Film review: Kingdom of Heaven

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Kingdom of Heaven

Gladiator Mark II. Ridley Scott on autopilot. Orlando Bloom commercial. Can you tell I was disappointed with Kingdom of Heaven? After a spectacular trailor I held high hopes for this film, but with the possible exception of some impressive battle scenes, Scott’s new by-the-numbers historical Mills & Boon is a disappointing cinema experience. Sure, as we’ve come to expect from Scott, it looks great. But the casting of wooden Bloom as front-and-centre hero is only one of many flaws.

Orlando Bloom (Balian of Ibelin), whom Peter Jackson had the sense to give very little screentime to in Lord of the Rings, seems to sleepwalk almost every scene in Kingdom of Heaven, like a good-looking extra accidently finding himself promoted to leading actor. Around him old hands like Jeremy Irons (Tiberias) and Liam Neeson (Godfrey of Ibelin) casually chew the scenery, but baby-faced Bloom stares impassively at everyone and everything. No doubt there’s a lot of drama playing out behind those big eyes, but virtually none of it is finding its way to his face. Watching him stirring the defenders of Jerusalem with a rousing speech is nothing short of cringeworthy—not that he is helped by such Shakespearian script nuggets as “Come on! Come on!” “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!” this ain’t.

From scene to scene we follow Bloom through virtually the same plotline as Gladiator, tossing aside historical accuracy left and right as he does so, miraculously transforming himself from village blacksmith to engineer, scholar and leader of men in a few months. Of course this isn’t meant to be a documentary, but the history of the Crusades is so full of drama on a personal and epic scale, why did this story have to be dumbed down to such an extent? I suppose we can only be thankful that Scott gives a reasonably accurate depiction of the largely thuggish behaviour of the Christian invaders, and the honourable Saracen leader Saladin (well, at least until he finally got so sick of the Christians continually invading that he was eventually forced to be as brutal as they were).

Kingdom of Heaven is far less than we should expect from a film-maker of Scott’s calibre. Let’s hope he turns off the autopilot next time around and doesn’t churn out Gladiator Mark III.

Two and a half seige towers out of five.

Boardgame Review: Horus Heresy

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Horus HeresyI haven’t played a game like this in a while—cardboard counters and attack/defense ratios no less! This ol’-fashioned wargame was brought out by Games Workshop in 1993, and it’s been sitting unplayed on my shelf ever since. A friend and I finally gave it a run last night and it turned out to be a lot of fun. For those of you who remember the style, you ‘stack’ cardboard counters with attack, defense and movement numbers on them, and move on a board divided into areas, in a bid to outgun and outwit your opponent. Combat is worked out on a table where you cross-index the attack/defense ratio with a d6 roll. In this case, the whole thing is wrapped up in the atmosphere of a Chaos invasion of a planet and the attempt of the Chaos leader Horus to thow down the Emperor. Goodies versus baddies, in a nutshell.

What makes the game interesting is the way the waves of Chaos attackers land from orbit to batter the Imperial defensive positions. The Horus player has to secure a spaceport or two early on in order to ensure the bad guys keep coming. The Imperials can shelter behind walls and try to wait it out— walls decrease your odds of successfully attacking considerably, and the game is only five turns long—but eventually those waves of attackers are going to topple the walls, so it’s not much of a strategy. The atmosphere is thick, and it’s easy to imagine huge Titan robots battering at the fortifications, and hordes of gibbering creatures pouring through the breaches.

Inevitably a dice-heavy game like this has a high random element, but this was never a game for ‘realistic’ wargamers, just a fun, atmospheric return to those days before miniatures; and to me there’s nothing more enjoyable than a hard-fought game boiling down to a few crucial dice rolls! You may want to institute a few house rules though, especially since the rules are not the clearest. We decided to allow players to set up the order they would receive Special Cards, which give players special abilities, rather than draw them randomly, for example. This means that if Horus gets a lucky hit on the Emperor with a bombardment, the Imperial player could play a Heroic Sacrifice card, throw some poor lackey in to take the bullet, and your game isn’t over before it’s started.

The companion game to Horus Heresy, with similar rules, was called Battle for Armageddon, and rather generously on the part of Games Workshop, it’s available as a free download. So there’s no excuse for not trying it out!

Four Daemon Hordes out of five.

Don’t forget to check out my Horus Heresy Rules Summary and Reference Sheet here.

Tiger Tiger

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Well, I suppose it’s traditional for every self-respecting Mac-using blogger to make a little post about the OS 10.4 Tiger upgrade, so here’s mine. It didn’t start well—something was wrong with my hard drive, according to Disk Utility, so I had to spend hours backing up my stuff to the other drive and my Powerbook before doing the big Erase. The Tiger installer wasn’t very helpful in working this out of course, simply telling me several times that there was an ‘error’ and to ‘try installing again’. Lucky I know roughly what I’m doing. Now that everything’s shiny clean and fresh though, and my programs are re-installed, I’m impressed. Spotlight is nice (though not quite as responsive as Quicksilver), my G4 starts up twice as fast, and things feel a little snappier (though that could have something to do with the clean install).

Nothing mind-blowing—hey, I already had Dashboard with Konfabulator (damn those guys got ripped off)—but a tasty upgrade nonetheless.

Oh and by the way, you can hear the collective sigh of satisfaction from web designers worldwide—Internet Explorer for the Mac is no longer bundled with the system (though thankfully Microsoft web fonts such as Verdana and Georgia still are). Yippee! To the nethermost pit of damnation with you, damn browser! If you’re using it now, what the hell are you thinking—get rid of it!

Film review: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

How do you make a comedy funny when everybody knows the jokes? I suppose this was just one of the many challenges faced by the makers of a film version of Douglas Adams’ classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. If Adams was still alive, I imagine the solution would be to write a lot of new material in the spirit of the original. There are a few new concepts in this film, but with the possible exception of the creatures that slap you in the face when you have an idea on the Vogon planet, they fall flat.

Adams spent many years trying to make a film version of his hugely popular story, a process he apparently likened to “trying to cook a steak by having a succession of people come into the room and breathe on it”. After seeing this very flat and lifeless film, the steak is still way underdone. The film has a lot of problems: amateurish and uninspired TV-style direction, hammy acting (Sam Rockwell as Zaphod Beeblebrox is especially annoying, and Zooey Deshanel’s Trillian is just—nothing), cheap sets and low production values. The biggest mistake was the desperate attempt to squeeze the original, wandering plotline of the book into a movie-like framework, complete with neat romance arc and ‘watch out for the sequel’ closing dialogue. Instead of plunging head-first into the chaotic madness of the book’s language, the English team try to do an ‘American-style’ film, with predictably tired results—surely past failures like the terrible Mr Bean should have warned them off this approach.

I wanted to like this film, I really did. But Hitchhiker’s is lacking in real inspiration, and ends up only a small cut above the low-budget TV series version. I suggest reading the books again.

One and a half bowls of petunias out of five.

Tékumel: The World of the Petal Throne

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If you examine the amazing detail that Tolkien put into his imaginary world of Middle-earth, and how it has sparked the imaginations of millions for a generation—you’d be forgiven for thinking that this creation is unique in its complexity. But there is another world, less well known but just as complex, multi-hued, and co-incidently also the life’s work of a professor of linguistics. His name is Professor M. A. R. Barker, and the world is called Tékumel (tay-koo-mayl). I first became interested in this place in my early teens, when it was the subject of a now-classic roleplaying game called The Empire of the Petal Throne. It came out about the same time as Dungeons & Dragons, but far from the kind of generic Tolkienesque style of that game, it was a fully developed, decidedly non-Western melieu of original fantasy.

I forgot about it for about fifteen years, and then stumbled across one of Professor Barker’s novels (there are five so far) set on Tékumel in a second-hand bookstore. The vividness of Tékumel came flooding back, and I decided to give this world a website, a home on the internet. That was almost eight years ago, and Tekumel: The World of the Petal Throne has grown into a site of some 290 pages that is not only a repository for online versions of material dating back to 1975, but a place where you can spend many, many hours reading about this amazing world and the people, societies and creatures that live on it. I’ve just re-launched the site and it has been improved in every way. If you like imaginary worlds, you are in for a big treat—welcome to Tékumel!

Meet the new Pope, same as the old Pope


Let me see … European? Check. Doddering old man? Check. Thinks gay people have a ‘condition’ (euphemism for they’ll burn in Hell everlasting)? Check. Would see women as priests over his dead body? Check. Wrote to priests in the US telling them not to vote for the Catholic John Kerry because of his stand on abortion? Check. Rejects the marriage of priests? Check. Rejects all other forms of religion as deficient (even other Christian ones)? Check.

Hmmm … welcome to a new era of tolerance, humility, Christian values—oh, and and millions more dying in Africa because Catholic priests teach condoms cause AIDS, rampant overpopulation in Latin America due to lack of birth control, no freedom of choice for women, the covering up of child abuse … Chosen by God? Chosen by a pack of conservative old men desperately hanging onto their power more likely. Wake up world!

Film review: Enduring Love

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Enduring Love

I read the book by Ian McEwan some time ago and was impressed at its multi-layered, subtle portrayal of obsession. Director Roger Michell has travelled a long way from his best known work on Notting Hill and delivers a get-under-your-skin, though slightly pedestrian, telling of McEwan’s tale.

Anyone who has read the book will tell you how shocking the open scene is, and justice is done to it here with choppy editing and a complete lack of music. The latter is a blessing since the music throughout is one of the worst features of this film, going from a bland but good enough three note signature to a terrible ‘English drama on the telly’ theme that cheapens the whole production.

Anyway, Joe (an excellent Daniel Craig) and Claire (Samantha Morton) are lovers enjoying an idyllic picnic when Joe suddenly finds himself part of a terrible incident involving a hot air balloon and the age old question of ‘when to let go’. One of the other men involved in the incident is a lonely obsessive called Jed (Rhys Ifans finally getting to show his range as an actor), who becomes convinced that he and Joe are meant to be together. His habit of referring to Joe as ‘Joe Joe’ was particularly disturbing to my girlfriend as—phonetically—that’s the nickname I have for her.

Enduring Love would have a very hard time delivering the subtleties of the novel, and one has to wonder why Joe never calls the police at any point, but on the whole the film is creepy and engaging enough, with a touch of complexity in its meditations about the nature of love. English films featuring well-off upper middle class intellectuals getting their comeuppance seem to be a bit too common, and Joe’s sketchily developed career as a university lecturer going on and on about ‘what is love?’ doesn’t work, but the film’s gritty realism is mostly effective (Bill Nighy is especially sympathetic as Joe’s friend). Ifans plays Jed with frustrating intensity and absolute conviction. But it’s the two main protagonists, and their existence on two opposite ends of the concept of love that in a strange way almost brings them together, that makes this more than just another stalker story.

Three ripcords out of five.

A Grim World of Perilous Adventure


WFRPBack in the 80s, a few friends and I, having done the requisite time in our early teens playing Dungeons & Dragons, were looking for a system a little more gritty, ‘realistic’, and ‘mature’ with which to enjoy our roleplaying sessions. And along came Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay with the tagline ‘A Grim World of Perilous Adventure’, which fitted the bill perfectly with its grotty 15th century German-ish milieu. There followed a campaign that, off and on, lasted years, and featured some of the most hilarious and enjoyable moments I’ve ever had with a group of friends.

It’s been a good ten years since I did much in the way of running a roleplaying campaign, but with the release of the new 2nd Edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay that group of friends is clamouring to get playing again (in between jobs, wives and lives). And with the same beloved characters—so pretty soon, the so-called ‘Merry Pranksters’ should once again start terrorizing peasants, cultists and nobility alike: Lucidius Lavarar, a flamboyant raconteur with a preference for polka-dot shirts and fleecing innocents of their money, Alitl Flagelant, a smelly, embarrassing dwarf, Fatuus Fitzue, a shabby, nondescript wizard, and Robert Lacy D’Aghuitlam duCourt, a once-noble elf with a brief drug problem.

I was worried the new edition might have seen WFRP‘s distinctive atmosphere swallowed up by the money-making behemoth that is Games Workshop and their kiddy version of the Warhammer World. To my relief however the new book is excellent—well written and well designed, some of the clunkier rules streamlined and, despite a few changes to the background material and history I won’t be using, the atmosphere still thick and—well, grim. The new combat system, while I have yet to try it out, seems smart. It divides the combat round up into half actions, full actions, and free actions, thus forcing the player to think a little more about the options than just “I take a swing at ‘im.” Combat is still very deadly, as it should be, which keeps the emphasis on roleplaying and story. The new magic system seems simple, but introduces all manner of frightening side effects that make magic use dangerous and unpredictable. Everything has been standardised to use a ten-sided dice, and both skill use and combat can easily be modified by an across-the-board ‘easy to hard’ set of standard modifiers. Simple.

But WFRP isn’t really about rules, though these are very good. It’s about superior story, atmosphere and character. A new campaign is on the way (along with a Bestiary and Gamemaster’s Pack; two other releases, a Character Pack and Plundered Vaults, a set of mini-adventures, are already on the shelves), and if it’s anything near as good as the old Enemy Within campaign, they’ll be many very enjoyable evenings gathered around a table laughing our heads off to come.

There’s nothing like a vivid imagination to keep you from growing up.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd Edition is available from Black Industries or Green Ronin.


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Evening sky and ocean and Carol. Heron Island.

Run, Little One, Run!

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Baby turtle, Heron Island.

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