish option. This, too, is why I have fears that, despite low support for it, independence could be growing popular. Give the SNP and those in favour a chance to sell it as the "scottish" option. Independence is perhaps the ultimate nationalist endgame, beyond the party themselves. - with such a nationalist country running highly on nationalist beliefs: it is all too easy for me to invision support for independence rising. I never woulda guessed that we'd have nationalist party as the majority in the government, and as such Scotland voting YES for independence seems far more plausible.

So, Scotland as Ireland 2.0?

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Some people...

So I'm in St Andrews, and my mates put on a failed party after having spent lots of their society's money and put in a good deal of their own money. It went wrong, and now a mate has responsibility for equipment he doesn't have. They were fucked over by the other organiser who, for all intent purposes, seems to be holding the equipment hostage. Now my mates, overburdened with coursework as they are, have to travel to Perth then to Dundee, spending money they don't have and wasting time they can't spare becuase this asshole knows that he's not the one who'll get hit with the consequences.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Going up to St Andrews Today

So, whilst I'm gonna try and do a bit of bloggin's whilst there, could be a bit of a silence. Almost done with Simone's run on Wonder, so expect a review of the series as a whole, and I'm also looking to get a short story done this week. Some musings on the Scottish Election too.

So yeah, even if there is a gap, eventually, silence will fall.


Couldn't resist.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

From the Archives - Blogging about Blogging

  I do remember (some long time ago at the LD's temperamental rebirth) a discussion arose pertaining to whether or not writing is dying-at least in comparison to its supposed past popularity and these uppity newcomers, like visual media (I know this is not really a new thing, but still...). Whether or not this is true is a topic for another day, but there was one sentiment, rather unique I foggily recall, that stuck in my mind.

  One of the debaters argued that fanfiction was important to literature, and the widespread popularity of such a form of writing disproves the "writing is dying" idea. The idea that we could judge it from a practice that is not only unrecognised by mainstream of literature but actually looked down upon, "a waste of time" being one of the more mild comments,
is an odd one but hardly one that can be dismissed. And if fanfiction can be counted as a form of the entertainment media, at the very least, then there is another odd little phenomena of story telling that is very much in the mainstream-I'm sure we all know where I'm going with this.

  Weblogs give you the anonymity of a diary, yet gives the opportunity for your thoughts, anecdotes, observations, etc. to be shared with the world; and I seriously doubt anyone's diary has ever given them feedback or reactions of any kind. Due to the very consumerist nature of what the internet embodies (everything quick and easy) there exists very little in the way of pretenses for length or relevance or even basic grammar or spelling. This in itself can lead to pretty interesting ideas (all inference based) but it's when a person pours their mind or soul into it, revealing demons or skeletons, that it really proves it's worth. Poetry if you will-but not quite.

  Perhaps the most poetic part of blogs is that they are so pointless. They exist only for the gratification of the writer and as such become redundant upon conception. Yet some minds can transform them and, as with any decent media, you get a product very much resembling the psychosis of the writer.

  So what more fitting tribute is there than writing a blog about a blog? A redundant act about a redundant act. No real start, direction, or conclusion, much like the eternity of lives that leave their digital trail of this great sprawling mess of the internet.


A blog post from myself, originally posted somewhere else. It did not accrue anything in the way of attention, but I like it enough to post it again here. As you no doubt gather, I find the idea of an internet culture is fascinating. Socially, it has it's own norms and allows for more subcultures than any other social medium I can imagine. Behind it all lies the anonymity.

Blogging was probably best described internet celebrity (that term feels like it should be oxymoronic) Yahtzee when he was talking about Youtube. Everyone wants to get noticed and everyone thinks that their thoughts are worth more than the next man's. 'cept me of course. I know mine is worth more than whoever this unfortunate next man happens to be.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

A Nostalgic Moment - Bleach

It's been awhile now since my descent into anime. It pretty much coincided with a transition point of my life, and has had massive effect in shaping how the last four or so years of my life have played out. Not that the material itself was in anyway enlightening or taught me anything: I'd go so far as to say that out of all the particular media I've consumed, manga has the lowest average quality of story-telling and depth. Nonetheless I used to enjoy it a great deal, and still do, albeit less frequently. More, it effected the kind of people I found myself spending a lot of time with and the crowds that I'd end up with.

And they were even less inclined to be complimentary of shows like Bleach and Naruto than myself. These, really, were two of the big three alongside One Piece, a manga I never quite acquired the taste for. I enjoyed both Naruto and Bleach for a good deal longer than I should have, and since I find myself catching up with Bleach at the moment, rather inexplicably, I feel inclined to reflect on it.

Bleach is the story of Ichigo Kurosaki who can see ghosts. He encounters a giant monster ghost - a Hollow - and then not long after, a warrior sent to track down the Hollow, Rukia. Rukia explains that she is a Shinigami (can't remember what that translates as at the moment) and tells Ichigo that normal humans can see neither her nor the Hollow. As if it resented them talking about it behind it's back, the hollow then turns up and a fight ensues. Ichigo saves Rukia's life and allows her to kill it, but he is mortally wounded in the process. In order to save his life, Rukia then makes Ichigo a Shinigami.

The series continues in an episodic style, with Hollow after Hollow turning up to threaten this Japanese town, and Ichigo and Rukia fighting them off. It's typical shonen (popular manga/anime aimed at younger boys: Dragon Ball Z being the eponymous example) and it's fun. Before long, Kubo Tite, the writer and artist, decides to change the game and introduces the city of the Shinigami. At the time it was very much a welcome change, and an escalation that was always going to happen, and it sets the status quo of Bleach, laying down an overarching storyline as opposed to episodic stories.

Not the most welcome status quo however; it's packed with ill-developed characters and repetitive and convoluted plot points. The dialogue spends much of the time hammering home the same concepts and Tite's pretentions early on of subverting traditional manga is left behind and forgotten. The pacing is sloooow, power structures weird, and it has one of the most boring protagonists I've ever come across.

But you know what? I still enjoy Bleach, even after giving up Naruto, which had always been a far better written affair. There is still at least one epic character, it has an enjoyably feel to it and there have been moments of incredible hilarity. Really, the crowning moment of Bleach was one of the latter. On a forum I frequent, there had been a running joke that one of the characters who, really, was nothing more than a comedy relief was actually the most powerful enemy. Then, what a twist!, that happened in the manga. It was one of the best moments of unintentional hilarity I've come across. He was then beaten comprehensibly and easily off-panel. It was something of an incomprehendible turn of events.

Bleach is just good fun. I could bitch about it's problems all day, and struggle for hours to come up with positives poitns about the series, but all of this is ultimately immaterial. So long as it continues to entertain, I'll continue to read.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Dr Who Series 6 - Intial Impressions

I'm a massive Dr Who fan. Expect much of the Who in this blog, exploring all manner of Who related stuff: 'cause when a television show has had 770ish episodes, you know there is going to be rather a lot that can be said about it. I started watching with the reboot, so I'll be looking at the Who from that context, rather than someone who was a fan of the original show.

This newest series is the second helmed by executive producer and head writer Steven Moffat, a man who's work I may rather enjoy. Enjoy to the point that an ex-girlfriend accused me of having a man-crush on him, the sexy, sexy beast that he is. During his tenure we've been introduced to the Eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith, and from there the show has been funnier than it's ever been and rather more clever too.

Thing is, Steven Moffat became a fan favourite for writing one storyline a series under former show runner Russel T Davis. And his stories were awesome. They were brilliantly structured, far scarier than anything else the Who was putting out and crazily well written. His use of misdirection and touch with characters; the fluditity of the tone, balancing exciting and scary and touching; he was an incredibly good story-teller. What we got out of his first series was funnier than expected, and easily the best so far in my estimation - but it wasn't really up to the stupidly high standards he had set for himself. That was alright though; we were getting very fun stories with a more depth and complexity than RTD's tenure. It may not have been as scary as it had once been, nor quite so complex, but Moffat had still taken the Who to a new level. So what if his best writing was behind him?

With this mindset (and a very good christmas episode to serve as a prelude to the newest series) I sat down to watch the first episode. Hype had been building for a while, and despite the above cynicism I had pretty much allowed myself to be drawn in. The episode opened up in a style very much typical of Moff's Who; snappy dialogue, light hearted humour and a real sense of warmth. The Doctor draws his companions together, and tells them they're gonna be going to space. Here we have the set-up and equilibrium established before the credits - maybe comes off as a tad rush, but it is well-executed on the whole.

Then we cut to them al chillin' in Utah. Having a picnic. It's a weird scene, a shift from that "geronimo!" style momentum the preceding scene seemed to be building up. Unsettling even. I noticed that there was something else going on, that there was something wrong here. A real sense of dislocation embodies the scene; it's subtle, so maybe not apparent on first viewing, but if you rewatch it I'm sure you'll see it. Not all of the actors are reading off of the same script (well, they are, but you get the point).

And then everything changes.

The ensuing two-parter is what I imagined from a Moffat helmed Who. It's complex and subtle and contains all the snappy dialogue and humour Smith has treated us with so far. But it's also damn scary, gets inside your head big style. The story delights in playing with our expectations and throwing one mystery after another at us. Both episodes end with a ridiculously strong "tbc" clifhanger, and promises twist and turns to come. There is also a great deal more psychological horror here than we've seen before from Who, with one particularly notable sequence made of pure mindfuck.

What makes this two-parter so great is that Moff hasn't just moved the goal posts: he has hidden the bastards. During RTD's run, the series has run by the kind of logic that you ostensensibly see in American serial dramas of the fantasy and the sci-fi sort. Power relations work in a certain way, chekhov's gun works in a certain way. Characters deal with emotional things in a certain way. Certain things are considered emotional things and so on. It's a very broad blueprint for how to write TV drama, and Moff's Who isn't immediately recogniseable as deviating from it. Over the course of Series 5, however, we've seen a subtlely different type of logic take hold. But Moff's ballsy approach to causality and time travel, coupled with the overarching fairy tale logic present during S5, meant that there was a shift. Until the start of S6, I was unsure if I liked that move. Sure, it was something new or interesting, but did it mean sacrificing some of the scale and excitement of Dr Who?

The Impossible Astronaut two-parter has taken it a step further now, and goddamnit if I haven't been won over 100%. He's not simply raised the stakes ala. RTD (now reality itself will die!) he's changed them completely. We're not sure what the important stuff in the series even signifies yet. He's taken away much of our grounding in the Who uninverse and beyond that, it now looks like he is going to change the Who universe - maybe even as much as RTD did with the Time War? Maybe not, but only time will tell.

The only thing I am certain of, is that we won't be finding out many of these any time soon. Hell, many of these threads might not even be resolved 'till the finale of Moff's time in charge. It's obvious that he has been working from a long scale plan from even before he took over, so we might be a while off definitive answers.


...nostalgia time.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Comic Review - Wonder Woman: The Circle

I've been a comic fan for roughly a year now. My at first tentative, and bewilidering, steps into the world of comics were safe choices: Sandman, Fables and highly spoken of Batman volumes. Here I am a year on, and I've just read my first Wonder Woman comic. Go me? Truth is, as of late Wonder Woman has held something of an interest for me, and not for the two obvious reasons. She's part of DC's big three - Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. All three are iconic and recogniseable characters, part of modern culture. Superman is an all-American hero (despite not being American) and a representation of the ideal man, his arch-enemy is evil genius Lex Luthor. Batman is a billionaire who was inspired by witnessing his parents' murder to dawn a bat costume and terrorise criminal - his arch nemesis is The Joker. We all know this, it's all pretty common knowledge.

So what do we know about Wonder Woman? Well, she's a woman.

Really, that's it. Closer inspection revealed that the people who have written Wonder Woman in the past have often come up against such a barrier too. Who is Wonder Woman? Her portrayal has varied, her powers have wobbled more than any other superhero, and the themes of her stories have been altogether scattershot. I'd be surprised if any non-comic fans were to know her origin story. I'm not saying there has not been good stories - in fact, this blog is about one such good story - but as far as I have been able to gather, there has been a real lack of consistency in her portrayal.

Being that I've only read one Wonder Woman story, all of the above is based on second hand accounts and supposition, so take it with a good sized pinch of salt.

Nonetheless, this lone female superhero amongst comic's big names (not including women part of teams like X-Men or Fantastic Four) was interesting because of this very ambiguity that seems to surround her. One particularly writer that I had heard glowing praise of was Gail Simone, so I decided that if I was to take a decent look at ol' Wondy, then that was the place to start:

The Circle:

The comic gets going with mysterious right off the bat:

"What you do not know yet..." (p1, panel 1)

We see Hippolyta, ruler of the Amazons and mother to Wondy, visit four prison cells, asking the prisoners to repent. Each in turn refuses. When she gets the fourth prisoner, there is again a refusal; the prisoner tells Hippolyta to release her nonetheless, and the ensuing conversation is littered with hints as to a secret hidden from Wondy.

We then cut to the main woman herself, locked in combat with talking gorillas. It's both a lighthearted and fast paced way to bring people into the story, and defuses tension very well in order to set-up the status-quo. We get to see Wondy working as a secret agent (it's kinda stupid, but not this comic's fault so I can't really fault it for that), and her interactions with a co-worker/love interest. Their dialogue communicates a lot of familiarity, but is a little too cutesy for my liking; trying too hard to be sharp and clever. Also, whilst the narration presented is decent enough, it's a little too noir-ish. Really confuses the tone of the story.

Once the story moves away from this spy business and the plot really gets going it is an all-round great yarn. Diana is an interesting character, the villains of the piece are nicely fleshed out, and we get a battle fought with nazis vs amazons and gorillas. It's intelligently written, very much enjoyable and moves at a well measured pace. Although early on the tone feel a bit indecisive, as the story goes on a good balance is struck. The art, too, is clear and engaging - it possesses a consistency that is really what I look for in comic book artwork.

There is an attempt later on to superimpose a prayer over a fight scene that could have been oh so awesome, but comes off as rather half-baked; aside from that, really this is a great story. She's no Morrison, but based on story I'm certainly keen to check out more of Simone's work.