Category Archives: Uncategorized

Gerard, the resident pheasant

20150323_125035

Gerard, on one of his regular skulks outside the kitchen.

The first time we met Gerard was on Christmas day. I was shoving a saucepan in the sink when, looking through the kitchen window, I noticed a little crimson-cheeked head pop up from behind a hedge.

“There’s a pheasant in the garden!” I whispered to Sarah, who was busy putting something in the oven.

“Dinner!,” she said, peering out through the December murk. As we watched, the pheasant wandered closer and closer to the kitchen window, moving its head in little suspicious jerks as it padded down the garden path.

The pheasant was only two feet away from the house when it finally spotted us. With a jolt of surprise, the bird rushed off with a flick of its ginger tail, running back up the garden path and flapping up into a tall conifer.

For weeks before, we’d heard the telltale pop of distant shotguns in the fields behind our house, and the hunting season, we guessed, was why this one, plucky pheasant had headed down to the safety of our garden.

Although understandably shy (I’d be shy too if people in waxed jackets and flat caps kept aiming guns at me all the time), the pheasant’s since become a regular visitor. When we haven’t seen him wandering around the garden, we’ve heard his distinctive cry echoing around the gardens on our terrace. The visits have become so frequent that Sarah has christened the pheasant Gerard.

We’ve been living here for eight months, and I’ve since realised that we’ve inadvertently bought our own miniature nature reserve. Aside from Gerard, we’ve seen mallard ducks, voles, woodpeckers (spotted and green), buzzards, rabbits, herons, doves, jays, and a mangy rat approximately the size of a greyhound.

The ducks come in a pair – I think they’re husband and wife – and have a strange tendency to sit on top of our dilapidated summer house (really a just a shed with glazed French doors) and admire the view. Once, I caught the man duck (known to science as a drake, I’m told) keeping watch while Mrs Duck took a morning bath in our ornamental water feature-type-thing.

20150307_100428

Mrs Duck emerging from the ornamental water feature-type-thing after her morning bath.

When Mr Duck spotted me, he let out an urgent “quack” to his wife, and Mrs Duck hopped out, shook herself dry, and led the escape up the garden path.

Gerard’s definitely my favourite garden visitor. Even though he’s nervous around humans, he still comes down to the kitchen quite often. Up close, you can appreciate how bright his feathers are; his cheeks are a vivid crimson, the rest of his head a shiny emerald. He wears a stylish white collar around his neck, and the mottled feathers on his body appear to be flecked with gold when the sun catches them. His long, copper-coloured tale completes the ensemble.

With an outfit like this, it’s hardly surprising that pheasants are so cheerfully shot at – on a grey winter’s day, they might as well have a big target painted across their back.

Another reason why pheasants get shot: they’re absolutely terrible at playing hide and seek.

Blearily stumbling into the kitchen one morning to make a cup of tea, I spotted Gerard skulking around in a withered flower bed just outside the window (again). At exactly the same moment, Gerard’s permanently bewildered amber eyes met mine. Rather than attempt to fly away, he sort of slumped to the ground, his body flattening out as though the air were slowly seeping out of his feathers. All the while, his round eyes remained fixed on me, and he just lay there, a few wisps of foliage covering his beak and wings.

Gerard, being rubbish at hiding.

Gerard, being rubbish at hiding.

Gerard remained in this awkward, flattened position for several minutes, until I got bored and turned around to get a teabag out of a cupboard. This, clearly, was Gerard’s opportunity to initiate Operation Leg It, and he went dashing off back up the garden.

(For some reason, Gerard only flies when he absolutely has to – usually in the evening, when he’ll flap up into a tree, let out his “ka-krarr” call before turning in.)

Gerard’s habit of standing around on hedges and fences, calling into the winter air, left me wondering whether he was pining for some long-lost lover. And one day, shortly after winter had finally given way to spring, a female pheasant started appearing in our neighbour’s garden.

Since then, Gerard and Josephine (as we’ve called her) have taken turns in their visits to our kitchen window. Yesterday, Josephine came strolling down, peered around, pecked at a few things and cleared off again.

Today, Gerard paid another visit, and I’ve noticed that he’s become far more brazen since Josephine arrived. He swaggers around now, inspecting things like a king surveying his estate. I’ve seen him looking through the window of our conservatory, seemingly thinking, “Not bad. I think I’ll buy it.”

He’s also more territorial. I recently saw him walk past the summer house, catch sight of his reflection in the glass door and give it a testy jab with his beak. He stood there for a moment, staring motionlessly at himself, perhaps wondering why the other pheasant wasn’t moving either. Then he started walking around in a semi-circle, nonchalantly, as though trying to lull the reflection pheasant into a fall sense of security before… pow! He whipped around and charged full pelt at the French door, neck out straight, beak forward like a lance.

With a hollow “clonk”, Gerard bounced off the glass and staggered backwards, dazed.

20150424_080530

Gerard, glowering at his own reflection.

Giving the reflection pheasant a reproachful look, Gerard retreated to next door’s garden, where Josephine was hanging around in the morning sun.

I can imagine the story Gerard might have told Josephine. How there was a rival pheasant in his land next door, with less vibrant feathers than his. How he bravely challenged the other pheasant to a duel, and after giving him a demonstration of his superior jousting skills, the rival bird fled, and if he knows what’s good for him, he’ll never come back.

Josephine would probably have just nodded, too polite to explain that he’d wasted the entire morning picking fights with his own reflection.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

25 years of Tim Burton’s Batman: a pivotal superhero movie

batman-01Can it really be 25 years since Batman appeared in cinemas? I can still just about recall that giddy summer of Batmania: the t-shirts, the lunch boxes, the adverts on television. I can still remember queuing up to see it,  breathlessly excited. Already a fan of the Caped Crusader thanks to the old Adam West series, I’d begun reading the comics around that time (I particularly liked Detective Comics) and still have the ‘Official Comic Adaptation Of The Warner Bros Motion Picture’, which cost me £1.50 in 1989. I still have it sitting by my desk.

Before and right up to its release, Tim Burton’s Batman was a media event with a capital ‘e’. I was swept up by it, and loved everything about the movie at the time.

Yet the reaction from the public and certain sections of the press towards Michael Keaton’s casting as Bruce Wayne was bordering on the toxic before filming even began, and in the early part of 1989, Warner pushed back with an equally aggressive – and ultimately successful – marketing campaign of its own. Batman ultimately stood and won as the defining superhero movie of the 80s, and its tone, advertising and structure still influences comic book movies even today.

The power zeitgeist-y of Burton’s Batman was such that it was the story surrounding its pre-release controversy and subsequent hype that became the focus of my 25th anniversary article.

The movie itself is still a thrilling one, even if it is, inevitably, a product of its time: loud, brash, yet iconoclastic, playful and as subversive Burton could get away with in a colossal studio picture. But, for me, the story surrounding Batman’s release was more interesting than a straight critique of the plot.

Here, long before the internet, was a battle for the hearts and minds of a suspicious and vocal audience – Burton and Warner Bros had to fight an uphill battle to convince their public that Batman 1989 wouldn’t be a pun-laden, camp exercise along the 60s TV series’ lines. How fascinating, then, that the film itself is about a battle via media: Bruce Wayne’s efforts to use newspapers and TV to sell himself as a mythical being in the shape of a bat, and The Joker’s toxic-narcissist attempts to upstage him with a PR campaign of his own.

Burton played fast and loose with the history laid out in the comic books in the process – something few filmmakers would get away with now – but he dug into the psyches of his hero and villain in a way that would become standard practice in later years. The result was a pivotal superhero movie.

You can read the full article on Den Of Geek here. 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

25 years of the PC Engine

ImageIn the late 80s and 90s, when the term ‘arcade perfect’ was used with abandon, the PC Engine quickly acquired an almost mythical status. In both magazines and in the corners of playgrounds, there were whispers that this Japanese wonder console (purportedly the first 16-bit system on the market) was capable of running a pixel-for-pixel port of the legendary shooter R-Type.

That the PC Engine wasn’t even officially available in the UK merely added to its enigma. Full-page adverts appeared in videogame magazines such as Ace, which showed the PC Engine’s tiny, seductive case – a 140mm square slab of plastic that, to this day, remains the smallest home console yet devised – and screenshots of R-Type. From those images, it really did look like it might be that rarest of things: an arcade-perfect conversion.

Looking back, it’s easier to cut through the hype. The PC Engine wasn’t 16-bit at all (its processor was 8-bit), and while the port of R-Type was excellent, you had to buy it on two separate cartridges, and the sprites flickered when too many appeared on the screen.

In spite of this, there’s still something truly magical about the PC Engine. Part of this is probably down to nostalgia; back then, grey imports of Japanese consoles and games was extraordinarily expensive, so owning one would have been out of the question for all but the most dedicated or wealthy of UK gamers.

Even now, though, there remains  something intimate and neat about the PC Engine’s design. The wafer-thin cartridges, which come enshrouded in little plastic sleeves and sold in CD jewel cases. The rounded joypad, which is slightly larger and more pleasant to handle than its contemporaries, such as the NES or Sega Master System.

Then there were the games, which were an arcade fanatic’s dream. There were system-exclusive shooters, such as Gunhed and Soldier Blade. There was BC Kid and its sequels, which rank among some of the best platformers of the era. There were some fantastic coin-op conversions, such as Galaga 88, Gradius, Operation Wolf and Image Fight. Purchase the relevant multi-tap dongle, and you could enjoy four-player Bomberman.

A joint venture between the hardware manufacturer NEC and Hudson Soft, the PC Engine was a great success when it launched in Japan on the 30th October 1987. Released a year before Sega’s rival Mega Drive, and three years before the Super Nintendo, the PC Engine made rival hardware look dated indeed.

Unfortunately, NEC was slow to capitalise on the console’s support at home, and didn’t launch the PC Engine until the summer of 1989 in North America. By then, Sega’s aggressive Mega Drive (or Genesis) campaign was already clicking into gear, and the Super Nintendo’s release was just around the corner.

Although NEC released several iterations of the PC Engine to keep pace, including a CD-Rom drive and even two handheld versions, a lack of third-party support from developers saw the console’s fortunes gradually dwindle until its production finally ceased in the mid-90s.

For a while there, though, the PC Engine shone brightly, selling 10 million units worldwide and amassing a library of around 287 games.

Even today, the PC Engine is still collected, prized and talked about in reverential tones. There are fantastic sites such as this the PC Engine Software Bible, and its games are keenly collected, largely by people like me, who remember those full-page magazine ads with misty-eyed affection.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The pissed off terrapins of Los Angeles

The plane descends through blue skies and cloud wisps. I’ve left the early autumn chill of the UK far behind, and I’m about to touch down in LA, the land of movies. The home of Hollywood, film stars, startling excess and, I later learn, pissed off terrapins. It’s late September, and I’m here to capture the hum of pre-release hype for Tron: Legacy, Disney’s revival of its almost 30-year-old computer age adventure movie.

It’s my first time in the land of the free, and I’m both excited and apprehensive. Excited at the prospect of seeing this sprawling place for myself, having grown up with images of US life since childhood, but at the same time I’m nervous that, as a dweller of villages and provincial towns, I’d somehow become swallowed up, lost forever in this cavernous republic.

Los Angeles

Los Angeles viewed from the Hollywood Hills

I learn, as I spend almost two hours waiting to go through security and then a further forty minutes having my passport checked once again at the exit, that the land of the free has quietly morphed into the land of the paranoid.

Before I flew, I filled in my visa form online, which asked if I’d been a Nazi between the years 1938-1945, if I’d ever been convicted for the kidnapping of a minor, or whether I’d ever been to prison for making explosives. Then I filled in another form on the plane, where I certified that I wouldn’t attempt to smuggle any kind of deadly bacilli, raw meat, vegetables or snails onto US soil.

Having sat patiently on the hulking 747, an upended conning tower stuffed full of chairs and blankets, I staggered blearily into Los Angeles airport to be met with an unending conga line of the defeated and exhausted. This was homeland security, where each luckless traveller had to present their passport and various forms, before having various parts of their anatomy scrutinised, photographed and scanned.

After nearly 100 minutes of waiting in line, during which I listened to the bizarre ramblings of an Irishman who may or may not have been insane, I had the four fingers on my right hand scanned, then my right thumb. Then the four fingers on my left hand, then my left thumb. I then had my eyes scanned.

What do they do with this information? If one of the vast number of people streaming through LA’s turnstiles every day ultimately proved to be a mass murderer of some description, what purpose would a scan of their fingers and eyes serve?

But let me rewind a little bit, and return to the Irishman. Cheerfully corpulent, with ice cream hair and varifocal spectacles, he had a gentle, avuncular but only fitfully intelligible accent. At first, I thought I was mishearing what he was saying, as each utterance became more outlandish than the last.

First, he talked enthusiastically of his hatred for the Scottish. “They’re racist,” he said, with not a suspicion of irony. Then he talked about the castle he renovated, which had twenty rooms.

He told me of the magnet technology he and his company had invented, of the saucer-like, wingless aircraft he’d designed. It was revolutionary, he said. “Didn’t Skoda design one in World War II?” I asked. He hotly denied this.

Then he talked about an electric car he owned that was worth 800 million dollars (though, again, I’m sure I must have misheard this), a vehicle that had only driven for thirty miles before breaking down. This he followed with his list of houses: a flat in Wimbledon, another in Scotland, others in Europe and the US. And the castle? Sold, he said.

“But just because I’ve got all these houses and plenty of money, doesn’t make me special,” he said. “I still talk to ordinary people. Like you.”

While I stood wondering at this man’s extraordinary tales – and weighing up the possibility of asking him to lend me some money – it suddenly dawned on me that he’d somehow sidled in front of me in the queue. Part of me was incensed, but an ancient, working-class synapse in my brain fired and told me to wring my flat cap and let it go. He did own a castle, after all.

The Irishman had, between his tall tales, repeatedly told me that I probably wouldn’t be allowed through security, as I hadn’t printed my ESTA ticket. I replied that I’d paid for one, but simply hadn’t printed the receipt out – it’s all electronic now, isn’t it?

Having sneaked in front of me in the queue, he walked up to the security desk. But instead of having his fingers, thumbs and eyes scanned, the man behind the counter shook his head, and pointed to another queue some five miles away on the other side of the building. I’ve no idea what was said, but the Irishmen shuffled off quietly, until he was a mere dot on the horizon.

An hour later, and I’m out of the wretched airport, and blinking in the California sunshine. The air lies like a blanket, thick and almost unbreathable. I later learn that LA is in the grip of a heat wave, and that it’s roughly 35 degrees.

I slump into a taxi – a yellow taxi, like Travis Bickle may have driven – and notice that it’s a Tardis in reverse. Vast on the outside, cramped on the inside. As apparently huge and ungainly as US cars are, they appear to be all bonnet and trunk – there’s less room for the knees in here than in the back of a Peugeot 205.

The driver – terse, sunglasses, the spit of Cheech Marin – drives like the forces of hades are at his heels. We hurtle between lanes, weaving in and out of Oldsmobiles, Chevrolet Corvettes (there are dozens of them here, all white) and lumpen SUVs. We approach red lights so quickly that it feels as though Cheech is thinking of jumping them, but then chooses the final terrifying second to change his mind.

American cars are as spongy and nautical as the movies would have you believe. Every petulant jab at the brakes from Cheech’s size six feet sends the taxi pitching forward, affording a glimpse of tarmac that fills the windscreen, before the vehicle flops back on its heels, providing a glimpse of clear blue sky.

Hot.

It really is searingly hot. I look out of the window at streets that look like movie sets. There are stadium sized shops devoted to Halloween outfits, tiny Psychic parlours, fast food joints I’ve never seen, or at least was only dimly aware of: Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Jack In The Box. Women push shopping trolleys filled with tin cans (I thought this only happened in Death Wish movies) joggers huff through brutal California heat, their brows weeping with grief.

We hurtle past Electronic Arts, the video game publishing giant, whose building looks like the one Arnold Schwarzenegger blew up in Terminator 2. In fact, everywhere looks like Terminator 2. It appears that James Cameron simply turned up in LA with an Austrian, a small boy and a video camera, and recorded the thing like a documentary.

Forty minutes, thirty dollars and eight near-misses later, and we’ve arrived at the Sheraton Hotel in Santa Monica. Like all hotels, it’s not as good as it looks on the website, but there’s marble in the lobby, and Cheech could have parked his taxi in the lift.

My room is pleasant, in that beige, Stepford bedsit sort of way, and has air-con. It also has a television hidden in a big faux-mahogany cabinet, which isn’t something I’ve seen in over two decades.

A television. In a cabinet. In 2010.

American television is extraordinary. The ratio of advertisements to programme content is skewed heavily towards the former, to the point where it’s not clear what the programme between the adverts is even after twenty minutes’ viewing.

Thankfully, the adverts are like nothing I’ve ever seen. Adverts for pieces of plastic that save space in your closet. Five minute commercials about pressure washers. Anti-smoking advisories with big poisonous spiders.

Then the weather. It’s only now that I realise how extraordinarily accurate Steve Carrell’s turn as a weather man was in Anchorman. It wasn’t crass comedy, but an astutely observed docu-drama. The chap on KTLA (or KGB, or something) is warning of the possibility of flash fires and widespread death with the breezy off-handedness you’d expect from someone reporting mild rain.

Later, I meet with my fellow writers and friendly PR people, and we eat dinner at a dimly-lit Mexican restaurant. I ask for the marinated beef, and receive a platter of unidentifiable things which were various shades of grey, brown and green. Beneath the beef lay something that appeared to be pickled lizard skin, or perhaps a shower hat. I don’t know what it was, but it didn’t taste of much. In fact, nothing tasted of anything. The black beans were like textured water, the beef as chewy as a dog lead. I love Mexican food, but this was like eating a fax of a meal rather than the real thing – grey, chewy and as bland as an Ikea funeral.

It’s at this point that, if we were characters in a movie, we’d all be getting hideously drunk – there are approximately a dozen hacks, writers and bloggers here from all over the place (Russia, Mexico, France, Germany, the UK), and for most of us, it’s our first visit to America. Surely, we should all be drinking cocktails in one of those LA clubs I’ve read so much about.

Instead, we head to Santa Monica beach, now under cover of darkness, where something called a Glow Festival is in full swing. Or we assume it’s in full swing – it’s little more than a group of people standing in the blackness holding a glowstick. Where’s the hedonism? Where are the drugs? Defeated, we headed back to the hotel.

* * *

Sunday morning. Breakfast arrives at my door, which consists of two fried eggs, two pencil-thin sausages and a pile of something that I later learn is yam. The eggs are undercooked, and still have the unmistakable consistency of phlegm. The yam is more colourful to look at than eat – it’d look better in a bowl by the television, like potpourri.

I meet my fellow hacks in the lobby. It’s the Tron: Legacy press day, and there’s a palpable sense of excitement amid the pink eyes and jetlag.

We’re piled into a van that looks like the one out of The A-Team, but without the stripe. Again, there’s a mysterious, claustrophobic air to its interior, and we’re jammed in, my fellow hacks and I, knee to knee. We’re driven down cracked streets already dusty with heat, past laundromats and pawn shops and secondhand car dealerships. Could this be where John Carpenter shot Assault On Precinct 13? I hope so.

We’re on our way to visit Digital Domain, the special effects company currently putting the finishing touches to Tron: Legacy, and given the difficult task of creating a convincing Jeff Bridges with an Amiga and a copy of Deluxe Paint.

The unassuming exterior of Digital Domain HQ

As we pull into the car park, we learn that Digital Domain is located in the warehouse out of Reservoir Dogs. It’s low-key, and faintly scruffy on the outside. Inside, there are exposed ducts and cubicles where the staff do things on computers. There are model skyscrapers and scale planes hanging from the ceiling. There’s a miniature Titanic somewhere, and posters of the films the company has worked on over the last 17 years. These include True Lies, Apollo 13, Star Trek: Nemesis and Transformers.

There’s Tron: Legacy stuff everywhere. There’s a life-size Light Cycle, a glowing Program suit, little scale miniatures in a glass cabinet, and odd bits of merchandising: glowing Wii and XBox 360 controllers, light-up PC keyboards and meeces,  a shiny Light Cycle belt buckle. Two models (the human variety) stand on a dais, wearing figure-hugging Tron outfits. They look bored enough to die.

But before we can look too closely at anything, we’re crowded into the screening area, where fold-up chairs are arranged in the darkness.

Inside Digital Domain

We watch 25 minutes of unreleased, unfinished footage. It’s very shiny and loud. We’re all quite impressed. Later, we’re split into groups, and engage in carefully managed interviews with Legacy cast and crew. We speak to Steve Lisberger, the director of the original Tron, who has grown into handsome old age. He has long hair and a beard, and looks as though he should be able to perform miracles. Lisberger is opinionated, sharp, funny, and quite wonderful.

Later, we meet Olivia Wilde, the actress who plays a feline, wide-eyed computer program in the movie. She sits with a little cellophane-covered plate of nuts, berries and raw vegetables, which she doesn’t eat. In the background sits her assistant, who looks the same but smaller. Ms. Wilde is articulate and intelligent, and mentions philosophy and Joan of Arc. After the interviews are over, we’ll later see her playing Tron: Evolution on an Xbox 360. Then she leaves, still clutching her uneaten plate of nuts and berries.

We’re ferried back to the hotel in the A-Team van. Once again, we’re all knackered – the flight, time difference and almost eight hours of interviews have taken their toll, and many of us are too tired to leave the hotel. I eat a burger, knock back a beer and three or four double gins, and return to my lodgings, where I fall asleep to the sound of pressure washer commercials.

* * *

Monday. I awake to the sound of pressure washer commercials. I head to the lobby, where two of my fellow UK writers are loitering with their bags. There’s about five hours until we get back on a plane to England, and we’re anxious to see a little more of LA before we have to head off home.

A helpful chap at the concierge desk books us a driver to chauffeur us around, a friend of his, he says. Twenty minutes later, and a black Mercedes arrives outside, hazy in the morning heat.

Our driver is tanned, with incredible teeth and hair. “I’ll show you stuff you won’t see on a normal tour” he drawls, before taking us off down a busy highway. The car slows down outside an anonymous collection of hedges and palm trees in a quiet suburb. It’s where, the driver says, OJ Simpson’s wife was killed.

Later, we arrive at what at first appears to be a car park behind a huge collection of skyscrapers, including the shadowy Oppenheimer Tower. As we emerge from the Merc into acid sun, we realise it’s a graveyard. The grass is weird – crispy, yet still fluorescent green, like astro turf. The names on the stones are all familiar: Jack Lemmon, Truman Capote, Dean Martin. The late comedians have humorous things etched below their names; Billy Wilder’s says, “I’m a writer, but nobody’s perfect.”

View from the cemetery

The driver ushers us to a quiet corner of the cemetery, where a great marble wall stands in the sunlight. There are plaques arranged on it in a grid, like a filing cabinet of the dead. One of the drawers says, “Marilyn Monroe 1926-1962.” There are coins balanced on the plaque, and flowers suspended in a little vase.

“If she were still alive, she’d be 84 now,” the driver notes, philosophically. “Man, she was hot. I would have banged her for sure.”

We all stand thinking about this for a moment, until we notice our skin begin to simmer in the blistering Californian sun. The driver notes this, too, with a comment I don’t recollect. Faintly wounded, we pile back into the Mercedes.

We head down Trenton Drive, a corridor of scorched palm trees. We see Sunset Boulevard, full of expensive-sounding shops: Jimmy Choo, Lalique. The driver assures us that we’ll see “Muchos chicks”, but the streets are deserted – no doubt due to the oppressive heat.

The driver applies foot to accelerator, and the Hollywood hills loom up in the distance. Over his shoulder, I see the Hollywood sign on the arid hillside, as white as Californian teeth. We’re taken high up into the hills themselves, where we see Los Angeles spread out beneath us. It’s a weird place – surprisingly quiet and ominous. I begin taking pictures of sweating buildings, the Hollywood sign, before a man comes out of a shed and tells us to fuck off.

The Hollywood sign, taken shortly before we're told to fuck off

We drive down into Hollywood Boulevard. Like typical tourists, we get out and take pictures of Grauman’s, the famous Chinese Theatre built in the 20s. There are handprints in the concrete – the cast of Star Trek, John Woo, C3PO out of Star Wars. Mel Gibson. I’m surprised his hasn’t been dug up yet.

Then there’s the walk of fame – a breadcrumb trail of stars. James Cameron. Donald Duck. The real and the fictional intermingled, as though they’re interchangeable. In Hollywood, they probably are.

Back in the Merc, our driver points out the flat where John Belushi died, and the nightclub where River Phoenix breathed his last. The recession has left its scars here. Shops are boarded up, streets cracked.

We’re also, the driver tells us, not far from Leimert Park, the place where the horribly mutilated body of waitress Elizabeth Short was found dumped in January 1947. Short was nicknamed Black Dahlia by LA journalists, who depicted the 23-year-old as a temptress in “a tight skirt and a sheer blouse” who “prowled Hollywood Boulevard.” Her immoral lifestyle, the papers claimed, “made her victim material.” Short’s killer was never caught.

The driver’s taking us to the last stop on our tour – Greystone Mansion, a 55-room mock-Tudor pile that squats high up in Beverly Hills. In what appears to be a repeating Hollywood pattern, the building’s history is a murky one.

Four months after its wealthy owner, Ned Doheny, moved into Greystone, he was found dead in his bedroom along with his secretary, Hugh Plunket. Years later, the house fell into the hands of the City of Beverly Hills, and has since become the go-to location for filmmakers in a hurry. Greystone has appeared in dozens of television shows, movies and music promos, including Spider-Man, Rush Hour, Murder, She Wrote and my personal favourite, The Big Lebowski.

Greystone Mansion

Greystone has the vague air of a classic country mansion, but even from a distance, there’s something not quite right about it. Something strange about its proportions. Appropriately enough, it looks like a film set. At close quarters, you can see the joins: Greystone isn’t built from stone, as it first appears, but from concrete.

In the garden, there’s a large pond filled with koi carp. Rocks jut out of the water, upon which sit a brace of pissed off looking terrapins. In the febrile heat, they observe me coolly.

On our way back to the airport, we’re driven past the vast homes of Bel-Air – Denzel Washington, Julia Roberts – almost invisible behind high walls, hedges and electric gates. There are security cameras mounted on every corner, staring anxiously down at the road. Truly, these are the houses of the paranoid.

There’s an empty, inert feeling throughout Hollywood, like a mausoleum. Even in the heat, its buildings are cold, sterile. There’s the atmosphere of an industrial estate, or an ant farm.

Before we get back on the plane, we stop off for burgers in a diner with polished floors. I think about Hollywood and its weird, heightened state of existence. It’s a place of insane wealth and fame, but also death and bizarre violence, too. A place of vast mansions with towers like a German castle, cemeteries with filing cabinets of the dead, famous names scrawled in wet cement, pissed off terrapins and weird, unsolved crimes.

An hour later, and I’m back on a plane, and ascending back up again, up through blue and cloud wisps.

Los Angeles disappears far below in a shimmering haze of cash and silent madness.

Here they are: the pissed off terrapins of Hollywood.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Smouldering man candy

After weeks of being too busy, too confused or just too lazy, I’ve finally updated the site a little bit – specifically, the Writings for Pixels page, where you’ll find my two recent online articles for the Escapist, as well as a couple of reviews for the marvellous Nintendo Life.

Elsewhere on the web, I’ve compiled a list of 8 films that have influenced games, and I’ve also penned a brief review of the BBC’s informative Story of Science documentary.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The PS3 is a middle-aged rock star in a black t-shirt

Stern silence. It’s Saturday morning, and the PS3, which I ordered in secret the day before, has just arrived on the doorstep. Sarah’s in the hallway, and she’s not amused. She has her arms folded; if her eyes had arms, they’d be folded too. “We don’t need another console,” she says, as I drag the box into the living room. “We’ve got too many already.”

I’ve made several attempts to justify the purchase, to myself as well as my better half: that I got it for a really good price; that we truly, desperately need a Blu-ray player to go with the HD television; that the PS3’s black case will go really well with the TV stand.

Ultimately, I bought it for the system exclusives now available and yet to come: for Heavy Rain, Uncharted 2 and, best of all, Fumito Ueda’s forthcoming Shadow Of The Colossus sequel, Last Guardian. It was therefore with eager hands that I tore the sticky tape from the PS3’s cardboard cocoon.

For a console named and marketed as the PS3 Slim, I’m slightly alarmed by the size of the thing as I haul it out of the box. It looks like a middle-aged rock star in a black t-shirt: weighty, ungainly, and not as svelte as it thinks it is. (Having said this, the PS3 is a wee slip of a thing when placed next to the hulking menace that is the Xbox 360. The Wii sits underneath, looking gaunt and anxious.)

This sense of bloatedness continues as I power the beast up. The UI is a turgid mess of options and lists of settings with other lists of settings within them. Scrolling through it all is akin to the bafflement I feel when poring through a restaurant menu with too many dishes to choose from.

And then there are the updates. My God, the updates. First a gigantic system patch which, thanks to my village’s own patented 1MB Hickband service, took close to three hours to download. This was followed by the endless forms to fill in for PSN. It’s now three-and-a-half hours since I pulled the tape off the box, filled with enthusiasm, and I still haven’t played a game.

It took an unpleasant, swear-filled ten minutes to find a username that hadn’t been taken or wasn’t mystifyingly refused. At the end of the whole, draining process I was asked if I’d like to fill in a questionnaire. My resulting outburst was keenly audible, and I’m almost surprised the neighbours didn’t call the police.

With the head rush of new toy joy rapidly ebbing away, I shoved Uncharted 2 in the drive. Another patch update. I’m beginning to feel like Sisyphus. I try to form a Vulcan mind meld with the progress bars, and will them on as they crawl across the screen.

But then, just as my patience reaches breaking point, a ray of light appears among the figurative clouds. I finally get to play Uncharted 2, and it’s very, very good. I begin to titter and grin, my enthusiasm at last beginning to return. Uncharted 2 is everything you could want from an arcade action epic. It’s Indy 4 without the bad bits (which were many); it’s Prince Of Persia with Kays catalogue models. I like the characters. I like the script. I like the way the gorgeousness of your surroundings in any of its 25 chapters successfully disguises the reality that you’re actually shooting away at three or four kinds of bad guy for hours at a time.

It may have taken until Saturday afternoon to get to play it, but Uncharted 2 is perfect Saturday matinee material: trashy, airport fiction fun that wears its pulpy heritage proudly on its sleeve.

So, I’ve just about forgiven the PS3 for its finicky menu system, its opaque shopping experience, and its obsession with downloading things. Sarah’s just about forgiven me too, especially when I tell her about Noby Noby Boy, a typically surreal PSN game created by Keiti (Katamari Damacy) Takahashi. Featuring a central character that grows and stretches as he eats his way around a world of doughnut clouds and starry-eyed animals, we both agree that it sounds like videogaming manna.

A protracted purchase from the PlayStation shop and a 365MB download later, and Noby is ours. We load it up, our thumbs primed and waiting. But what’s this? A 550MB patch update. My reaction was sharp, vocal, and loosened several roof tiles.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Grown men gurgling over gerbils

The glorious chaos of Gerbil Physics

The glorious chaos of Gerbil Physics

It’s an awkward moment. We have friends around for dinner, and as we relax in our chairs with brandy and cigars, Sarah (my long-suffering better half) decides to show off her animals. “That’s my Lickatoad, who I’ve called Jeremy,” Sarah explained as she scrolled around her virtual garden in Viva Pinata. “And this is Hillary, my Chippopotamus. I’ve already got an achievement for romancing geese, and once I’ve romanced my salamanders I’ll be a level 52 gardener.”

To our friends, who are dyed-in-the-wool FPS fanatics, this is mystifying, horrifying stuff. They stare at the television with incredulous eyes. One of them looks as though he has a headache. Rare’s pastel-hued animal management game is not going down well at all.

“It’s good!” Sarah insists, to a wall of utter silence. Someone coughs. Far away, a church bell issues a muffled clang.

“Perhaps we should play something else?” I suggest, quietly removing the 360 controller from Sarah’s grasp. “A shooter?” one of our friends asks, suddenly perking up.

Gerbil Physics!” Sarah blurts, taking the controller back again. “It’s brilliant!”

Our friends settle further down into the sofa, their faces clouding with gloomy resignation. Things are looking bad. If they don’t like whimsical management games full of animals, I think, they’re not going to be thrilled at the sight of a puzzler full of rodents either.

But I’m forgetting the fact that Gerbil Physics is one of the most accessible, gleefully fun puzzle games ever made. The aim is simple: to use your limited supply of bombs to knock down a stack of blocks (which, by-the-by, are full of gerbils) so they fall below the lower quarter of the screen – kind of like Jenga in reverse.

Within seconds, the atmosphere of the room has changed from apathy to a strange kind of sugar-rush glee; we’re shouting advice at whoever happens to be playing, laughing as another gerbil is sent flying off the screen with a squeak, or jeering as a tower refuses to collapse. It may only possess a single player mode, but this is party gaming at its purest and most simple. Everybody has an opinion about where the next bomb should be placed or which block should be blown up first, and everybody wants to have the next go.

Gerbil Physics‘ destructive gameplay taps into a universal desire to blow down a house of cards or kick over a sand castle, and its cutesy presentation is brilliantly at odds with its explosive concept. Its gentle soundtrack is constantly punctuated by the crockery-rattling din of another explosion. The gerbils themselves are full of cheeky personality, screwing up their eyes when a bomb is placed next to them, or muttering “abject fail!” when a level goes awry.

Given that it’s the product of a tiny developer called Pencel Games, and that it costs a piffling 80p on XBox Live, it’s unsurprising that Gerbil Physics ends all-too-quickly – we finished the 24th and final level after around ninety minutes of shouting, swearing and cheering – but it’s a proof-of-concept for a potentially incredible commercial release in the future.

With Gerbil Physics completed, we began a Halo 3 deathmatch. Curiously, the mood began to drop again. Our friends, too used to their PS3, began to moan about the 360’s controller. They grumbled about the positioning of the analogue sticks, and tutted at their apparent unresponsiveness. After less than half an hour of running and shooting, these self-confessed FPS junkies wanted to go back to playing Gerbil Physics. And that, surely, is the sign of a truly great puzzle game.

Originally published over at Den of Geek

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized