Thursday, 30 November 2006

Pan's Labyrinth

When the credits came up, John just said "That was beautiful."

I can't just leave it at that, but it's genuinely hard to improve on it as a summary. John and I are reasonably hard boiled people and have watched both Aeon Flux and Ultraviolet without any misgivings. We're not, it's fair to say, the local representatives of the Fluffy Bunny Liberation Front. So when either one of us gets, well, almost lyrical, something special can be inferred.

I did, of course, ruin the moment by replying "Yeah, I can't wait till they remake it with Jim Carrey". Had to arrest that dangerous slide into sentiment.

Still, this was something out of the ordinary. It's always fun, of course, to go to a foreign language movie in Dublin's Cineworld. Every time you buy your ticket, the nice person on the desk is careful to make sure that you're aware that the movie is going to be, well, not in English. I think it's a testament to the quality of life in this country that people don't take it for granted that someone with enough money for a movie ticket will have earned the money through work that required enough brains to figure out that a film is going to be in Spanish. Of course, it doesn't say much for our confidence in THE BEST EDUCATION SYSTEM IN THE WORLD (I was paid to say this for decades, I can't quite back away from it now) that Cineworld's staff also don't take it for granted that people can read subtitles. Honestly, I think they should have a policy that if the customer didn't surf up to the ticket booth on a wave of his own drool, he should be assumed to know enough to come in out of the rain.

But I digress.

Actually, that might have made a better name for the whole blog.

Another fun thing about foreign movies is that there are usually tons of foreigners at them. When we went to The Host, it seemed like there were more Koreans in the cinema with us than there were in the crowd scenes on the screen. Who, I wondered, was running the Korean restaurants while all these people were goofing off? It mattered. We were going to Koreatown for dinner after the movie. And for Pan's Labyrinth the place was full of Spanish accents, which added a certain frisson to the audience reactions as events unfolded.

Did I mention the digression problem?

So there you are. Del Toro has a thing about the Spanish Civil War, which is hardly surprising - to the outside world at least, it's about the only thing noteworthy about Spain since the Armada washed up on the West Coast of Ireland. If even we've heard of it, it must prey on the minds of Spanish people something wicked. This is, to my knowledge, his second movie set in the rough period, but it's an eye-opener for the non Spanish set because really, who knew that as late as 1944 there were still anti-fascist holdouts in the hills? I didn't.

The Captain - it's shaming to admit that I did not manage to remember his family name once the lights came up - is leading a band of Spanish soldiers in a spot of rural pacification somewhere in the hills of - I'm guessing here - Asturias. I wondered what he was a captain of, because his soldiers all had fetching pale blue uniforms at a time when serious armies were making more of an effort not to clash with the scenery, but then again I never saw uniforms which had quite so many rank insignia and badges on them. Maybe the whole Neapolitan chocolate box effect was part of a military fashion statement that non-Spaniards couldn't understand. Anyhow, the uniforms are the prettiest thing about the campaign - El capitan is not a nice guy and his minions have no problems or qualms about his approach either. Not that the partisans are overflowing with the milk of human kindness - neither side seems to have heard anything about this Convention from Geneva.

Into this fun and merriment come the Captain's new wife, pregnant with his son and heir and - as her daughter by her first husband puts it neatly - sick with baby. El Capitan is of the view that a son should be born wherever his father happens to be, regardless of the fact that up a hillside in the middle of a guerilla campaign is no place for a healthy mother, let alone one in his wife's condition. His stepdaughter, Ofelia, is a reader and a dreamer, and there's no love lost between her and her stepfather. The grandees of the region may suck up to the Captain over dinner and his men may think he's just the thing for clearing out the hold-outs so that Spain can get on being a fascist swamp for the next four decades, but Ofelia's not buying it.

And this would all make for a perfectly interesting movie if you stopped right there, but Del Toro adds a whole lot more. Ofelia sees fairies as she makes her way into the hills and they lead her in turn to a maze - the Labyrinth of the title - and there she finds Pan, the faun, who explains to her that she is the reincarnation of the lost princess of the fairy realm, and must undergo three tests before the full moon to prove herself and regain her birthright. Ofelia's part of the story is full of fantastical creatures while the other characters play out a much grimmer game, but is she imagining it all?

Well, it's never made explicit, but the ending tends to take you in just one direction. While the fantastical creatures along the way - and the decision to see much of this through the eyes of a child - reminded me of the more readable works of Clive Barker, the ending made me think of Gilliam's Brazil, and in particular the director's preferred, downbeat and yet somehow uplifting ending, both redemptive and despairing. And Del Toro can't be accused of selling us short - his opening scene tells us exactly how things are going to end. As Chris Walken says in True Romance, this is as good as it gets and it ain't gonna get any better.

Why does it work, then? Why did John say "That was beautiful?" Firstly, because the performances are extremely good. Ofelia is extraordinary; an intelligent child who remains open to believing the impossible and almost makes the audience want to join in - even old cynics like me. The Captain is a monster, but unlike Hollywood monsters, he's a monster who's putting in the hours. There's no fleering theatrics to this villain - just an all too believable portrait of an arrogant and violent man with not the merest smidgeon of empathy, caught up in the idea that anything is permissible to advance the cause and his own obsession with carrying on his dynasty. And circling around these performances are equally good ones from the Captain's palpably doomed bride and his terrified but courageous housekeeper. Then there's the effects - enough to show us wonder, not so much as to distract us from the people. That takes fine judgment. And finally, there's the writing; the plot unfolds with a simple inevitability which is somehow completely true to the characters and the time.

All in all, a wonderful piece of work. Not anything like as much fun as Little Miss Sunshine, but I don't expect that anything will be this year.

However, it's weird to watch it in a room with lots of Spanish people in it, because when the government troops got clobbered, the audience reaction was almost more gleeful than I felt comfortable with. And later on, when the Captain winds up having to perform some wincemakingly painful extempore surgery on himself; well, I can't say I was too troubled that a torturer and murderer was having a thin time of it, but I didn't think it was funny. I found myself trying to remember if I chuckled through any of the bits of Michael Collins where the Crown forces had a bad day. I couldn't recall, but it underlined to me that for a lot of people in the cinema with me, what I had just seen was more than just a story to them.

Tuesday, 28 November 2006

Casino Royale

Once a week, whether it's good for me or not, John and I go to the movies.

There are poorly articulated rules surrounding this ritual observance. We try not to go to anything which might be improving of our characters, or which might, if it were a book, get the Booker Prize. John is in fact positively drawn to the kind of films which make you go oh my good gravy I can't believe they let adults have the money to make that. I don't take quite the same visceral pleasure in absolute schlock, so things tend to average out at films somewhat better than unredeemable. Films, in fact, rather like Casino Royale.

John - it almost goes without saying - has a twisted affection for the David Niven travesty, but having noted that, we will pass on in silence to the one that isn't a travesty.

Three quibbles have to be got out of the way. The song is just awful. There have been bad Bond songs which were bathetic and unbearable, and worst of all had killer hooks which meant you couldn't get the awful tune out of your head. Yes, I mean you, Paul McCartney. But the song for Casino Royale - an hour after hearing it I couldn't give you any sense at all of what it sounded like, other than awful. It sounded like the B side for a wannabe punk band's concession to their deaf drummer's delusions of being able to write sheet music in crayon. Or very slow Morrissey, if you told him he couldn't actually use a melody.

And while you listen to the song and pray for it to end, you have to watch the opening titles. Good news - no silhouetted dollybirds. Bad news - ironic use of playing card suits as bullets and knives and weapons in general. As long as they were getting the franchise to grow up, I kind of hoped they'd leave childish things from the 1970s in the bin where they belong.

And the last time I saw product placement this jarring, it was in Wayne's World and they were making a point. Bad Sony. No supper.

That's pretty much all I have to complain about. Daniel Craig may not look like everyone's dream idea of Bond (if I'd been doing it purely as physical casting I'd have chosen Clive Owen) but it really doesn't matter - for the first time I can remember they have a Bond who you want to hear more from. When Craig talks, it isn't something you're waiting through so that they can do another stunt - quite the reverse, I found myself hoping he'd do a bit more talking.

The action is mostly straightforward and by action movie standards almost plausible. Bond's still superhumanly resilient to brusing and bashing but at least the bruises and bashes show, and as they accumulate they slow him down.

Speaking of slowing down, that's one of the more interesting things that the film does. The action's fast and furious at the outset and as the movie unfolds things slow down more and more. It's the exact opposite of the pacing in most films of this kind, which set up the drama and then play it out in increasing frantic scenes that are supposed to give a sense of catharsis and usually at least manage to distract you from the fact that the hero's actions make almost less sense than the villain's (a standout which occurs to me just as I write this - in Cliffhanger, how on earth did John Lithgow manage to run his criminal empire up to now when he keeps shooting the help for minor mistakes? - but the examples are legion and belong in their own post).

In Casino Royale, the writers have been gutsy enough and good enough at their job to turn this logic on its head; first they use all kinds of drama to set up the situation and then they play it out quietly to the climax - which is noisy, but instead of blowing up the villain's secret hideaway, a random dwelling in Venice falls down because an impromptu gunfight gets out of control. I'm being a little indulgent here - at the time that I was watching the film my feeling was that the final act was dragging a little and that it almost reeked of that old standby, "it's all been a dream". But thinking about it afterwards I'm rather pleased with the way they went about it. Since the centrepiece of the movie was going to have to be a card game, which is to action as macrame is to waterproofing, they always had a pacing problem to overcome. So they got the stakes sorted out early with lots of loud bangs, and then let the fact that they had hired an actual actor for Bond do the job of suggesting the tension of the card game. And since they were going to be running quietly in the middle of the movie, they got a lot of emotional work done as well. That way, then the climax does come along, you're watching what happens to the people, and it's a whole lot more important than whether the lair deep in the volcano falls down in a welter of styrofoam and gibbering extras. All in all, rather well thought out.

The question is, will they run with this logic in two years' time, or was this a one off and next time we go back to John Cleese playing Q and loads of stupid gadgets (another thing which deserves a post all of its own).

Saturday, 18 November 2006

GZG SF tanks

Assembling and painting GZG stuff has eaten an unholy amount of my time this last year. John and I messed about with Wessex Games' Aeronef rules and didn't think there was quite enough in them to give a satisfying game, but it got me to thinking and in one of my forays around the web looking for rules, I found that GZG had put Full Thrust up on the web for download. And it DID look interesting.

So a lot of starships got bought. Good simple rules and a reasonably fun game.

However I DID have some issues with the ships I bought from GZG. Easy to paint, not so easy to stick together. Generally, the newer the design the easier it was - I think the designs got more user friendly and of course the moulds were still crisp and new, so sockets and plugs were still the right sizes and hadn't got clogged and filled with flash. With the older ones - well, sticking together the Kra'vak ships tested my patience to the breaking point. And the UN ships, which were among the newest moulds - well, the designs looked great and the modular system should have worked, but the bigger the ship, the harder it was to get the modules lined up straight and true.

GZG's 15mm tanks don't have those issues. They're neat, simple, and well thought out. I bought 16 altogether; four each of the light and heavy grav tanks and four each of the light and heavy walkers. I wasn't really interested in anything with tracks - partly I don't really like the look they've gone for, but mostly I already have plenty of tracked stuff which could be pressed into service for a game.

You wind up with lots of leftovers. Everything comes with a choice of gun barrel, and if you buy platoon packs as I did, you also get other random bits and pieces of extra kit. So I have six spare light turrets which I don't know what to do with, and all kinds of sensor modules and left over gunbarrels. I'm figuring either to build them into the APCs which I know I'll be buying in the new year, or glueing all the leftovers together into spaceships. I already have more spaceships than I really have storage space for, but something tells me that the new year APC buy will see me with even more spare parts than I already have, not less.

The choice of gun barrel thing is a good idea. Kind of. I think it might make more sense to let the customers pick a gun type than to put a sprue of three in with every vehicle. These are not small castings - there's more lead in any of the barrels than in a 15mm cavalry figure. So GZG is using up a lot of lead and casting time - and postage costs - that they could be making savings on. But having a choice of barrels is useful for a gamer - I was able to set my platoons up as three gun tanks and one support tank with a much shorter gun and a box of missiles. It's very beginning of WWII and I wouldn't dream of a mixed platoon organisation in another context. But Stargrunt, which is what I will use at first for these figures, is mostly an infantry game and doesn't envisage more than a couple of platoons of tanks on the table at any one time, with each of the constituent tanks fighting essentially independently. So it makes some sense to use a mixture of types.

The models go together pretty well. The heavy walkers have eight legs and it's easiest to accept that all eight of them will not sit flat. The alternative is to make an already fiddly job even more fiddly by sticking them on one at a time and striving to make sure each one sits dead level. Wargamer's instinct tells that it will be best to put them on bases anyway - in the normal run of things legs will get knocked off in handling unless they're anchored at both ends. And once they're down on a textured base, the natural unevenness of the base will cover up any slight differences in where the feet rest. The same kind of arguments apply to the light walkers, which only have four legs. The grav tanks are easier - mine came with stands, which might have been a freebie of the platoon pack. They're good stands made of solid metal - big enough and heavy enough that the tanks aren't easily knocked over. (In contrast, the standard GZD stand for spaceships is made of plastic and is just too light to hold steady anything bigger than the smallest ships in their range. Weirdly, for their medium ships they seem to think that the plastic post of the stand isn't quite strong enough and they supply a lead post, but it still goes into the same lightweight hollow plastic base. I filled all of my plastic bases with plaster this summer which has helped a little, but I'd still be happier if that bases were cast in lead.)

There are open command hatches in most of the turrets, so you can have a figure in it or just glue the hatch shut. What I thought at first was a moulding flaw in the hatch coaming is actually a notch to take the hinge part of the hatch. On the heavies, the turret rooves have three holes cast in for adding bits of clutter, one big which will take a sensor dome or ball (supplied with every heavy tank) and two small which would take an MG or something similar. The bigger hole will also take another weapon mounting and I got small external mounts which would hold missile boxes or heavy MGs. I used them to add missile boxes to the support tanks. You also get a lot of sprues of ammo boxes and jerricans and mysterious boxes which could be stuck to the tank to make them more individual and lived in looking, but there's no obvious place on the tank turret or bodywork to which they could plausibly adhere. In real life, that kind of thing is either stowed in baskets or lashed down with rope or custom metal brackets. The boxes are not cast with tie downs on them and I'm not a good enough modeller to fake them into life. Anyway, the bodywork is plenty busy enough as it is - lots of raised panel detail on all the vehicles. I don't think I'm losing out much by not using the spare clutter. It's sorted into bags along with the other spare parts and will presumably come in handy in the same way as all the other things I've saved up in the last twenty years, which is to say, never.

Remains to be seen what the tanks will look like painted; the Mongols still need to be finished before I even get into that.

The threatened other things lurch into view

One thing is the awful persistence of the smell of superglue. It's really not a good idea to spend too long inhaling the stuff. I finished up my gluing about two hours ago and it's still all I can smell. And since I have a cold in my head which is preventing me from smelling anything very much.... Yes, I'm sure I had far more of the fumes than is healthy.

Well, maybe there wasn't an option. I was sticking together various science fiction tanks and there's no useful alternative to superglue. Epoxy smells worse and takes longer to set, so that you're breathing in the fumes for hours as you mix little mini batches for each successive sticking task. Soldering is what the big boys recommend, but I hate to think of how much I could hurt myself doing that. So it's out with the gap filling superglue and the zapagap, which smells worse than the superglue, and try to get the whole job done in one go so that at least it isn't hanging over me for weeks.

All the way through the job, I was thinkng that I shouldn't be doing it. There are still 23 Mongol horsemen sitting on my painting table looking reproachful. Until I paint them, I don't have clear space to start into anything else, so why was I gluing together the new stuff?

Because it was new stuff. It had just arrived in the post and it needed to be stuck together before I could even figure out what it would look like. And this is how it comes to pass that every wargamer has a backlog of unpainted figures; there's always something you think you'd like to try, and picking out figures and buying them is much quicker and easier than cleaning them up, priming them, painting them and basing them.

I've had the Mongols for four years without painting them. They were bought when I was doing a lot of Ancients in Israel and it seemed to me that you could never have too many nomadic light horse. Then I came back to Dublin, the group here weren't into Ancients at the time and the Mongols got long fingered. No immediate pay off in painting them. They only came out of the shipping box late last year, and then they sat disconsolately on top of my painting shelf for a year, stuck to their lollipop sticks and undercoated, but otherwise neglected. I was doing other stuff - scanning in ten years worth of negatives, rebasing three thousand 6mm tanks, housekeeping of one kind and another.

But the housekeeping finally came to an end this autumn and I started half heartedly back into the Mongols - still a pointless group of figures which would gather just as much dust painted as they already had unpainted, but equally, still a reproach sitting there reminding me that I had spent money on them and I ought to do something with it. And I got 90 or so done, but temptation is always beckoning. A month or so ago GZG had a sale, and I was briefly tempted by some of their new SF tanks - they were just so weird and interesting looking that I wanted some even without having any particular idea of what they'd be any good for. Then I looked at the Mongols and reviewed what had to be done after them and forgot about the idea. Then I looked again at GZG, and they had a Christmas offer. And this time I bit.

With the bike healthy, other themes emerge

The bike is not, of course, really healthy. I did finally get it back and it seemed fine for almost a whole day. It wasn't. The axle nuts on the back wheel were not tight enough and the wheel shifted in the frame until it jammed against it. This is why i carry a set of spanners, but maybe there's no need. As I squatted beside the machine trying to puzzle out its latest tantrum - for it was not quite as obvious to me at first what was wrong as the summary above might imply - a passer by asked me if I had all the tools I needed, or should he go over to his house nearby and bring some back. I always expect people to be kind, but even by my standards this was remarkable. It cheered me up no end as I twiddled away with the axle nuts. It nearly took my mind off my pathological unwillingness to go next or near axle nuts. Tightening and loosening them is fraught with problems, because doing it wrong will overtighten the secondary nuts which hold the wheel bearing cones. And if you tighten them too much, the wheel bearings seize, the hub burns through and your front wheel will collapse unexpectedly as you're riding along Griffith Avenue one afternoon, and you will get covered in all kinds of bruises.

That was more than twenty years ago and I'm still brooding on it. They were big bruises. And at the time I didn't have the kind of money which allowed me to go ho-hum, a busted wheel, I must go round to the bike shop and get them to fix it. The trip to Charlie's on that occasion ate all the spare money I had for the month.

But for the moment at least the bike is behaving itself and my thoughts move to other things.

Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Is there any end to fixing bicycles?

Because you have to start somewhere, and for the last week it seems like every day has had a spanner in it.

It all started simply enough when the right hand shifter broke. It's not as though I have any grounds for complaint. The shifter is as old as the rest of the bike, which has spent 13 years being left out in all weathers with no maintenance. One look told me that it had run its course - I thought it had held up pretty well when you counted in that four of its years had been spent in the salt laden humidity of Tel Aviv.

So down to my local bike shop, and dust off the backup machine, which is horrible, but younger and less rotted by salt water. Took the bike shop until the following Thursday to fix the problem, which was all down to the fact that in Dublin today no-one repairs anything; so no-one, not even an otherwise oldfashioned family run bike shop, stocks spare parts any more. It took a couple of days to get the parts and I had to weather some polite incredulity that I was willing to spend the money to buy them rather than forget about the idea - suddenly I started to see why every second lamp-post in Dublin seems to have a broken bike chained to it. Why bother? Leave it locked, walk away and buy a new one.

The new shifters were wonderful. Of course, I'd wound up having to replace both of them. The parts come in pairs. And index shifters are now all built into the brake levers. So I had new brake levers too. And the shop had retaped the handlebars.

Is it just that having something new on something old makes all the old bits seem so much older, or was it simply that having something that worked properly left me with no illusions about what didn't work? By the following morning it was worryingly clear that my brakes had all the stopping power of nicotine gum. A lunchtime job, I thought. I could nip out on my break and fine tune the blocks. In the clear light of day, I could lie to myself no longer - my brake blocks didn't need fine tuning, they needed junking. Down to the nearest bike shop after work and pay more money than seemed plausible for four new blocks. But the next bit would be easy, of course. How hard would it be to replace four brake blocks, even if it was after dark and starting to rain?

Executive summary; hard. The locking nut is on the back of the brake arm. The stamped steel spanners you get with a bike and keep because they're BIKE spanners won't fit into the space - or if one of them does, it will turn one seventh of a turn and now you can't line the stupid little stamped hole up with the new position of the nut.

I'm doing all this in the rain outside Neary's with Chris looming over me, looking concerned but irrelevant. Scissors are about the limit of Chris' ability with moving parts. It had all seemed fine when I planned it; if I'm meeting Chris for a pint at six, and I run out of the office at five fifteen, that's a whole forty five minutes to buy the blocks, get to Neary's and do the spanner work. Finally, after much swearing, it gets done. In the narrow sense that you can't really stop the job in the middle, but you can't get it done properly with the wrong tools in bad light.

All the way through the weekend I kept telling myself to revisit the fix and make sure that everything was placed right and working the way it should. But there's always something else that's going to be more fun than going out in the cold and getting your hands dirty.

So it got looked at again on Monday, which was when I discovered that the brake arm was seized. Couldn't free it, and I suppose it must have been like that for a long time. Back to the shop. Everything you need to know about my mechanical cluelessness - the guys asked me if the cable had snapped. In their minds, I'm essentially blonde. Of course, this could be based on the fact that I get them to fix my punctures. I got slightly more respect when I showed them the actual problem. And perhaps I'll get the bike back tomorrow morning - couldn't get through to them on the phone today.

And in the meantime, I'm back on the backup, which meant I started fretting about ITS brakes, and spent yesterday replacing all the blocks on it. With the right spanner, this time.

Presumably at some point I will have replaced everything on the bike and it will work perfectly. And I'll probably have spent more money keeping it going than it would have cost to buy a cheap bike with better specs. It just seems wrong to junk a bike when the frame's still sound.

What's next? Saving String?