Get diverted—then talk about it

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A friend of mine has always wanted me to add the ability to make comments on items in my Diversions list—well Mr Miller, I had an idle moment late at night and now you have your wish. Bear with me while I fine tune the templates that go with this deceptively complex addition to the Hollow. No doubt I have now opened the floodgates to spam galore!

PS Click the little little number link to view or add comments.

PPS By the way, this is as good a place as any to reveal there’s little personal effort involved in snaring these online diversionary nuggets. They’re supplied by friends, stolen from blogs often more interesting than mine (eg Boing Boing) and occasionally stumbled upon by yours truly. But you knew that, didn’t you?

All Quiet on the Headless Front


Yes, well, it’s all about work at the moment isn’t it? Sorry about the silence around here. But when you’re simultaneously doing four websites, one packaging job, a corporate identity, some Flash banners and any number of other bits and pieces, there isn’t much time to squeeze in blogging. Not to mention the fact you’re not doing anything interesting enough to talk about.

Still, I can’t complain about the amount of work Universal Head has been getting lately. I’ve just forgotten what it’s like to take one of those holidays where you actually have the time to completely get out of work mode … sigh. In a few months maybe.

In the meantime, I’ll keep the Diversions column changing, even if this main column may be a little maudlin for a week or two. Right, Head down …

Devil’s Coachhouse

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Entrance to the Devil’s Coachhouse, Jenolan Caves, 182km west of Sydney, Australia.

Theatre Review: Julius Caesar


Julius Caesar

This Sydney Theatre Company production , directed by Benedict Andrews, has been receiving good reviews, so we went along to see it last Friday night. While there were some interesting ideas, on the whole I found the production unfocused and trying too hard to be clever. As is often the case, the director forgot to concentrate on the beauty and impact of the words in the race to stamp distinctiveness on his interpretation.

This was most obvious in the second act, where an already long play was slowed down to a brutal pace that, for me, leached the impact out of the performances. It’s often difficult to smoothly tear props up and down during a performance, but when Cassius (a greasy Frank Whitten) spent several minutes moving two tables and stacking chairs, surely even the most attentive theatre patron got sick of any possible metaphor and stifled a yawn.

Despite the choppy pace, the performances themselves were good. The authentically patrician Arthur Dignam gave Caesar the tattered dignity of an old Broadway queen (an impression reinforced by the casting, in an unnecessary nod to Elizabethan tradition, of a young man as his wife Calpurnia). Ben Mendelsohn began powerfully when cradling Caesar’s corpse, though I found his forum speech lacking in impact. Robert Menzies as Brutus took an odd approach by playing him as almost annoyingly indecisive and seemingly hungover; affectations that reduced the tragically noble character to seeming senility by the time he turned the knife on himself. Many of the players took multiple roles to usually successful effect, but Lucius, here played by a young girl (Maddi Newling) was a continual witness in every scene, a trick that became annoying and overused.

In fact, most of the characters, alive or dead, spend large amounts of time being mute witnesses to the events of the play, which perhaps reinforces the concept of us all being witnesses to the political and personal tragedies that surround us. In one example, though I missed the visual reference at the time, during one speech a voiceless actor climbed onto a box with a bag over his head in an echo of the Iraqi torture victim photos.

Some of the staging smacked of conceit to me—the punishing slow strobe light in one scene, the over-the-top sequences where the mob was portrayed as insane clowns, and the occasional, unnecessary, nod and a wink to the audience. Apart from the strobe sequence however, the lighting and sound were very powerful.

There was a feeling of trying to pack too much into this production. Shakespeare said it best—and sometimes, as here, theatrical trickery can serve to distract from, rather than reinforce, his words.

Two and a half ears out of five.

It’s good to be back


After a horrifying week and a half on dial-up, I’m finally back on broadband. It’s interesting to experience how geared the web—and my business—is to broadband these days. Working on a 56K modem was like crawling through a vat of molasses. Anyway, for those of you looking for a good service provider in Australia, I can tell you my experience with iiNet has been excellent. They were fast, efficient and friendly, and the support people were great. Since they’re taking care of my phone line too, I can potentially reach download speeds of up to 12,000kbps! (Already, at 1,500, it’s faster than any connection I’ve had before.) Rockin’ good news!

Live Music Review: Doves


I’ve been playing in bands live for almost fifteen years, and if there’s one thing that frustrates above all else, it’s playing really well and having your sound ruined by some inexperienced, incompetent or even malicious sound guy. We’ve all heard stories of the support band’s sound mix being purposely sabotaged by the main band’s mixer—yep, it happens. But the biggest problem is that sound mixing, though probably the most crucial part of the live music experience, is one of those things that—along with graphic design and abstract art—everyone thinks they can do, given a go.

This rather long-winded prologue brings me to the Doves gig last night at the Metro. To my delight the band seemed to be able to reproduce the complexities of their sound live, with the help of an excellent keyboardist. But all their hard work was ravaged by the sound guy. The mix was muddy and without top end, and the vocals were a blurry mess. There was no clarity in the guitar sounds, and the drumkit was one loud, very acoustic-sounding snare with virtually no cymbals or toms. Blissfully unaware of how all their hard work wasn’t translating, the band played beautifully. At the very least, I suppose a fan like me could fill in the gaps with his memory of the songs, but my companions didn’t know the band well. We all missed out on what could have been a fantastic, memorable experience.

Doves, for the love of God sack your sound man. Arrogant bastard that I am, I leaned over after the gig (I happened to be standing behind and above the sound desk all night) and told him what a disappointment the mix was, and his harried response was to blame the Metro’s PA. Umm, no good mate, I’ve seen scores of great gigs at the Metro with excellent sound. I’m afraid you’re just crap at your job. The problem is, you brought the Doves down with you.

Anyway, go buy the CDs—Lost Souls, The Last Broadcast and Some Cities are all multi-layered, rewarding albums.

This gig—two muddy washes of sound out of five.

Cardboard! Figures! Dice! Beer!

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The joy of gaming … late night Doom game.

Film review: War of the Worlds


War of the Worlds

Spielberg is such an assured director, it’s always frustrating to see him make decisions which ultimately spoil the impact of his films. Thankfully, he made one fundamentally correct decision when adapting H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds—to stick close to the original book. Unfortunately, he made a few bad decisions too, but on the whole the film proves to be one of his most disturbing and powerful works.

A few changes can certainly be forgiven: Spielberg sets his version in contemporary America, where Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a dock worker and failed husband and father, finds himself fleeing with his daughter and son from the implacable alien invaders. I’ve always found Cruise a very average actor (and an annoying human being, but that’s by-the-by), but he does capable work here, and thankfully, apart from one ill-conceived moment, he is given no opportunity for grandstanding. Except perhaps to advertise himself as creative partner with Spielberg, but one suspects that like the rumoured Scientology tent on set, that’s a clause in the standard Cruise contract.

The best acting here is from ten year old Dakota Fanning as Rachel, who is utterly convincing as Ferrier’s daughter. Yes, not surprisingly, Spielberg has injected a family subplot—the father giving all to protect his children and discovering reserves of strength within himself to do so, a story thread that is far too neatly tied up in a bow.

But the real focus here, as it should be, is on the aliens. They are terrifying, huge, (almost) all-powerful and relentless. Humans are ants trying to escape an inevitable extermination. There are genuinely scary moments here, and Spielberg doesn’t sugar-coat the violence, our powerlessness, the loss of life, or what can happen to normal people when survival is at stake. Unfortunately, he does make the mistake of showing the aliens, which drastically reduces their impact. Once we are allowed to humanise the aliens, we are no longer quite so afraid of them, and the point of Wells’ novel, that this was an enemy for which there was no effective human response, is diminished. Certainly if I could have asked one thing of Spielberg it would have been to leave them in their towering machines.

But despite the errors of judgement—the casting of Cruise, showing the aliens, one Cruise hero moment, the neatly tied ‘family’ thread … and a slightly over-long sequence in a basement—the film has a powerful impact, and I came out of the cinema exhausted and drained. This time the changes ultimately do not spoil what is an eternally powerful science-fiction story, and this potent adaptation.

Four tripods out of five.

Casual theft


I have a suspicion I left my car open last night, because this morning some bastard(s) had seized on my momentary lapse of vigilance by breaking into it, thankfully without damage, and stealing a wallet with about twenty CDs in it. We heard a group of people in the early hours outside our house—pissed and walking down a side street at four in the morning on a Thursday—so I suspect it was them. Apart from the gob-smacking shittiness of stealing in general—what, were they checking every car as they walked home?—I am most amazed by the fact they took the time to make some musical choices. Or perhaps it was because the wallet full of CDs was such a convenient pocket size, because they left behind four other CDs in cases—The Doves, Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen, Tori Amos and Coldplay.

Lessons from this experience? 1. Never leave CDs in car. 2. iTune all my CDs (thankfully I have most of them in digital form). 3. Set up things with an iPod so I never have to use CDs again and 4. Never forget to lock my car (it must have been the first time in twenty years dammit). I completely fail to understand how the mind works of the person who is this morning playing my CDs, probably unburdened by the smallest twinge of conscience. It’s times like this I really hope that the whole karma thing works.

Boardgame Review: Shadows Over Camelot

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Shadows Over CamelotDays of Wonder don’t release many games, but when they do it’s time to break out the wallet and go grab a copy, because they’re almost always something very special. Their newie, Shadows Over Camelot is no exception.

The first thing to get your head around—after you’ve drooled over the beautiful and copious contents of the box—is that this is a co-operative game. In other words, the players attempt to defeat the game, instead of each other. This initially strange concept is most known to players of Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings game. I had misgivings, but it turns out the game is completely successful, plus there’s the added spice of one player possibly being a secret Traitor, whose object is to help everyone lose and thus win the game for himself.

Days of Wonder have really pulled out the quality stops on this one. Not only do you get a main board and three supplementary boards, beautifully illustrated cards and ‘character sheets’, but also thirty nicely sculpted plastic figures to represent your Knights, several Relics (the Holy Grail, Lancelot’s Armour and Excalibur) and a bunch of Siege Engines, Saxons and Picts. Obsessives like me can paint these up to make the game even more attractive.

The game initially seems complex but is actually quite easy to play. Basically, each player is forced during his or her turn to make a ‘Progression of Evil’ action (usually drawing and playing a Black card or placing a Siege Engine around Camelot) followed by a Heroic Action (usually embarking upon or attempting to fulfill a Quest). You place various combinations of White cards on the Quests versus the Black cards that are mounting up. If you win the Quests, you get extra cards, lives, and most notably, White Swords to be placed on the Round Table at Camelot. Losing takes away lives and adds Black Swords to the Table. If you manage to avoid Camelot being totally besieged or everyone dying, a majority of White Swords at game end wins the day.

Of course various special White and Black cards spice things up. Before long you’ll find Camelot besieged, Picts scrambling out of the forest and Saxons running up the beach, Knights desperately trying to complete Quests before it’s too late, and everyone laughing, groaning and cheering with the draw of every new card or roll of a dice. As I said, players can co-operate, but can only share cards in special circumstances, and even then information can only be given away in character. So instead of saying, “can someone give me a Fight card of value 5 to help beat the Saxons” you’ll soon be intoning “My Lord, I feel I can hold the barbarians at bay for just one more day, but surely my forces will bow under their onslaught if I do not receive fresh reinforcements post-haste!”.

Of course should one of the players have been secretly dealt the Traitor card, they’ll be sneakily doing their best to undermine everyone’s careful co-operation.

Get a group of valiant Knights and Ladies together, a few cups of wine and mead, and together save the kingdom. Just watch out for that Traitor.

Four and a half Excaliburs out of five.

Of course, I’ve made up a colour Shadows of Camelot Rules Summary you can download here.

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