2009: A Year of Stuff

As I do every year, here's a list of what I found and liked in the past year. This list is entirely subjective - not just in the sense of reflecting my own tastes, but also in terms of reflecting which things I first encountered in 2009.

---Of the movies I saw:

Waltz with Bashir
An evocative and moving animated documentary, exploring the lingering mental scars of warfare.

Henry Selick brought us this beautifully realised and sinister fantasy film, proving that American animation can be more than just talking animals when it wants to be.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird
A good old-fashioned action-adventure, with explosions, chases and gun fights galore. Proof that director Kim Ji-woon can turn his hand to anything and succeed.

---Of the books I read:

The Modern World - Steph Swainston
My favourite fantasy author continues to explore the giddy heights of imagination and the gritty depths of her unromanticised, not-quite-medieval world.

The Host - Stephenie Meyer
By turns devastating and uplifting, this story of unexpected love between humans and body-snatchers is a great piece of science fiction drama.

The Stone Gods - Jeannette Winterston
Bad science fiction, certainly, but a fantastic piece of surreal literature. Affecting and difficult.

---Comics and manga:

Solanin - Inio Asano
A well realised slice-of-life comic with nicely drawn characters (in more ways than one).

The Umbrella Academy - Gerard Way, Gabriel Ba
A cut above the usual superhero comic, this blends a wildly imaginative menagerie of ideas into a cohesive and memorable whole.

---Of the TV shows I watched:

The Wire
More like a novel in terms of scope, but presented in a way only possible on television, this is a huge, believable cross-section of Baltimore life made by people who should know what they're talking about.

Ugly Betty
Once again, one of the few shows I watched live. Fantastic characters and a nice mixture of comedy and melodrama make for a very enjoyable hour of entertainment.

The Shield
The final season saw this show - with some of the best plotting and direction you'll see on the small screen - let loose to deliver a stonking great conclusion for all its simmering tensions.

---Of the games I played:

Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney
A combination of intricate plotting, compelling characterisation and delightful artwork make this probably the most memorable and engrossing game I played this year.

Resident Evil Archives
There were three Resi games that I played for the first time this year, and I liked all of them, but this is the one I've picked for my top three games. The remake of the first instalment in the series is quite unlike any of its sequels - with less bullets, more strategy and some quite subtle plot branching.

Batman: Arkham Asylum
In contrast to the usual license cash-in, this game has been made by people passionate for the Batman comics, with demanding fans in mind. Atmospheric environments, fluid gameplay and Paul Dini's writing combine to make this an unexpected classic.


Nolan, Besson, JOY

Catching up on my film news:

The new trailer for Christopher Nolan's Inception gave me chills.

And Twitch have got the first trailer for Luc Besson's Les Aventures Extraordinaires D'Adele Blanc-Sec here - nothing too exciting for those of us who aren't francophone, but still a little nugget extra from a film I'm very much looking forward to.


Monday Movie: Sherlock Holmes

I went to see Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes today. Rumours of the famous hero being sexed up or deconstructed are mostly unsubstantiated, and although it may be something of an action film at times, I'd argue that it still has a proper detective plot that makes the typical Basil Rathbone film look rather lightweight. On that subject, I'd also add that Downey Jr is the first actor I've seen who, in my eyes, can hold a candle to Rathbone's portrayal of Holmes (although Rathbone wins out on faithfulness). And Jude Law is far and away the best Watson I can name.

We've also got a fantastically vivid and grimy depiction of Victorian London, where the expected CGI milieus actually work very well, and Hans Zimmer's score is a catchy blend of Victorian sounds and modern tastes. Not to forget the snappy, fencing repartee that Downey Jr and Law lend to a delightful chemistry between Holmes and Watson.

Sherlock Holmes was exactly the right kind of clever, fast-paced, witty, rambunctious adventure to appeal to me, and if you're looking for a film about secret doors, fist fights and engaging characters, booking some tickets for this is probably a good place to start.


Sunlight on an Alien Lake

Cassini sends us this image of something scientists have been seeking for a while now: a tell-tale glint of sunlight, reflected on the surface of one of its hydrocarbon lakes.

“This one image communicates so much about Titan -- thick atmosphere, surface lakes and an otherworldliness,” said Bob Pappalardo, Cassini project scientist, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “It’s an unsettling combination of strangeness yet similarity to Earth. This picture is one of Cassini’s iconic images.”

Read the rest here.


Wearing Colonel Autumn's Coat

Feeling pretty fly.

Kind of wondering when the bus is going to turn up, though. It already seems to be two hundred years overdue.


Monday Movie: Infernal Affairs

For ten years Yan has been so deep undercover that only two people knew he was a cop - and one of those has just died. But as Yan's intelligence helps to tighten the noose around canny crime boss Sam, it becomes apparent that the police have been infiltrated as well. Lau, a consumate police officer who has risen through the ranks, remains loyal to Sam, even as he reaps the benefits of a respectable job. Both sides race to uncover their mole before it's too late - while Lau and Yan must reconcile their day-to-day lives with their actual roles in society.

Although at times it may strive for heights of drama and depths of emotion that it can't quite reach, Infernal Affairs is a slick, tightly plotted thriller that never lets up the pace. Contrary to what you may expect from a Hong Kong police movie, this an intense battle of wits rather than firearms, with plenty of well thought out twists and surprises along the way.


Bye Colonel

It's been a while since I last touched Fallout 3, but the allure of walking very long distances across an irradiated wasteland has drawn me back. Currently playing through Broken Steel - which finally gives me the chance to do what I always wanted, and wear Colonel Autumn's superfly coat.


I did a thing

Go over to the other blog to get the thing...


Monday Movie: Touch of Evil

A car bomb that travels across the US-Mexico border is the catalyst that brings Charlton Heston's honest Mexican cop up against the bloated, unshaven spectre of director Orson Welles' corrupt detective in this classic drama. Ticking all the boxes of your quintessential film noir, Touch of Evil presents a menacing, ambiguous world, where there are no easy choices.

This is one of the many films after Citizen Kane for which Welles famously wrestled unsuccessfully for creative control, but it still shows off his skills for snappy dialogue and moody direction. There's the expert use of deep focus, shadows, reflections, and low camera angles - and also, this time, a number of deft tracking shots - not least the audacious opening shot, which follows the fateful car bomb and weaves in and out of characters' lives.


I'm hoping to release my next game some time during the week.

Thursday is my office Christmas party, which last year wiped me out for a few days, so I'm going to try and get it out there on Wednesday.

Although I am totally going to stay sober this time.


Thursday Book

The Host - Stephanie Meyer

Earth is the latest world to have been taken over by the 'Souls' - a race of alien parasites that spread from planet to planet, stealing the bodies of intelligent beings. Wanderer, a Soul who has lived on countless worlds but has never found a place to call home, is implanted into the body of Melanie Stryder, one of the few remaining free, adult humans. And then something happens that Wanderer has never experienced before. Melanie stays behind, a ghostly voice in the head that Wanderer would normally consider solely her own.

Worse than that, as the other Souls try to use Melanie's memories to track down other humans, Wanderer finds herself coming to share Melanie's love for her boyfriend and little brother. Faced with the abject humiliation of having failed to properly take over her host, Wanderer chooses to trek out into the Arizona desert, and into a hidden community of violent, savage humans.

Although her Twilight books have never appealed to me in the slightest, Stephanie Meyer's science fiction romance novel, The Host (not to be confused with Bong Joon-ho's monster movie comedy drama The Host) is my cup of tea in so many ways I don't think I could list them all. Most importantly, despite what the advertising copy may try to tell you, this is science fiction: a story that explores the (non-)human condition from a more cosmic perspective.

It's also a gripping drama with a strong romantic element, developing into a nicely realised love quadrangle between a woman, a man, the parasite who controls the woman's body, and another man who grows to love the parasite. The tension between Wanderer's defiantly peaceful and altruistic nature and the violence and distrust that she - as an alien body-snatcher - encounters from the humans; the begrudging trust and even love that she earns from them inch by painful inch - including, most surprising and touching of all, from Melanie herself - all this, interspersed with dramatic set-backs and surprises, adds up to a real page turner - the kind of book I found myself thinking about longingly when I wasn't able to pick it up and read more.

Without giving anything away, let me just tell you that I stayed up until 2am to finish the last hundred pages of this thing. I could see where it was headed, and I gave such a damn about the characters - all of them, even, towards the very end, the chief antagonist, and another character who only arrives for the finale - that I was desperately worried for how things would turn out. Whether or not this book broke my heart or left me elated, I'll let you find out for yourself. The Host certainly isn't high literature, but it is an extremely well characterised and plotted book, full of drama and emotion, that provided some of the best highs and lows of anything I read this year.



I guess my cat's used to this sort of thing by now. He just sniffed Leon in a disinterested fashion and then went right back to sleep.

Paper thingies from here.


Game Get

So today saw the UK release of two Wii games I've been looking forward to for ages, and I was front of the queue. (Not that there actually was a queue for either of these, but you know what I mean.)

You may know that I've been anticipating Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles since it was first announced - with perhaps a little trepidation for how this rail shooter adapts the storyline of my beloved Resident Evil 2. Having played the first few chapters, my impressions are very positive. Okay, they've changed a lot of it around, but its heart is in the right place, and the characters are faithfully portrayed (well, so far - we'll see about Ada when I reach that bit).

The other game I've picked up is Muramasa: The Demon Blade. It's not normally the kind of thing I'd go for - a relatively shallow action platformer. But it has an easy mode, at least, and besides: this thing's fucking gorgeous.

One obvious example of how video game criticism and marketing are way too close for comfort is the way that praise for their visuals is often limited to the technological aspects, where the gold standard is high definition, 3D, photorealistic graphics with simulated light effects galore. The more real the better, artistry be damned (never mind that such a focus on high-technology visuals is the chief reason modern mainstream games are having such a tough time turning a profit). But Muramasa's got none of that. Just crisp, hand-drawn 2D artwork, fluidly animated, carefully composed. Like I said, gorgeous:


Snowball Fountain

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Image source with more information

So it seems that on my birthday Cassini dove close to Enceladus for its eight flyby. The eighth, huh? Well, there won't be much different or exciting to look at, for this one, surely? Just more scientific data that may eventually contribute towards unravelling the mysteries of this very interesting world.

Or so you might have thought! Instead, we find that the Cassini imaging team have snapped some gorgeous close-up (well, within a few thousand kilometres) shots of the moon's geysers in action. This is also our last peak at the south pole of Enceladus before it enters winter and several years of darkness.

You can find some more images and some amateur-assembled mosaics at the Planetary Society blog here.


Kon's New Dream

Satoshi Kon has directed some of my favourite films of the past decade, so it's nice to finally see some images surfacing at the official site for his latest project. It's also nice to hear that this one's going to be kid-friendly. Normally I'm all for arguing that animation should be able to tell grown up stories, but so far Kon has done nothing but stories for adults, including a fair few things that are pretty unsettling and disturbing.

Roll on cute robots, I say.

Hat tip: Twitch as always.


Friday Supermarionation Blogging

"Anything can happen in the next half hour!"

I double dare you to watch this and not come out the other end wanting to blow up robot fish.


Thursday Comic

Birds of Prey: Of Like Minds - Gail Simone, Ed Benes, et al.

Barbara Gordon, the daughter of police commissioner James Gordon, used to fight crime as Batgirl until she was shot through the spine by the Joker. Having refashioned herself as Oracle, the information broker for superheroes, Babs is looking to take a more direct role in crime fighting. To that end she's teamed up with Black Canary - she of the sonic cry and fishnets.

But while they're working on a seemingly innocuous case, Black Canary is suddenly abducted by the brilliant and unhinged Savant - who's holding her to ransom for the one piece of information Oracle can never share. After considering her options, Oracle decides she has no choice but to enlist the help of Huntress - a violent vigilante she normally takes great pains to avoid.

Bird of Prey is pretty much the superhero comic that I like. At first I was a little underwhelmed by Simone's writing for the series, which is pretty universally praised, but having read a few more superhero comics since, I can safely say that if she seems to understand cause, effect and motivation, and to write dialogue that you can imagine real human beings possibly saying, then that places her head and shoulders above a lot of the competition.

During her stint on Birds of Prey, Simone was not only writing two of my favourite superheroes (Oracle and Huntress in case you've not been paying attention), but she also brought us Savant and his sidekick Creote, a very ambiguous pair of characters (in more ways than one) whose deadpan exchanges frequently make me laugh out loud.

I've been gathering the collected editions of Simone's run on Birds of Prey for a while now (the series actually ended some time ago), and since I've finally given up on Amazon helping me to fill in the ones I'm missing, I'm going to start reading through them all. Although I do tend to resent the way that ninety percent of western comics are superhero fare, I don't have any special antipathy towards costumed vigilantes in general, and in this case Simone's great characterisations and Ed Benes' bold artwork have quite thoroughly won me over.


You can do it, Spirit!

Credit: NASA / JPL

The preliminary results from the first extrication drive for Spirit on Sol 2088 (Nov. 17, 2009) indicate the rover stopped less than 1 second after it began, sensing more vehicle lateral tilt than permitted.

A tight limit on vehicle roll and pitch of less than 1 degree change was set for this first drive. As the rover began its first move, it sensed that its roll was outside the allowed limit and safely stopped the drive.


The attempt to extract Spirit from the Martian sand trap is expected to take weeks or months, with uncertain probability of success.

Read the rest here.

I think this is one of those Peter Pan moments where we all need to start clapping if we believe that robots on Mars can pull themselves out of slippery sand.


Episode 24

Cowboy Bebop, Session 24.

This episode...


...gives me...

...a lump in my throat.

'Scuse me,

there's something...

...in my eye. :-(


Friday Short Movie Blogging

From director Fede Alvarez.
Hat tip: Twitch


3 Reasons I'm loving Batman: Arkham Asylum

1. Paul Dini
Co-creator and writer for Batman: The Animated Series, one of my favourite incarnations of Batman. Good plotting may not be his strong suit, but coming up with strong situations for the caped crusader most certainly is. He's also got a great knack for writing Harley Quinn's dialogue just so.

2. Mark Hamill, Arlene Sorkin, Kevin Conroy
Three voice actors reprising their roles from Batman: The Animated Series. Mark Hamill - yes, Mark "Luke Skywalker" Hamill - is my second favourite Joker after Heath Ledger. Kevin Conroy could teach Christian Bale a thing or two about how to do a deep 'Batman voice' without sounding like Patty and Selma. And Arlene Sorkin has the perfectly murderous and gratingly cute accent for Harley Quinn.

3. Oracle
We've already established that Oracle is my favourite superhero, so I am of course super, super pleased that she's in this game. Although she may be relegated, as is often her lot, to a voice in Batman's ear, Kimberly Brooks' voice acting exactly fits my expectations of what Oracle should sound like.



Really tired.

Scaled the mountain.

Need to throw myself down the rocky crags of testing and feedback.

Not looking forward to it.


Something got done.

Now it just needs to get well done. (Or done well. Or something.)


Thursday Comic

Solanin - Inio Asano

Solanin is the story of a group of disaffected twenty-somethings muddling through life and practising for a band that never goes anywhere. Although they're always messing around, there's also an ever-present tension between their childhood dreams and the drudgery of adult life - something that's brought into stark relief when tragedy strikes.

This is hardly untrodden territory, but Asano has a keen eye for realism in his scripting and artwork, and his characters are both flawed and likeable. Above all what Asano gave this book that I loved was a real sense of place and ambience. I feel like I know what it would be like to hang out with these characters - although I suppose a big part of it might well be that I'm a twenty-something myself, also struggling to figure out how to mix the things you want to do and the things you need to...



I have been busy this week.


Monday Movie: Dawn of the Dead

The bodies of the recently dead are returning to life to eat the living, and civilisation is collapsing. Two TV reporters and two SWAT troopers steal a helicopter and take off, hoping to reach safety in the north. As the situation below them grows ever more dangerous, and their fuel supplies ever lower, they land on the roof of a mall with its own civil defence shelter. Except... a life in a safe room eating tins of spam isn't nearly as appealing as securing the entire mall and all the luxuries it affords...

George A. Romero's low budget, apocalyptic, anti-capitalist Dawn of the Dead has often been imitated, but never bettered. A lonely, undead atmosphere permeates every scene, and, on the flipside of that, there's also a strong vein of tongue-in-cheek humour and a dedication to satisfyingly over-the-top scenes of gory action. Romero also presents a far more interesting take on his brand of cannibalistic zombies than any of the other people who've followed in his footsteps. These are zombies with a haunting humanity to them - pathetic shades of their former selves that are drawn to shop without any real understanding of why.


Besson Directing Something without 'Arthur' in the Title

Luc Besson, one of the most visually striking directors you'll find, has apparently begun work on Les Aventures Extrodinaire d'Adele Blanc-Sec - which, to generalise wildly and baselessly, looks like it could be something of a steampunk Fifth Element.

Twitch have the good news.


Small Worlds

Small Worlds does the kind of thing that seems like such an amazingly good, naturalistic idea, you're surprised you've never seen it before. It's an exploration platformer - but as you visit new areas, the old areas are always still visible. In other words, the map zooms out steadily as you venture further out into it. Supremely nifty.
Hat tip TIGS.



So Geocities are closing, and although it has become something of a byword for ugly sites with Under Construction banners, Internet historians have been keen to remind us that there's an awful lot of culture and reference in there as well.

The only reason I'm writing about this is because yesterday I randomly found myself at a pretty good Geocities site about Oswald Boelcke (one of the first fighter pilots, the father of air combat tactics, the first ace, beloved mentor of Manfred von Richtofen...)

I haven't been to a Geocities site in years, and then the day before they all start going up in smoke, there I am, staring at that spammy sidebar and thinking, "Hey, this is a good site."



Thursday Comic

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - Alan Moore

Alan Moore's retro-futuristic adventure sees various public domain characters forming a Victorian superhero team and saving London from shadowy, steampunk dangers. It predominantly seems interested in name-checking as many different fictional people as possible, with a considerable sideline in flirting with and mildly subverting the era's various stereotypes.

In many ways, I wonder if the impact of this comic is really lost on someone reading it for the first time now. Maybe when it was first released, the idea of Professor Moriarty bombarding the East End from the air may have seemed really novel. But now we've seen plenty of works using just this kind of over-the-top cocktail, and we need them to be underpinned with something stronger - first rate storytelling, for example, or just a bold sense of fun.

I don't want it to seem as if I disliked this book. I didn't. It's got a great modern take on classic figures of literature and nicely styled artwork. But I think what surprised me is that this story is more about cramming in references to existing works 'with a twist' than about forging a path of its own.


Coming Soon

My next game is nominally complete. Don't get too excited: there's still a lot of work I want to do before I release it - ranging from embellishments to bug fixes, possibly making significant changes to one whole section - and ultimately beta testing the thing.

(I also need to settle on a title.)


Monday Movie: Coraline

Separated from her friends, ignored by her parents and wary of her bizarre neighbours, Coraline Jones stumbles into an alternate reality where everything revolves around her - and the people all have buttons for eyes. Compared to her drab and boring everyday life, this vibrant and colourful microcosm is extremely seductive - but it's also got to have a catch...

Henry Selick's been mentioned a few times in my Monday Movie posts. You can always trust him to animate vibrant and imaginative characters. Until Coraline came along, he was unfortunately probably best known as the guy few people realised had directed Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. But with this film, Selick brought us one of the darkest, richest, scariest and above all delightful animated films to come out of the US in a good few years.