Monday Movie: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

World famous oceanographer Steve Zissou is out to find the mysterious shark that ate his best friend in Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. On the way, he'll be forced to deal with pirates, the airline co-pilot who might be his son, and his own fading legend.

I'm not sure exactly why I like this movie so much. Something about the combination of quirky-but-believable characters and impossible sea creatures (provided by animator Henry Selick), along with the brightly coloured sets, lo-fi synth music and frequent, dead-pan absurdity all seem to strike some off-beat chord in that peculiar organ I call a heart. A film that defies genres and explanations, there's probably no way to know if you'll like this one until you've seen it.

Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 47

Previously: “Kirkham was dead, the walls of Fortress City breached. Now Una, Sigrid and I faced the alien wrath of Prometheus.”

Part 47: Prometheus No More

As the house rained down around us, Una pushed me beneath herself. A brick bounced off her back with a metallic clang. I stumbled over shattering masonry, pulling Una along behind me. And we were outside, and safe.

Or not. Looking up, we saw Prometheus closer than ever - towering over us, its long, jointed legs splayed around the house like a spider over its prey. Una glided up beside me, rubbing her back with one hand.

Prometheus lowered its great, expressionless, human face, mouth open. I could feel my hair starting to bristle. I took Una's hand in mine.

Blue electricity began to crackle around us. Una squeezed my hand. “Well,” she said, “I suppose this is it.”

I pulled her closer and kissed her temple. The most peculiar sensation began to build in the pit of my stomach. If you've never almost been imploded by a Sky Spider machine, I can't really describe what it felt like.

But I noticed immediately when it began to fade away. The arcs of ethereal lightning stopped with a sudden pop. And the slick black skin of Prometheus began slowly to brighten and turn grey.

“Because we killed Kirkham?” Una mused.

I pointed to the almost imperceptible figure riding on the back of Prometheus. “Or because we had a little help from a see-through friend of ours.”

Like sunlight piercing the clouds, Prometheus began to glow with internal light, its replica of Kirkham's face warping into something stranger, and more reassuringly Sky Spider in nature. Before it had become almost completely white, Prometheus had turned and begun walking away, stepping harmlessly through townhouses like it wasn't really there.

Sigrid stepped out of the rubble of the old cottage, brushing debris from her shoulders. “What happened?”

“Kirkham lost Prometheus,” I said.

Sigrid nodded. “Well, he's got no need for it where he is.”

Una stepped away from me, looking out over the ruins of Fortress City, dust and smoke still rising from it. “What a waste. Yet more people without homes and food and who knows what else.”

“They're free, at least,” I said. “Which is what you wanted.”

“Let's hope they're not too proud to turn down help from Remus and Unity City.”

“I didn't think you...”

She shrugged. “How else can they survive now?”

Sigrid was looking around with wide eyes. “Wait, back up a minute. What have you two been doing here?”


Next week: Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Enceladus Knowledge +1

Credit: NASA/JPL/SWRI/University of Colorado

"Our measurements imply that besides table salt, the grains also contain carbonates like soda. Both components are in concentrations that match the predicted composition of an Enceladus ocean," [Frank] Postberg [Cassini scientist for the cosmic dust analyzer at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany] said. "The carbonates also provide a slightly alkaline pH value. If the liquid source is an ocean, it could provide a suitable environment on Enceladus for the formation of life precursors when coupled with the heat measured near the moon's south pole and the organic compounds found within the plumes."

However, in another study published in Nature, researchers doing ground-based observations did not see sodium, an important salt component. That team notes that the amount of sodium being expelled from Enceladus is actually less than observed around many other planetary bodies. These scientists were looking for sodium in the plume vapor and could not see it in the expelled ice grains. They argue that if the plume vapor does come from ocean water, the evaporation must happen slowly deep underground, rather than as a violent geyser erupting into space.

Read the rest here.

It also well worth taking a peek at the explanation for the diagram above, which outlines several proposed models for Enceladus' plumes. These recent observations have ruled out model A, but the others (or some combination of them) are all candidates of various plausibility.


Sepia Equinox

Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Image source

Here's another image of an equinox shadow on Saturn's rings, cast by Mimas as before, but this time in natural colour.


Monday Movie: The Scarlet Claw

Canada, the fog-enshrouded village of La Mort Rouge: the church bell tolls as a dying woman tries to draw attention to her plight. Not far away, her husband is debating a sceptical Sherlock Holmes at a meeting of the Royal Canadian Occult Society. Does a mysterious and supernatural beast roam the marshes of La Mort Rouge, searching for its next victim?

The Scarlet Claw is almost universally accepted as the best film to feature Basil Rathbone's portrayal of the world's most famous detective. Director Roy William Neill rises above his often quite workmanlike and unsubtle craftsmanship on other films in this series, evoking an eerie, shadowed ambience to relate a thrilling mystery with a fair few twists and turns.


Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 46

Previously: “Prometheus had clawed through the walls of Fortress City - not an outcome we'd expected when we confronted John Kirkham. The future of the city was hanging in the balance.”

Part 46: Sky Spiders Ex Machina

The ground shook as Prometheus ploughed through the buildings of Fortress City. Its impassive face - a perfect likeness of John Kirkham's golden mask - bobbed over chimneys and rooftops as they collapsed into a rising cloud of dust. Behind it, Kirkham's hot air balloon rose into the air, its burner flickering against the dull fabric of the envelope.

Una and I turned to flee from the half-ruined cottage. And right in front of us, Remus' glassy Sky Spider automaton stepped into existence, as if rounding an invisible corner. Its huge, inhuman hands rested on the shoulders of a stocky woman in faded military fatigues, looking rather bemused.

“Sigrid!” I exclaimed.

She grimaced a greeting as the automaton faded away behind her. “Some airy-fairy pretty boy - or maybe it was a woman - snatched me off that rusty old ship and told me you two were in trouble.”

Una shrugged. “Oh, you know: same old, same old.”

Sigrid's eyes widened as she saw Prometheus tearing through mouldy, smog-blackened brickwork to reach us. “I don't see what I can do to help, save give you some company on the passage to the hereafter. Shouldn't we be running?”

“Have you ever shot down a balloon?” I asked.

Sigrid shrugged. “There's a first time for everything. Can I have that rifle?”

I handed Sigrid the rifle Una had borrowed from a deserting soldier, and she immediately dropped to one knee, sighting down the length of the barrel. I was about to say something when she fired. Una and I both jumped.

“Damn it,” Sigrid muttered, and started adjusting the little metal sight at the end of the barrel. “Who was supposed to be looking after this thing?”

Una said, “I got the impression its previous owner wasn't too interested in maintaining his equipment.”

Sigrid pressed the stock to her shoulder again. “Well it's a crying shame.”

Straight ahead, the row of dilapidated houses across the street parted like a veil of filthy mist before Prometheus' clattering, arthropodal legs. Sigrid barely seemed to notice.

She fired. The basket of the hot air balloon suddenly erupted into a shower of flames, disintegrating and dropping detritus onto the rooftops below.

“Shot the fuel tanks,” Sigrid yelled, over the avalanche of footsteps that heralded Prometheus' advance. “Now let's run like mad.”

She immediately sprinted towards the door, only to be thrown back into the room when one of Prometheus' peculiar electric blue missiles struck the side of the cottage. Another hit the wall with the collapsed, gaping window, and the whole rotten building began slowly to topple forwards.

I grabbed Una as she grabbed me, and bricks began to rain down around us.


Next week: We've been sure that it really must be it for our heroes enough times before, but now, surely, it really, really must be all over for our heroes next week! There's no surviving the merciless point-blank assault of Prometheus! Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Thursday Book

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running - Haruki Murakami

I enjoy walking for long distances, but I hate running for even the shortest amount of time, so I can't actually comment on how much this book is of interest to runners. For die-hard fans of Murakami (such as, you know, me), however, this is at least worth a look, as it's possibly the most autobiographical work we're likely to get from a writer who's notoriously uncomfortable with his fame.

Murakami's been running for as long as he's been writing, an attempt to counteract the sedentary life he was expecting to lead as an author, and he sees these two parts of his life as being closely intertwined. It's a side of the man that I think some of his fans might find surprising, although his general lack of competitiveness (except against himself) seems somewhat more in tune with the thoughtful tone of his books.

Anyway, chances are that if you're a Murakami fan, you've already got this book, or at least added it your list - and if you're unfamiliar with the author, there are probably much better places to start than this. Unless you're a runner, of course.


DVD Review: The Good The Bad The Weird

At the start of Kim Ji-woon's The Good The Bad The Weird, three Korean misfits, their homeland occupied by the Japanese, converge on the same train in 1930s Manchuria. Following close in their wake are trouble and a whole hail of bullets. And that also happens to be what they're walking into as well.

First up, there's Yoon Tae-goo (played by Song Kang-ho, previously a bleach-haired and irresponsible father in The Host), a wreckless thief who just hopes to rob the train of its valuables. Next comes Park Chang-yi (played by Lee Byung-hun, the lead in Kim's earlier A Bittersweet Life) a vicious bandit on a mission to steal a mysterious map from the train. And pursuing Chang-yi is the bounty hunter Park Do-won - played by Jung Woo-sung, who I've never actually seen in anything before, but whose purpose here seems to be to look as non-threatening as possible while racking up the highest body count of any of these three anti-heroes.

Naturally Tae-goo, the Weird, winds up finding the map, forming a distrustful alliance with Do-won, the (relatively) Good, and then gallivanting across the Manchurian desert towards the map's destination with Chang-yi, the Bad, in hot pursuit. All three lead actors acquit themselves brilliantly. Song's comedic performance as the Weird could quite easily have stolen the whole film, but Lee's bandit exudes perfect, graceful menace, and Jung, while he may seem to get much less screen time than the other two, also gets to command the action scenes, cutting a swathe through Manchuria without batting an eyelid.

This film is an action-adventure, through-and-through. Every time you think that Kim must have surely reached a plateau and run out of ways to escalate the action, he pulls out the kitchen sink and throws it into the mix. By the final act, Tae-goo's motorcycle is being pursued by Chang-yi, Do-won and two rival gangs on horseback, while the whole lot of them are shelled and machine-gunned by the Japanese army. And while the eventual three-way showdown is far from unexpected, it still manages to feel fresh and bring a few interesting things to the table.

I've mentioned before that Kim has clearly taken inspiration from Leone in the past, but although this film does borrow a lot of the language of the western - amoral vagabonds embarking on violent misadventures in pursuit of riches - the biggest inspiration here seems to be classic Spielberg adventures like Indiana Jones. There's the treasure map, the huge real world sets that are inevitably blown to bits, the stunt-intensive chase with people leaping between vehicles and being dragged along the ground, and the general feeling that the film is doing everything it can to present you with adventure and spectacle at every turn.

Of those Korean films that are released in the west, it's almost routine to expect visual perfection, and Kim certainly doesn't disappoint in that regard here. The action direction's not quite as tight as in A Bittersweet Life, but events are always presented in a way that maximises their impact, be they moments of action or atmosphere. The sound design is excellent as well - not just because of the bombastic, multicultural, frequently anachronistic soundtrack, but because Kim knows when to let the action speak for itself, and also because he clearly understands that gunshots (of which there are plenty) should be loud and emphasised, rather than muffled or over-stylised as they often are in action films.

The Good The Bad The Weird is a rip-roaring, violent, characterful, colourful and sometimes hilarious action-adventure. It's a new entry in a genre that has been pretty poorly served so far this century, and watching it, it's strange to realise that. This is flat-out entertainment of the highest calibre, and anyone with an interest in chases, explosions, gunfights and gags should run out and find this film immediately.




Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders: Part 45

Previously: “Prometheus had clawed through the walls of Fortress City - not an outcome we'd expected when we confronted John Kirkham. But it wasn't quite the rampage it seemed.”

Part 45: Birdwatching

“It's not moved?”

I shook my head. “Not a hair's breadth.”

Una shoved a brown paper bag at me. “I brought you food.”

“Thanks. And you found a rifle, I see.”

She shrugged. “I think its previous owner was in the act of deserting his post. He didn't seem to want it anymore.”

It had been hard work to find somewhere with a commanding view of Prometheus where you didn't have to walk up stairs to get there, but we'd found it in the end: a mould encrusted cottage that dated from times when Fortress City had fended off human enemies.

I'd set up a telescope aiming out of a gaping hole in the brickwork that probably used to be a window. Una sat down in the deckchair beside mine and laid the rifle across her lap.

“So,” she said, “you think Kirkham's just redrawn the borders? It's no longer him versus the Sky Spiders, but John Kirkham: zoo keeper.”

“Right. He's just going to sit up there and wait for everyone to come back to the city. If they come back at all.”

“They will,” Una said confidently. “There's nothing between here and the ocean except Circhester and the factory farms. They might be tempted to try looting the farms, but if they do they'll only wind up disrupting their own food chain. And Circhester will provide them precious little fun as well.”

“You know, people can be surprisingly decent in situations like this.”

Una leaned over to look through the telescope. “And surprisingly ruthless as well.”

I turned to look out at Fortress City and the giant black war machine sitting on top of it, insectile legs curled around the rubble of the buildings crushed beneath its bulk. “I keep looking at the area around Prometheus. Somehow I don't think Kirkham would want to be too far away from it.”

“I can see a lot of likely places. I wouldn't exactly care to wander up there and try searching for him, though. And even if we did find him - what then?”

“I'm not sure. Killing him might just remove whatever control we might ever hope to have over Prometheus.”

Una shrugged. “Or maybe it'll revert to whatever it was supposed to be doing before Kirkham stole it from the Sky Spiders. In any case, I can't see putting a bullet through Kirkham as being anything other than a positive step.”

I sighed. “Okay. Well, we can't sit here forever. If we don't make a move, Kirkham will.”

“What are you thinking?”

I shrugged. “Run away. Go back to Unity City. Stop worrying about who's oppressing who and relax. The whole problem with Fortress City is the people are living in fear, behind a wall and a load of big guns when they don't need to.”

Una smiled. “Tempting. But no. Don't let me stop you, though.”

I touched Una's shoulder and pulled her back from the telescope. “Look at that.”

“A hot air balloon. Is it the same one-?”

“I think so.”

“And you don't suppose?”

“Who else would you expect to find riding Kirkham's hot air balloon over Kirkham's stolen Sky Spider machine?”

Una stood up and brought the stock of the rifle to her shoulder. “It's still pretty low.”

“Do you really want to take the chance that it's Kirkham in there and not someone else trying to fight him?”

Una thought about it for a second. “Well, yes, actually.” Her finger tightened on the trigger and a look of almost childish mischievousness came over her face. “Are you a better shot than me, Perry?”

“Seriously, don't call me Perry. And I honestly have no idea.”

She sighted down the barrel and fired. We waited a few seconds, but nothing about the balloon seemed to change. Una pushed the rifle into my hands. “Well now we can find out.”

I worked the action and leant into the stock, taking careful aim, trying to correct for the range and the wind. Then I squeezed the trigger.

Again, no change in the balloon.

Una laughed suddenly. “Actually, I suppose we might both have hit it. It's not like it's going to just pop is it?”

“I'd imagine not.”

“If only Sigrid were here.”

In the distance, the silhouette of Prometheus began to rise, its legs unfolding steadily, joint by joint.

Una laughed again. I joined her. “Wonderful,” she said. “An opportunity to regroup and come up with a plan, and yet here we are: running from Prometheus yet again.”


Next week: Showdown over Fortress City! It's human versus Sky Spider automaton, and there's no backing down! Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!


Making Waves and Shadows

Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Image source

Here's something you'll only see once in a Saturnian equinox. We already know that Saturn's moons play a big part in maintaining its rings - both adding material to them and 'shepherding' their edges. But here we can see the ripples that tiny (8km) moon Daphnis creates are themselves casting shadows onto the rest of the rings.

Daphnis' waves apparently have a vertical component of around a kilometer in height.


Thursday Comic

Batman: Hush (Volume 2) - Jeph Loeb, Jim Lee et al.

So here I am again for the second half of this superhero spectacle, and things are carrying on pretty much as they were before: still cramming in every notable figure in the Gotham City underworld, at breakneck pace, as part of an intricate plot that isn't nearly as carefully constructed as it seems to think it is.

The romantic aspect between Batman and Catwoman does show a little more chemistry here - I can't help but think that more tension could have been wrangled out of the way Selina Kyle has fallen for Batman while remaining disdainful of Bruce Wayne, but this book is more about being a notable collection of characters than any kind of love story. Huntress is back briefly in this volume, although there's no real resolution for her, and Oracle also (yay!) finally puts in an appearance as something other than a voice in everyone's ear.

My first impressions of Hush have pretty much held. If, like me, you've enjoyed Batman stories in other media and like the idea of having a Batman comic on your shelf - perhaps one which includes every hero and villain from Nightwing to Harley Quinn - then this is a pretty good choice. Lee's artwork is bold and full of motion, while Loeb's script does an admirable job of providing a handy primer on the state of Gotham City as it was in 2004, even if it's not quite the dashing mystery thriller he's shooting for.


Monday Movie: In the Mood for Love

Until this point best known for frenetic, hand-held, too-cool-for-school visuals, director Wong Kar-Wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle (before their infamous falling out) suddenly adopted a more measured style for their atmospheric period piece, In the Mood for Love.

With languid, perfectly-framed camerawork set to a gentle, bittersweet score, Wong tells the everyday story of two neighbours brought together when they discover that their spouses are having an affair. As their hesitant friendship blossoms, their feelings are kept in check by fears of gossip and a determination not to become adulterers themselves.

Probably one of the most intense love stories you'll find about two people who never actually make any moves towards one another.


I haven't had much of a chance to think about Sky Spiders, I'm afraid. I've got this idea for a game that I alluded to, which involves doing something a little different. But while the game would still be rather small, it'd be larger than anything I've done before, and I'm reluctant to charge in blindly.

I'm trying to come up with a smaller idea to test things with, but looking through my notes all I can find are ideas that are probably larger than the one I want to do in the end. I think I may just need to come up with something new, although it seems a shame to leave my large pile of unused ideas untouched.

Anyway, that's what I was doing instead of focusing on Sky Spiders. Sorry.


Robot Stomach Photo

Image source

In a display of dexterity that's quite admirable for her age, Spirit has photographed her underside with her miscroscopic imager instrument. It's not something that this particular camera was ever intended for, so the resulting image is out of focus, but you can still see the rover's wheels embedded deep in the soil.

As well as helping the rover team to understand the situation, this image may also help them discern whether any of the ground beneath the rover is potentially hard or sharp enough to do her an injury.

The angle of the picture accurately depicts the angle at which Spirit is currently resting. The distance between Spirit's wheel tracks is about one metre.


Yay Samus

Nintendo have announced a new Metroid game that looks very interesting. I could see this going either way really. On the one hand, I'm kind of fed up with purists complaining every time someone tries to inject new ideas into the franchise - we've already seen Samus exploring desolate alien ruins plenty of times, and if maybe now we get to expand on the Metroid universe a bit, I'm all for it.

But on the other hand, part of the reason that Samus' world is so compelling (at least to me) is because her story is usually told mostly through careful implication. Even the dialogue-heavy Metroid Fusion had her alone on a space station with just a computer for company. If Metroid: Other M turns out to be a full-on cinematic sci-fi epic, it'll be in danger of losing its chief appeal.

To say nothing of the more obvious concerns with the team behind DOA: Extreme Beach Volleyball having some measure of creative control over gaming's strongest female heroine.


Green to Yellow

I really wanted to vote Green. Following this expenses scandal, there's great potential for parties outside the main three to make gains. And I'm very much left wing and pro-science, so Green seems like a good fit. I bet many people with the same leanings voted Green today without even bothering to check out their policies.

Because when I checked their policies, I found that although they're certainly left wing, they're also rather anti-science - the only non-religious party to oppose embryonic stem cell research, for example, because 'it's not clear where it might lead' - something that's applicable to any scientific research. And then they want 'alternative medicine' available on the NHS and to reduce their regulation.

Although I'm sure their PR machine would try and spin it the other way, I get the real impression that their science policy is generally about a woolly fear of anything that strikes them the wrong way, while blindly embracing pseudo-scientific notions that chime with their ideals, regardless of actual merit. And this is a considerable concern: the European parliament has regulatory powers that can easily disrupt research throughout the continent.

And then there's the simple fact that their environmental policies aren't actually much more far ranging than those of the Lib Dems, the party I reluctantly voted for yet again. Surely there's got to be room for some radical party that's all about stimulating scientific research, promoting social justice and protecting the environment?


Chrono Tone

So I finished Chrono Trigger DS a few days back. I'm happy to say that I still find it a very charming game, with characters that are memorable and compelling, and plenty of moments that made me chuckle and blubber.

I also noticed, perhaps for the first time, that the gameplay is very nicely balanced: there's enough slaying of monsters to make it feel like your party of heroes are saving the world, but you actually spend a very significant portion of the game just exploring, talking to people, and uncovering hidden bits of apocalyptic portent throughout history. Which is fine by me, because I've often felt that most Japanese RPGs are too much like a great story turned into a grinding ordeal by random battles, and Chrono Trigger avoids that completely.

It's difficult for me to distil exactly why Chrono Trigger is such a favourite of mine, though. I think it's mostly just a combination of things that all gel with my personal preferences - with its alternate reality time periods with steampunk technology and magic and dinosaurs and implacable alien monsters, not forgetting everything I mentioned last time.

But I also think a big part of it is the game's upbeat, positive tone. And I don't mean a saccharine 'everything is great' smile-fest, I mean a game where you see the end of three civilisations, war, genocide, death and personal tragedy - and yet our heroes always look at it all and decide to fight to make things better. The worse things get, the more determined they are to put things right. And that, to my mind, is just the way to make a heroic epic that's not leaden or pretentious, but bright, affecting and... you know, likeable.