Friday, 29 January 2010

Company of Heroes: Tales of Valour & Eastern Front

I previously reviewed Company of Heroes and its initial expansion, Opposing Fronts, here. In that review I noted that since its initial release in 2006, Company of Heroes has become the definitive WWII real-time strategy game and a compelling multiplayer experience, in the latter case becoming the finest RTS since StarCraft. This review focuses on the two subsequent expansions for the game, the official Tales of Valour (or Valor for those of an American persuasion) and the unofficial Eastern Front.

Tales of Valour is very odd. The expansion adds a couple of new units to the established four sides (the Wehrmacht, the Panzer Elite, the British and the Americans) but most of these are useless. The only really successful addition is the new American light tank, the Hellcat, which is more versatile and impressive than the previous tank-destroyer and, when properly used, can help overcome the Wehrmacht domination of the early game through the spamming of armoured cars. The (very few) new maps are okay, but the game focuses a lot on the new multiplayer modes which are, to put it mildly, utter drivel. The new single-player content borders on the laughably pathetic, with three insanely short campaigns focusing on new control methods and experimental ideas that are less effective than controlling the game the traditional way. Combined, the three single-player mini-campaigns will take you less than two hours to complete, and that's being very generous. Tales of Valour, thus is really not worth bothering with unless you can pick it up for a couple of quid.

Eastern Front, on the other hand is much more impressive. First off, it's free. You can download it from here with no charge whatsoever. It isn't made by Relic but a team of fans of the game who have put many months of work into designing new units, doctrines and making sure everything is balanced with the existing sides. There is no single-player content (so far; a single-player campaign is in the works), but instead the mod adds the USSR's Red Army to the game, along with a jaw-dropping TWENTY new maps to the multiplayer mode. The maps are very well-designed, tightly balanced and entertaining to play, and frankly the mod is worth getting just to get access to the new maps with the existing sides.

Of course, the addition of the Red Army is the mod's main selling point. Relic previously claimed that they couldn't add any more sides to the game due to programming limitations, so the fact that the mod-makers have had no problem expanding to six sides (a future patch for the mod will also add the Osteer, the German's Eastern Front-focused army) is impressive to start off with. The Red Army faction is a different sort of beast to the existing sides, focusing on cheap, easily-replaceable infantry units, an impressive mixture of tanks and light artillery and some extremely formidable heavy units which appear later on to make mincemeat of the German Panthers and Tigers. WWII games usually struggle to encompass the full development of the Red Army throughout the Second World War, which started off armed with rifles and wooden planes and ended as a lethal fighting machine which drove the Germans all the way back to Berlin. The existing sides put an emphasis on preserving your units and reinforcing in the field, but the Red Army faction is almost designed for its lower-end units to be disposable, with you feeding troops into the mincer to hold back the Germans long enough for the T-34s, Sturmokovics and Katyushas to enter the field in force.

Once you get used to the Red Army's foibles, they make an excellent and viable faction. In fact, they are a notably superior faction to either the Panzer Elite or British and are well-balanced against the Wehrmacht. A possible weakness is that once they acquire large funds they become almost unstoppable, particularly due to the population cap-free Conscript infantry and the easily-summonable T-34 tank-rider units which are not only formidable tanks in their own right but can also capture territory and transport infantry units into battle. Balancing of the Red Army faction against the existing sides continues (one patch has already been issued addressing some of their problems), and after a good couple of years of apathy it's great seeing the player-base for the game brought to life again by the introduction of this new side.

Company of Heroes: Tales of Valour (*) is pretty weak and not worth bothering with, unless you really want that new light tank unit for the USA. Company of Heroes: Eastern Front (****) is markedly superior and makes for an entertaining and highly intriguing addition to the game's multiplayer mode. Plus, IT'S FREE!

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Ashes to Ashes: Season 2

It's 1982 and Britain is at war. Whilst the nation cheers on its soldiers and sailors fighting in the Falklands, life back in London carries on as normal for DI Alex Drake. Well, as normal as it can do when you're really from 2008 and your entire life appears to be a fictional construct within your own mind as you suffer from a bullet-induced coma. Having failed to avert her parents' death, Alex is now unsure what it is she must do to return home, until the rising tide of police corruption within the Met becomes clear and she and Gene Hunt make it their mission to bring the bent coppers down. But as their dangerous game of cat and mouse with their corrupt superiors unfolds, Alex starts getting odd messages and hints that she might not be the only temporally-displaced person in this world...

After an initially shaky but eventually compelling first season, Ashes to Ashes returns firing on all cylinders for its second. Learning from their experiences, the writers have put together a much more compelling season-spanning story arc than either the first year of Ashes or both seasons of its predecessor series, Life on Mars, with Gene and Alex leading an attempt to bring down their corrupt bosses in the Met. This storyline takes up the first half of the season, but no sooner is that out of the way than Alex is confronted with the notion that she might not be alone, and has to find out who is sharing her 'hallucination' and why they are there.

The writing is tighter this time around, the characterisation stronger and, in particular, the writing for Alex Drake is much improved, making her a more sympathetic figure than the arrogant know-it-all who dominated the first half of Season 1. There's also a nice subplot for the hitherto under-utilised Marshall Lancaster and Montserrat Lombard as Chris and Shaz, whose engagement provides a nice undercurrent of humour to the proceedings (and unexpectedly ties into the main storyline later in the season). Keeley Hawes and Philip Glenister are still impressive as the leads, with Dean Andrews continuing to provide solid support as Ray Carling, who shows some interesting character growth this season. We also have two recurring characters, Charlie 'SuperMac' Mackintosh (Roger Allam) and Martin Summers (Adrian Dunbar), who act as antagonists through much of the season, both well-played and nicely developed as characters.

The mystery element, namely why did Sam Tyler and now Alex Drake find themselves in the past, is also developed with some intriguing new clues hinting that what the audience previously assumed or thought they knew is completely wrong. Events culminate in the final few moments of Season 2, which rival episodes of Twin Peaks or The Prisoner for sheer surrealism and bemusement-inducing incredulity. What is going on? The third and final season of Ashes to Ashes, which will also mark the final appearance of Gene Hunt and the end of the five-season arc begun at the start of Life on Mars, promises to hold all of the answers.

Ashes to Ashes: Season 2 (****½) is a superior slice of SF-tinged crime drama. It is available now on DVD in the UK, with a US release planned for next year. Season 3 starts airing in the UK in April.

THE HOBBIT movies delayed by a year

According to executives at New Line Cinema, that two movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit are being pushed back by twelve months. The movies were supposed to enter production in Spring 2010 and be filmed back-to-back over twelve months, with the first film being released in December 2011 and the second in December 2012. However, New Line execs have reported that delays resulting from a restructuring of the company will see shooting delayed until the summer (British and American time, winter in New Zealand) or even later in 2010. That makes the fourth quarter of 2012 a more attractive release date.

Smaug will have to wait another year before waking up.

The news is disappointing, but also understandable from a business perspective. The Lord of the Rings trilogy shot over a year with a full year allotted to post-production and re-shoots on each movie, but even this proved extremely tight, particularly with The Return of the King, the final cinema edit of which was delivered just hours ahead of deadline in 2003 and just days before the film was supposed to be in cinemas. The Hobbit movies also have a year-long shooting schedule, and shooting from summer or autumn 2010 to summer or autumn 2011 leaves an uncomfortably short period for re-shoots or post. Of course, the first film could instead air in summer 2012 rather than the winter, but the winter is a more lucrative time period for film releases and New Line see The Hobbit films as major 'tent-pole' films which will hopefully regain them a lot of box office clout that they have lost after a recent string of flops. In addition, this move allows Weta to have more post-production time on the two films than they did on the three Lord of the Rings films, which was restrictive (although they did produce successful results).

This news will presumably mean that the second film is also pushed back a year to December 2013.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The Total War Series

War is fun! Okay, no it isn't. It's dangerous and terrifying and cold and often quite spectacularly boring. But human beings seem to enjoy the prospect of pitting two large bodies of men against one another armed with bits of metal over some philosophical/ideological/religious/monetary point of of dispute and letting them have at it. Of course, war also results in mounds of corpses and lots of letters that need to be written to parents back home, so as early as the 9th Century AD certain board games had been developed which simulated the art of warfare without having to deal with troublesome issues such as supply lines, latrines or corpse removal duty. Of course, with modern computers, the recreation of war has become ever more complete and thorough.

The Total War series of games first appeared in 2000 from a British company, the Creative Assembly. Formerly known for ports various Electronic Arts sports simulations from PC to console or vice versa, the Creative Assembly had decided to break out with an original title that would much more realistically simulate the art of war than ever before. At that time the most popular series of historical wargames was probably the Age of Empires series which, whilst entertaining, consisted more of building tons of men and hurling them blindly at the enemy than any viable use of real strategy or tactics. Age of Empires and other medieval or fantasy-based games like WarCraft II were fun but their simulation of real military tactics was remote at best. On the other side of the coin, games like the Civilization series were great at providing a context for warfare but reduced the battles to the comparisons of stats, removing the ability of players to swing a desperate battle against a much larger force through the use of superior tactics.

Shogun: Total War, which was published in June 2000, successfully solved the problems. Using a combination of rolling 3D terrain and sprite-based units, it allowed for the realistic depiction of a combined-force army consisting of thousands of cavalry, archers, pikemen and swordsmen, allowing them to be moved and positioned flexibly. Much of the game took place on a map of feudal Japan, with the player taking the role of a clan-leader determined to conquer the other provinces and become the shogun, the ruler of all Japan. On this map the player could assemble armies and position them to defend provinces and castles, or take to the sea and mount sneak invasions behind enemy lines. Agents like assassins could take out high-ranking enemy generals, whilst spies could provide intelligence on enemy troop numbers and movements. In effect, Shogun provided the player a way of following the maxims of Sun Tzu's The Art of War in a manner not before achieved.

Given the specialist nature of wargames, it was a bit of a surprise when Shogun crossed over into the mainstream and became a significant success story, its mix of Civilization-style turn-based plotting and realistic real-time battles providing a heady brew for strategy gamers. 2001's The Mongol Invasion provided new units and factions to the game, including the ability to have the Mongols invade Japan by sea and change the course of history. This 'counterfactual' angle (what if history went down a different path?) soon became appealing to players as well.

The Creative Assembly's success soon saw them conceive of a way of delivering exciting new Total War games to players at a steady clip. Their idea was to divide their games into 'revolutionary' and 'evolutionary' categories (each with expansions). The revolutionary games would feature new engines, graphics, ideas and concepts, whilst the evolutionary ones would build on the success of the revolutionary one. Meanwhile, the revolutionary team would begin building the next revolutionary game in the series whilst the evolutionary team was developing their next title, meaning that the two teams would be required to only deliver a new full game every four years, with a new full game coming out every two years and an expansion falling inbetween. This would allow a fresh Total War game every year and a constant source of income for the small company.

This process soon kicked in. Medieval: Total War, which used a souped-up version of the Shogun game engine, was published in 2002 to critical acclaim. It's much more popular depiction of medieval European warfare saw its sales radically eclipse those of Shogun, and its expansion, The Viking Invasion (2003) saw the game focus on a much smaller theatre of war (the British Isles) and a smaller number of factions, to great success.

The revolutionary team delivered the next full game in the series, Rome: Total War, in 2004. The game went full 3D, removing the 2D sprites of the previous titles and replacing them with individually-modelled 3D units. Through clever programming, it was possible to send a full army of 10,000 3D units into battle without onerous system requirements. The graphical results were so good that a BBC history-based gameshow, Time Commanders, started using the game engine for its graphics a full year before the game was even released. Rome also featured a major shift in gameplay, with the turn-based campaign map now employing small tiles in a 3D-rendered battlemap rather than large provincial squares. This made the placement of units, the importance of ambushes and interceptions and the vital importance of intelligence and spies all the more important, and added huge amounts of strategic depth to the game.

Unfortunately, this is where the first problems with the game's AI came into play. The first two games, being based on provinces, didn't require huge amounts of computer intelligence on the positioning of armies. If they could only move into one province and attack it, there wasn't much else for them to do. In they went. In Rome, however, it wasn't unusual to see multiple AI-controlled armies marching around consisting of a few small units rather than amalgamating into one large force, allowing you to destroy them piecemeal, whilst the AI's ability to use ships to launch seaborne invasions was almost non-existent. During sieges it wasn't uncommon to see the enemy AI drop their siege weapons and run around confused in front of your city walls whilst your archers turned them into pin-cushions. Various patches and Rome's two expansions, The Barbarian Invasion (2005) and Alexander (2006) did eventually solve many of the AI problems. Rome was also the first game in the series to permit fully-comprehensive modding, with amateur programmers retooling the AI and making it far more impressive.

The Total War series proceeded with the release of Medieval II: Total War in late 2006. Featuring an upgraded version of the Rome engine, it was assumed that Medieval II would build on the patched-up version of the engine from the expansion. Instead, it very oddly returned to the basic engine of the original Rome release, just with more impressive graphics and obviously a shift in factions and units. Lots of bugs not seen since the early days of Rome returned and, unlike Rome, were never fixed through patches. Some features, such as the implementation of the New World across the ocean, were half-assed at best. The game was also not well-optimised, requiring radically higher system requirements than Rome to work despite using the same engine. Medieval II's failings saw the first signs of real discontent from the fanbase. The Creative Assembly did win back some loyalty with the release of the excellent Kingdoms expansion in 2007, and Medieval II's modding capabilities were (eventually) better than Rome's, paving the way for excellent mods such as Third Age: Total War (a Lord of the Rings-based game, more coverage of which is coming soon), Stainless Steel (a much more hardcore and historically accurate version of Medieval II) and our own in-development Westeros: Total War.

The Creative Assembly soon revealed that the next game in the series would be the next 'revolutionary' title, Empire: Total War, which took the franchise into the 18th Century, focused on gunpowder-based warfare and, for the first time, depicted 3D naval battles. Worked on by the same team behind Shogun and Rome, the assumption was that this would be another strong game in the series.

Instead, it was pretty much lambasted on release in February 2009 by the fans, even whilst the computer game magazines gave it high scores. Very rarely has there been such a disconnection between official reviews and public opinion. The game was shipped in an incomplete state, rife with graphics bugs, memory leaks and crashes to desktops, whilst the game's AI was in an even more woeful state than Medieval II's on release. The game also required the use of Steam, Valve's digital distribution service. Whilst Steam is excellent at delivering downloadable game content, its use as a form of DRM (Digital Rights Management) without which it is impossible to play a game, even in offline single-player mode, has long been highly controversial. On top of all of these problems, the Creative Assembly took the decision to make Empire effectively unmoddable. Whilst unit states could be tweaked, full-game modifications like those available for Medieval II and Rome were simply impossible to implement. CA several times promised to release development software making modding possible, and never did so. They also promised that the game would feature a multiplayer campaign mode, but over a year after release it has still not been implemented.

The Total War fanbase, long loyal to the franchise, was understandably annoyed. There were even more annoyed when CA announced the next game in the series, Napoleon: Total War, for release in the spring of 2010, whilst the problems in Empire still had not been sorted out. Even worse was the news that Napoleon would be a stand-alone game, not an expansion as previously thought. The prior Total War expansions had shipped with major patches which usually improved the original game at the same time as delivering new content (the Barbarian Invasion and Kingdoms expansions both removed the most outrageous bugs in their parent games, for example), whilst this was not going to be the case for Napoleon, which will continue to make use of Steam and would also not permit modding.

At this current time it is difficult to say what the future holds for the Total War series. The Creative Assembly's actions over the last two games of the series have been pretty much lamentable (although Empire is now, more or less, in a reliable state after several new patches, although the AI remains deeply problematic), but at the same time the Total War series' combination of tactical and strategic warfare remains ambitious and enjoyable, and in an age of ever-declining PC games sales the series' impressive sales performance is enviable. What the CA really need to do with the franchise now is to stop pissing off the fans, allow modding once again and look at fixing the long-standing problems with AI in the games. If this can be achieved, the series could regain its place as one of the better PC gaming franchises around.

June 2010 Update
The next full game in the series will be Shogun 2: Total War.

The Total War Series

Shogun: Total War (2000)
Shogun: Total War - The Mongol Invasion (2001)
Medieval: Total War (2002)
Medieval: Total War - The Viking Invasion (2003)
Rome: Total War (2004)
Rome: Total War - The Barbarian Invasion (2005)
Rome: Total War - Alexander (2006)
Medieval II: Total War (2006)
Medieval II: Total War - Kingdoms (2007)
Empire: Total War (2009)
Empire: Total War - The Warpath Campaign (2009)
Napoleon: Total War (2010)
Napoleon: Total War - The Peninsular Campaign (2010)
Shogun II: Total War (2011)

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Completion announcement of THE REPUBLIC OF THIEVES imminent?

Scott Lynch's The Republic of Thieves, the third book in his planned seven-volume Gentleman Bastard series, is one of the most eagerly-waited books in the fantasy genre at the moment. The previous volume, Red Seas Under Red Skies, was published in June 2007, and the series was expected to progress at the rate of one book a year. However, the third book has been repeatedly delayed since then due to various reasons.

According to Suvudu/Bantam USA blogger Shawn Speakman, Lynch's editors are expecting the completed manuscript of The Republic of Thieves to be delivered imminently, and have already set January 2011 as the provisional date for publication. Since Gollancz have the first-print rights to the series, I imagine this means that that UK publication will precede this by a couple of months or so.

The book is finished and edited. Now his editor will read it again next week, make sure it is right, and then the book will go to the production team.

So far this late-breaking news is unconfirmed by my UK sources but I'll try to get more news on this soon.

Monday, 25 January 2010

KJ Parker's ENGINEER TRILOGY re-released.

KJ Parker's Engineer Trilogy is actually quite a recent series, but Orbit have nevertheless chosen to reissue the books in the UK and Australia with new covers. The new UK editions should be out now, and will hit Australia in March.

Devices and Desires (2005), Evil for Evil (2006) and The Escapement (2007) have all been very-well-reviewed, although I'm still a way behind on Parker. I enjoyed the Fencer Trilogy back when it was first released, but haven't picked up either the Scavenger or Engineer series. Parker's new novel, The Folding Knife, which is apparently a departure for her, is also published on 4 February in the UK and 22 February in the USA.

The blurb sounds most intriguing:
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.
Very good. I'll have to rectify my lack of Parker reading this year, I think.

Wertzone Classics: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

The Battle of the Blackwater has radically shifted the balance of power in the War of the Five Kings. The Lannisters and Tyrells are now allied together, granting the boy-king Joffrey a vast army against which it appears that Robb Stark, the King in the North, and his allies cannot stand. In the distant lands beyond the Wall, Jon Snow has infiltrated the wildlings to learn more about their plans and objectives, but finds his loyalties torn when he learns that even the free folk have their own codes of honour. And, far beyond the eastern seas, Daenerys Targaryen attempts to hire an army of warriors to her cause from the stinking cities of Slaver's Bay, and decides to bring justice and freedom to these lands, despite it delaying her return home to Westeros.

A Storm of Swords is both the third volume of A Song of Ice and Fire and, individually, the finest work of epic fantasy published since at least The Silmarillion in 1977. George R.R. Martin's writing skills in the first book were good, better in the second and hit impressive new heights here in the third, with growing layers of description and writing giving the Seven Kingdoms more colour and more depth with each passing volume. The characterisation remains strong, and in A Storm of Swords Martin delivers one of his masterstrokes by upgrading the hitherto villainous and reprehensible Jaime Lannister to full POV status. By taking us into the head of one of the 'bad guys' and showing us what makes him tick without descending into cliche (Jaime is still a dangerous and somewhat unpleasant character), Martin achieves some very fine character description and growth.

Elsewhere, Swords gives us some of the most out-and-out memorable moments in fantasy fiction in a long time. The duel between the Red Viper and the Mountain That Rides, several confrontations between Tyrion and his father, two certain weddings, the epic battle of the Wall, Bran and his companions' journey northwards and much more all resonate very strongly indeed. There is also some very nice subtlety, such as Meera's 'story' which is clearly not just a story, and Daenerys' realisation that having royal blood isn't enough, she must also earn her crown through experience and wisdom nicely subverts some of the more dubious cliches of fantasy fiction centering on noble families ruling through 'divine right' alone.

There is one slight cause for concern: Martin's writing definitely becomes more descriptive with each passing novel, contributing to their growing sizes and page-counts. Arguably not much more happens, in terms of sheer important incidents, in Storm than in Thrones, but the book is over a third longer. Whilst the pacing and writing quality remains superb in this volume, this growth in size and depth does evoke troubling memories of what happened to Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series around its sixth volume. Also, whilst it's not a problem for Storm, the decision to hold back some story developments from the end of Storm (where they chronologically belong, such as the ironborn kingsmoot and so on) for the then-planned five-year-gap (and later inserted into Feast instead) does contribute to some of the writing issues in the two subsequent novels, and their resultingly epic writing times. On the plus side, this does result in Storm having a very strong and somewhat final ending. It's certainly not a full resolution of all the stories in progress, but those stories are 'plateaued' or put on hold in a manner that does not demand immediate resolution (probably why the wait for Feast was not as onerous for many fans as the one for Dance is at the moment). For those put off from reading A Song of Ice and Fire so far due to its incomplete status, the fact that you can read the first three books alone and reach a natural pausing point rather than a cliffhanger may be useful information.

A Storm of Swords (*****) is an excellent fantasy novel, rich in memorable characters, classic moments, fierce battles, quieter moments of reflection and some almost stomach-churning moments of genuine shock and betrayal. It remains unmatched among modern epic fantasy novels (although some have come close to unseating it) for combining a sheer epic scope and a real sense of humanity at the same time. It is available now in the USA. Annoyingly, in the UK it was split into two volumes for paperback publication, entitled Steel and Snow and Blood and Gold.

Friday, 22 January 2010


Pat's Fantasy Hotlist has published an exclusive extract from The Mystery Knight here. The third and latest tale of Dunk 'n' Egg, the hedge knight and his unusual squire adventuring in the Seven Kingdoms eighty-five-odd years before the events of A Song of Ice and Fire, will be published in the Warriors anthology due from Tor USA on 16 March.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Prestige

At the end of the 19th Century, two stage magicians working in London become bitter rivals: Robert Angier (played by Hugh Jackman), performing under the name 'The Great Danton', and Alfred Borden (played by Christian Bale), known as 'The Professor'. They each seek to upstage the other, and when Borden develops a seemingly impossible trick that has him apparently teleporting across the stage in a second, Angier becomes obsessed with finding out how he did it, an obsession that leads him to Colorado and a meeting with a man named Nikola Tesla...

The Prestige, released in 2006, is an adaptation of the excellent Christopher Priest novel of the same name, directed by Christopher Nolan of Memento and Batman Begins fame (his subsequent project to this movie would be The Dark Knight) and sharing several cast and crew with the comic book movies, including Christian Bale and Michael Caine. The Prestige is a superb film which may actually be the finest translation of a work of literature to the screen that I've ever seen. The film is incredibly faithful to the themes and spirit of the novel, but not slavishly so. Ideas from the book that would not work well on-screen have been jettisoned, whilst the novel's modern-day framing device has been removed and replaced with a new one that focuses the story much more closely on the rivalry between Borden and Angier. At the same time, the novel's conceit of taking place entirely through the pages of the two men's diaries is actually translated successfully to the screen, and the changes made to the central twist of the novel actually make the idea even more disturbing and horrific than in the novel. As with the novel, upon finishing the film the viewer may be tempted to immediately watch it again in full knowledge of the secrets revealed at the end, whereupon it turns into a different movie.

The film's success is built around its two protagonists. Bale and Jackman turn in supremely accomplished performances (the latter possibly in a career-best performance), each having to play a complex, driven character each of whom is carrying weighty secrets and mysteries. Their escalating rivalry is particularly well-handled. Some may feel that the two characters are too obsessed with their rivalry and we don't see many other facets of their personalities, but given that the entire movie is driven by their rivalry, this is understandable. The supporting cast is also excellent, particularly Michael Caine as Angier's assistant, Cutter, Scarlett Johansson as Olivia and the curiously effective partnership of David Bowie (yes, that David Bowie) as Tesla and Andy Serkis as his helper, Alley. In fact, it feels like there's a whole other movie Nolan could go and make about Nikola Tesla that would be as fascinating to watch.

Nolan's direction, having to handle a complex, non-linear narrative and not lose the audience in confusion, is very good. At one point Olivia tells us that once you know the secret of the trick, it becomes rather obvious, and the film is like that. Rewatching the movie, it's almost incredible that you missed all the (in retrospect, obvious) clues pointing to what the truth of the story is. This is where the real success of the movie lies. Most of Priest's novels have a moment which is known as the 'Priest Effect', where the reader feels a trapdoor has opened beneath their feet and they realise everything they thought they knew was not only wrong, but perhaps never existed in the first place. The idea that this could be translated to cinema seems unthinkable, but Nolan delivers it here with considerable success. This is a movie where the rules are fluid and shift, but once you know what is going on, it all makes sense.

The Prestige (*****) is a most accomplished film, well-paced and dramatic, with a tremendous sense of mystery. It is a puzzle box of a story where all the pieces fit together satisfyingly at the end, and rewards repeated viewing. It is available on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA).

British readers can now pay the Long Price

Orbit Books have completed the UK publication of Daniel Abraham's very fine Long Price Quartet this week. They have decided to publish the books as two chunky omnibuses, with A Shadow in Summer and A Betrayal in Winter being published under the title Shadow and Betrayal and An Autumn War and The Price of Spring being combined as Seasons of War. Shadow and Betrayal was previously released in 2007 (and reviewed here) with a rather dubious brown fog cover. Realising this wasn't helping the book much, Orbit have reprinted the original omnibus alongside the publication of the new with much better cover art*.

Orbit have a huge amount of faith and excitement for Abraham's career, and will also be publishing his new series, The Dagger and the Coin (summed up as a cross between George R.R. Martin and Joss Whedon set against Medici-eseque backdrop) in both the UK and USA, starting in 2011.

* Better than the brown fog UK cover, not the jaw-droppingly amazing US covers.

United 93

United Airways Flight 93 was a civil aircraft making a regular passenger run from Newark Airport, New York City, to San Francisco on the morning of 11 September 2001. Members of the terrorist organisation al-Qaeda seized control of four aircraft that morning, including United 93. The other three aircraft were crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. The hijackers of United 93 were planning to crash their aircraft into the Capitol Building in Washington, but the plane was delayed for half an hour due to an overbooked departure window. By the time the aircraft was drawing close to Washington, news of the attacks on New York and Washington had reached the passengers on United 93. Realising that their aircraft was also going to be used as a weapon, the passengers and crew resolved to storm the cockpit and retake control of the aircraft.

United 93 is one of several films based on the events of 9/11, but is the one that is based most closely on the real events of that day. The script was assembled with close attention paid to the findings of the 9/11 Commission and countless interviews with people involved in the events of the day in air traffic control centres, airport towers and in the military. In fact, during the pre-production phase director Paul Greengrass made the decision to employ a large number of these consultants in the film as actors, playing themselves. The most prominent is Ben Sliney, National Operations Manager at the Federal Aviation Administration centre in Virginia. Sliney is credited as the person who gave the unprecedented order to ground every aircraft in American airspace - over four thousand of them - in the aftermath of the attacks. The American military gave their full cooperation to the film, allowing active personnel to portray themselves. The military were caught off-guard by 9/11, which exposed significant weaknesses in the American air defence system (namely that the hijacking of aircraft was not considered a realistic threat and that only four fighter jets were available for the defence of the entire Eastern Seaboard), but they allowed these problems to be shown in the film to convey the sheer unprecedented nature of the attacks.

As part of the quest for authenticity, all forty-four of the actors portraying the hijackers, passengers and crew were picked to match the real passengers as closely as possible. Many of them spent time with the families of the passengers they were portraying in an attempt to get as close as possible to their subjects. The result is a documentary-like feel to the events of the film, in stark contrast to the rather mawkish over-dramatic feel of the several other TV movies and 'docu-dramas' based on the events of the day. Performances are universally flawless, and the fact that so many of the performers in the military command post and the air traffic control centres are not professional actors is a real surprise.

Structurally, the film condenses some events at the beginning of the movie in order to fit the whole story in the running time. However, from the moment Flight 93 takes off, the movie switches to real-time. Greengrass is a superb director, as seen in his previous movies, and here paces events to perfection with the growing chaos of the situation and the increasingly futile attempts by the authorities to stay on top of it vividly depicted. The moment Sliney takes charge and shuts down American airspace is notable as it's the point at which control over the situation is, to some extent at least, regained. This is also significant as Greengrass cuts away from events on the ground at that point and the rest of the movie unfolds entirely within the aircraft.

Obviously, vast numbers of people watching this film will have vivid memories of 9/11 themselves, and each viewer will watch the film partially through the lens of their own experiences and feelings from that day. For this reason, Greengrass tries not to offer any kind of political or ideological commentary on events, as this would invariably skew the film and lose some of its impact. Events unfold starkly and with no attempt to interpret them. On the commentary Greengrass points out that the hijackers were devout Muslims and shows them praying before and during the hijacking, and reveals he wanted to convey a thematic idea that the terrorists were hijacking the religion to excuse their actions as well as literally hijacking the aircraft, but this idea can't come across very well in the film due to the stripping back of any kind of artistic elements in favour of the simple depiction of events. Similarly, the extraordinarily long delays in the military getting authorisation to shoot down hijacked aircraft and the collapse of many of the emergency procedures in place amongst the air controllers also passes without any kind of comment in the film. These things happened. Why they happened was up to the various post-9/11 committees and investigations to discover, and these events were outside the scope of the film, although references to the extreme length of time since the last hijacking over US airspace do convey somewhat that there were relatively few procedures in place to deal with the crisis, and none at all for the use of aircraft as suicide weapons.

Given the film's excellent direction and acting, not to mention its powerful impact and intensity, I strongly considered giving it the 'classic' appreciation. However, I chose not to due to several problems that would be considered minor in other films, but in one based so closely on real events could not pass unnoticed. The most notable is the extremely questionable decision to depict German passenger Christian Adams as an 'appeaser' who urgently counsels against the decision to storm the cockpit and at one point freaks out when all of the other passengers are shown as resolute or upset, but not actually having a breakdown. Given that there is no evidence that the real Adams did any of these things, Greengrass' decision to depict him as doing them is rather unfair and possibly damaging (a somewhat similar dubious decision to the depiction of William Murdoch, the first officer of the Titanic shown gunning down panicking passengers in the Cameron movie when in fact he did no such thing). The other problem is one outside of the film producers' control. At the time of shooting the cockpit voice recordings from the plane had not been publicly released, and there were no signs they were going to be. The recordings actually were released before the movie came out, revealing that several key events in the film are erroneous (the most notable being that the passengers failed to gain access to the cockpit at all). Both of these problems would be to some extent excusable in a full work of fiction, but given the movie's extreme fidelity to the truth elsewhere, they introduce elements of doubt and misdirection to the narrative which are regrettable.

Despite these issues, United 93 (****½) is a powerful and affecting film. It is not easy viewing but it is certainly worth watching to get a good sense of the chaos and confusion of that day as people struggled to react to the unthinkable. The movie is available now on DVD (UK, USA).

Monday, 18 January 2010

Thirteen Days

October, 1962. President John F. Kennedy is still politically smarting from the Bay of Pigs fiasco, a CIA-backed attempt by Cuban nationalists to invade their homeland and retake control of the island from the Communist government under Fidel Castro. A U-2 spy plane flying over Cuba photographs new military installations being built across the island. US military intelligence concludes that medium-range, nuclear-armed missiles are being installed on Cuba to give the Soviet Union a devastating first strike capability and gain a major military advantage over the United States.

With the missiles still days from becoming operational and the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, unaware that the USA has discovered the missiles, the United States have the advantage of surprise. The US military urges a surprise attack using overwhelming air power to destroy the missiles. However, the only way to permanently deny the Soviet Union the use of Cuba as a forward base off the American coast is to invade Cuba and remove its government by military force. Kennedy and his advisors know that this will trigger a Soviet retaliatory assault on West Berlin, which will inevitably lead to World War III. Kennedy needs another option, and Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara gives it to him: a blockade of Cuba to prevent additional military materials reaching the island but will give the Soviets a chance to come to diplomatic terms. So begins a high-stakes exchange of diplomacy, the failure of which could very well result in nuclear war.

Given that vast numbers of books and films depict a 'high-stakes' scenario where the fate of the world (real or imagined) hangs in the balance, it is interesting that relatively little attention has been paid in recent years to the one time when the fate of our world really did hang in the balance. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is the closest that the Cold War ever came to heating up (certainly the closest moment that was known about at the time; a Soviet computer malfunction in 1983 was extremely dangerous but not widely known until years later), when the United States and the Soviet Union stared one another down and the most careful diplomacy had to be used to defuse the crisis. The diplomatic resolution over the crisis was considerably complicated by the lack of any direct methods of communication between the White House and the Kremlin, with messages having to be sent by back channels and feelers extended through the media and the United Nations. In fact, the crisis resulted in the installation of the Washington-Moscow hotline to avoid such problems in the future.

Roger Donaldson's film, released in late 2000, attempts to chronicle the crisis exclusively from the point-of-view of the United States government. There are no scenes set in Havana or Moscow, and the only scenes in Cuba are transition-based ones showing the progress of the missiles being set up and fuelled. This approach is highly effective, as it means the viewer is as blind to what is going on in the USSR and Cuba as the President and his advisors are, and this heightens dramatic moments near the end of the film where important decisions have to be made almost by guesswork: has Khrushchev been deposed in a military coup or not? Is a peace offer genuine or simply an attempt to stall for time? Just as the President and his inner circle had no way of knowing in 1962, so the viewer has no way of knowing in the film.

The film makes the interesting choice to have the action seen from the perspective of Kennedy's appointments secretary (and effective chief of staff), Kenneth O'Donnell, who had no formal policy or advisory role but was a close and old friend of both JFK and his brother Robert. This is an interesting and wise choice, as many of the other characters involved in the crisis are politicians or generals of fairly grand stature themselves, such as General Le May, McNamara, Adlai Stevenson and so on, and using them as the main POV would make the film more about them than the crisis. The relatively unknown O'Donnell, played very well by the surprisingly good Kevin Costner (struggling manfully with a bad accent), carries less baggage and the film isn't so much about him (despite a few half-hearted family scenes) as about the Kennedy brothers and the crisis itself.

Bruce Greenwood plays JFK and Steven Culp his brother Robert, and both are excellent, really inhabiting their characters. Greenwood in particular delivers real gravitas as the President, but also lets slip a few moments of annoyance and contempt for some of his advisors, reflecting some of the tensions that dogged the Kennedy presidency. The lack of faith that Kennedy can deal with the crisis is almost palpable among the senior military figures, and the stress this inflects on the President is well-depicted by Greenwood.

The movie makes several interesting historical points. Whilst some elements, such as the worth of O'Donnell's counsel (Kennedy is seen consulting with O'Donnell and apparently heeding his advice more than the experts, which is questionable), are historically dubious, the idea that Kennedy considered the fates of Cuba and Berlin to be entwined and a US attack on Cuba would trigger a Soviet attack on Berlin is strongly pushed in the film. Kennedy's deep concern over Berlin, heightened by the recent construction of the Berlin Wall, would lead him to a historically famous visit to the city just a few months after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Less successful is its depiction of the military. The movie starts off by presenting a pretty credible case for military action. A swift and massive US aerial assault on Cuba is portrayed as not leading automatically to war (whilst an invasion would), but could destroy the USA's moral authority in a future conflict. Nevertheless, the strong advantages of the aerial assault are initially fairly presented. However, from then on the military option is consistently presented as the 'wrong' one and some of the senior admirals and generals, such as Le May, are presented almost as villains who even sidestep around Kennedy to try to trigger a conflict. This simplification of the military's actions during the crisis is the movie's key weak point and muddles the issues involved somewhat as well as coming across as a needless attempt to introduce more drama to the script.

This weakness is a shame as the rest of the movie is very good. The dramatic tension of the military build-up and the politicians' mounting confusion during the fog of diplomacy as they attempt to second-guess the Soviet motives at the end of the film are handled superbly. The performances in the movie has pretty much first-rate across the board (Costner's accent issues aside), and the few special effects sequences showing spy planes overflying Cuba and so far are effective, if inexplicably expensive; the movie had a budget of $80 million, higher than Independence Day, and is totally bereft of comparable action or effects sequences.

Thirteen Days (****½) is a very solid film. It shows the stresses of government and effectively depicts a period in the history of the world that should never be forgotten. The film is available now on DVD (UK, USA).

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Happy 20th Birthday to The Wheel of Time

The Eye of the World, the first novel in The Wheel of Time sequence by Robert Jordan, was published in January 1990, making this month the twentieth anniversary of the series.

James Oliver Rigney, Jr. conceived of the series in the late 1970s, whilst working on some historical novels. He expanded his ideas for the series whilst working on the Conan books under the pen name 'Robert Jordan' (henceforth used in this article as that was the name his fans knew him best by) in the early 1980s, and formally proposed the series to Tom Doherty of Tor Books in 1984. Doherty loved the idea, but was sceptical that the story outline Jordan had given him could be contained in just three books. He signed the series for six instead, and Jordan set to work on The Eye of the World that year.

It took five years to write the first book in the series. Jordan's concepts and ideas kept changing. His original thought was to make the series' central character an old, grizzled veteran who is summoned back to war and discovers he is the chosen one with the destiny of saving the world. Jordan later reconsidered, deciding that a younger protagonist would be easier to empathise with, and recast the veteran as Tam al'Thor, the adoptive father of the Dragon Reborn, Rand. Writing at a time when fantasy was dominated by Tolkien-lite trilogies, he also grew concerned that his series was too different from the glut of other works out there to win an audience, so rewrote portions of the first book to adopt a more Tolkien-esque feel. As it stands, by the time the book was published the market was already starting to tentatively move away from Tolkien-esque fantasy and The Eye of the World would be long criticised for a somewhat derivative first half before taking the story in a completely different direction.

By the time he delivered the final version of The Eye of the World, Jordan was on a roll with the story and wrote The Great Hunt at breakneck speed, delivering the book at the same time The Eye of the World went on sale in January 1990 and starting work on the third book, The Dragon Reborn, immediately. Work on the series proceeded at an impressive rate, with seven large volumes published in just six years and three months. After suffering exhaustion problems coming off A Crown of Swords, Jordan relaxed his pace to one book every two years. The series entered a long period of considerably harsher criticism, easing in 2005 after the eleventh book in the series, Knife of Dreams, was applauded for getting the story back on track and resolving several major plot threads.

The series was a major commercial success. Tom Doherty had been so impressed he sent out advance reader copies to every bookstore in the United States and ordered a first hardcover print run of 40,000 books, an immense amount for a relatively unknown author. He also published a small preview book containing a large chunk of the novel in late 1989, whetting the appetite of many fantasy fans. These marketing ploys worked and the novel sold out of its first hardcover printing. The print runs for the books increased with each volume, until Knife of Dreams' hardcover run in 2005 would pass one million copies, considerably more than even contemporary works by Stephen King. By late 2007 the series had sold 44 million copies, making it the biggest-selling work of epic fantasy since The Lord of the Rings.

Robert Jordan passed away in September 2007 whilst working on the final book in the series. The novel, which was too big to fit into one volume, was split into three and is now being completed by Brandon Sanderson. The first volume, The Gathering Storm, was published in October 2009 to the biggest critical acclaim the series has seen in many years. Sanderson currently hopes to deliver the second part, Towers of Midnight, this year for an early 2011 publication, and for the final part, A Memory of Light, to be published in late 2012.

The Wheel of Time is a confounding series that will no doubt divide opinions for many generations to come. But it is also an immense and impressive work of the imagination, and may well be the last word in the high fantasy subgenre. Nothing else published since 1990 has really come close to equalling its success in that field, and the rest of the epic fantasy has moved in an altogether different, darker and grittier direction ever since.

The series has spawned a so-so computer game and a decent pen-and-paper roleplaying game, whilst Universal has been developing a Wheel of Time movie series for the last two years.

Friday, 15 January 2010

The All-For-Noughts: Films of the Decade

SF&F movies had a bit of a mixed bag in the 2000s, with the emergence of CG-drenched giga-blockbusters that eschewed intelligence and logical coherence in favour of massive explosions. Whilst some of these films remained nonetheless entertaining on a superficial level (Star Trek XI, Transformers), rather more just degenerated into somewhat befuddled messes (Terminator Salvation, Transformers II).

This coincided with the recurrence of an odd phenomenon where a single, decent SF or fantasy flick would be successful and followed by two increasingly lame sequels which threw out the very things that made the first film great (usually good pacing and a running time not measured in interglacial epochs) in favour of over-indulgence, lack of writing discipline and general crappiness. Here's hoping that the already-planned Avatar franchise can learn a lesson from the bloated Star Wars (although the first film in that case was more 'crushingly mediocre'), Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean trilogies (as well as the Chronicles of Riddick, although that seems to have stalled after just one disappointing sequel).

Elsewhere, things were healthier. Pixar delivered one superb animated movie after another, whilst British director Christopher Nolan revitalised the Batman franchise and gave us several startlingly good original movies as well, namely Memento and Insomnia, as well as his superb adaptation of Christopher Priest's The Prestige. Original, intelligent SF&F cinema was also present in the form of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which I haven't actually watched all the way through yet, hence its non-appearance on the main list below), Donnie Darko, Moon and a number of foreign-language films, such as Let the Right One In and Pan's Labyrinth. Danny Boyle gave us the splendid 28 Days Later and Sunshine (as well as the non-genre Slumdog Millionaire), the former of which sort-of inspired the excellent horror spoof Shaun of the Dead (whose makers went on to make the superior but non-genre Hot Fuzz). SF-related comedies were also around this decade, with the amusing Galaxy Quest (technically released right at the end of 1999 but on general release in the 2000s) and the Star Wars-riffing Fanboys being quite entertaining.

Of course, the 2000s were dominated by superhero movies, ranging from the very good (X-Men 2) through the middling (Batman Begins, Spiderman 2, Iron Man) to the downright godawful (Elektra, Ghost Rider). Unfortunately, as the decade closes there is no sign of the rush to adapt comic books to the screen abating in favour of more original properties. Another trend this decade was for cinema to employ special effects to bring both vast fantastical and historical armies to the screen, through the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Narnia movies, the extremely dull Eragon and several huge historical epics, namely Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Troy and the remarkably bad Alexander. Cinema's experience with fantasy this decade proved rather mixed, with Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter's massive box office presence not being replicated elsewhere, with The Golden Compass and the second Narnia movie relying on foreign sales for much of their profit.

The All-For-Noughts SF&F Movie of the Decade

After much thought, this choice goes to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the opening movie in Peter Jackson's hugely successful three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's novel. Jackson successfully captures much of the spirit of Tolkien's book with a perfectly-cast movie that moves with a relentless pace. Whilst The Two Towers and The Return of the King were both still accomplished adaptations, significant problems crept into their scripts that become more obvious on later rewatches (some solved but others exasperated by the extended editions), whilst the first movie in the sequence remains a strong, compelling and indeed visionary film.

Other Major Movies of the Noughts

Koushun Takami's powerful novel - a hyped-up Lord of the Flies with added grenades and machine guns - would seem essentially filmic, but the potential for the film adaptation missing the point and turning into just a violent splatterfest was quite high. Luckily, director Kinji Fukasaku seemed to 'get' the novel of Battle Royale and captured its spirit splendidly in his compelling, brilliantly-acted and quite shockingly violent movie released in 2000. Occasionally it is rumoured that there will be an American remake, but thankfully the notion seems to pass.

Also debuting in 2000 was Pitch Black, an accomplished, small-scale SF thriller about a bunch of interstellar passengers crashing on a remote planet. Vin Diesel plays the ambiguous protagonist Riddick to growling perfection whilst the threat of the nocturnal creatures who only come out during the eclipse is developed through a taut pace and some astonishing visuals. The overblown and rather silly sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick, is not without merit (its visual design is impressive, at least) but's intriguingly the tie-in computer games (Escape from Butcher Bay and Assault on Dark Athena, both featuring Diesel's voice work) which develop Riddick's character and story impressively.

If you want to go see a film that leaves you scraping your brain off the ceiling in confused bewilderment, David Lynch is your man. Mulholland Drive, which nearly won the top spot, is an intellectual and emotional puzzle box that you have to interpret, deconstruct and build back up to work out what the heck it was that you just saw. Intense, visually impressive and features, with Naomi Watts' character(s), a blistering barnstorming performance that she has never quite equalled since.

At the other end of the entertainment spectrum lies Bryan Singer's X-Men 2 (which apparently has the horrific title X-Men United in the USA, which thankfully we didn't get landed with here). Proving that in the first movie he was just clearing his throat, here he delivers high-octane thrills as well as a strong central relationship between Ian McKellen's Magneto and Patrick Stewart's Professor X, whilst Hugh Jackman kicks quite a lot of ass whilst Brian Cox does some more of his brilliant scenery-devouring villain schtick (see also his magnificent bad guy turn in Troy). One of the better comic book movies of the decade, although it arguably never quite replicates the balletic genius of the opening one-mutant assault on the White House.

Zombies were big in the 2000s, but Spaced's Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright were on hand to see them off with cricket bats and Batman vinyl soundtracks. Punctuated by moments of extreme gore and ultraviolence, Shaun of the Dead is simply a very funny take on the cliches of the genre with a bit of real emotion to it as well. The same team reunited three years later for Hot Fuzz, which may be non-genre but is so fantastic it's going to get a mention anyway (along with Timothy Dalton's quite mind-bogglingly evil turn as the villain). Their third film is apparently in the planning for a 2011 or 2012 release.

Sticking with the funny, Trey Parker and Matt Stone gave the US a new theme tune in 2004 with Team America: World Police, a seemingly never-ending mickey-take of everyone and everything in sight. People on the left and the right of the political spectrum alike were torn apart (in Michael Moore's case, literally) as the Thunderbirds-inspired 'Team America' set out to stop the terrorists (allied to North Korea!) from blowing up the Western world. Quite remarkably entertaining.

Returning to the serious side of things, 2006 gave us Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron's adaptation of the PD James novel. Set in a future where no children have been born for years and Britain is being ripped apart by civil strife, Clive Owen is superb as the man who is tasked with protecting the first pregnant woman in decades. A powerful, intense movie with some of the most intense action and combat sequences since Saving Private Ryan, with sterling support from Michael Caine and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

The same year gave us Christopher Nolan's take on Christopher Priest's The Prestige. The movie is slightly less powerful than the novel, dropping as it does the books' remarkable framing structure and haunting ending, but it is certainly more focused as a result. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale are on top form, as is Michael Caine in a supporting role (Caine definitely had a career renaissance this decade) and Nolan's direction is impressive.

Another very close candidate for film of the decade was Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Stardust. Almost flawlessly entertaining, well-acted, with a light and genuinely witty touch that makes it the modern answer to The Princess Bride, and every bit as good. Especially notable for Robert De Niro's turn as a ruthless pirate captain yearning to come out of the closet.

Danny Boyle's underrated Sunshine is one of the most visually impressive SF movies since Blade Runner. Sunshine's premise is a bit dubious, but the astonishing visuals of the mission to the Sun, a fantastic soundtrack (courtesy of a collaboration between British dance band Underworld and composer John Murphy) and some remarkable performances by the likes of Cillian Murphy and Michelle Yeoh combine to make this a great film. The 'twist' in the final act was probably a big mistake though.

Rounding off the decade, Zack Snyder's take on Watchmen was a solid adaptation, although in retrospect perhaps a little too respectful to the movie (although the new ending actually makes more sense than the comic book's), and Ozymandias is miscast. Outside of that, it packs most of the story of the graphic novel successfully into two hours with some striking visuals and a great soundtrack (the use of Cohen's 'Hallelujah' aside). District 9 was also very good and Avatar was solid, but since I only reviewed them recently I won't mention them again here.

Brief Mentions

Other films of interest released in the 2000s: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Bubba Ho-Tep, Frequency, AI, From Hell, Monsters Inc., Spirited Away, 28 Days Later, Minority Report, Equilibrium, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Hellboy, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Batman Begins, Serenity, War of the Worlds, Curse of the Golden Flower, Pan's Labyrinth, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, 300, The Simpsons Movie, Transformers, Cloverfield, The Dark Knight, Hellboy II, Avatar, The Incredibles and the splendid ultra-low budget effort The Gamers II: Dorkness Rising.

Worst SF&F movie of the 2000s: I want to say Battlefield Earth, but I can't in good conscience as I haven't seen it. So I'll plump for Dungeons and Dragons II: Wrath of the Dragon God, which me and my friends had to physically endure for an hour and a half and only got to the end of by refusing to admit defeat and plighing ourselves with beer. That it managed to be comprehensively worse than the original movie is an astonishing feat, one that I thought no film could achieve, thus this managed it, which is nothing short of astonishing.

Most Disappointing Movies of the Decade: This has to be the treble going to George Lucas for Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, none of which lived up to their forebears or achieved their potential.

GAME OF THRONES TV series update

It's been a little while since the last news. As previously related, HBO completed filming of the pilot for Game of Thrones in late November 2009. The pilot has been undergoing post-production since then, with news emerging that HBO are planning to make a formal announcement on the project being picked up or not by the end of March 2010.

At the Television Critic Association press tour today, HBO were full of news and announcements regarding their big 2010 shows, namely the returning True Blood, new ongoing series Treme and Boardwalk Empire, and the major mini-series event The Pacific (the follow-up to Band of Brothers). They also let slip a tidbit about Game of Thrones, revealing that they expect the completed pilot to be delivered in two weeks (around the end of January/start of February). If they really like the pilot it's not impossible that there will be an earlier decision to pick up the show. However, quite a few sources seem adamant that the news, positive or negative, will not be announced before March.

If they do pick up the show, it is likely that production will resume in the late spring or summer. We already know that the production will last for 30 weeks, taking us up to the end of the year, making a spring or early 2011 air date quite likely. However, it's worth reiterating at this point that the series has not been picked up yet and although the vibes are positive, it isn't in the bag yet.

Update update: The Hollywood Reporter is now reporting that, according to HBO, the series they've seen so far 'looks fantastic' and that, barring a catastrophe, the series will be picked up in March for a March or April 2011 premiere. It's still not the final green light, but a huge statement of confidence in the show.