Monday Movie: The Station Agent

When Fin inherits a train depot from his only friend, he moves in, hoping to live in solitude. But between the loquacious hot dog vendor who plies his trade nearby, and a clumsy artist keen to apologise for almost running him over (twice), it looks like he's got his work cut out for him.

The Station Agent is a film about a short guy trying not to make friends and failing. It's also, to me, the perfect representation of what I expect from American non-Hollywood movies - slick and good looking, but leisurely paced, with an everyday veracity to its scenes, and overflowing with humanity.


The Reflexive Engine X

[Chapter List]

Travelling Salesman

The horse steadily trotted along the overgrown path, Charlie slumped in the saddle, the professor lying on the cart, propped up on a folded blanket. Here and there, the rolling green hills glinted gold.

The professor sat up. “Do you hear hoofbeats?”

She raised her head, just barely. “Yeah.”

“Should we be concerned?”

“Doubt it.”

Another horse crested the hill behind them at a canter, rode up alongside them and slowed. The smart dandy in the saddle doffed his tricorne. “A very good morning to you.”

The professor glanced at the back of Charlie's head, and followed her lead in remaining silent.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” the dandy continued. “My name's Beau. I'm a... travelling salesman. Perhaps I can interest you in some moth-eaten paper?”

From his overcoat pocket, Beau produced several sheets of paper dotted with neat rectangular holes.

Charlie pulled gently on the reins, and her horse slowed to a stop.

Beau leafed through the bundle. “How much do you suppose this would be worth?”

The professor scrambled down from the cart and ran his fingers through his wild hair. “More than you can imagine.”

“An answer I like,” Beau said. And then he looked the older man up and down, taking in his ragged appearance. “How much do you have on you?”

The professor patted his pockets. “Uh...”

“I see. What a shame.”

Beau spurred his horse on, stopping abruptly a moment later at the sabre barring his path.

Charlie said, “How much is your life worth?”

Beau shrugged. “Depends who you ask, really. Regardless, a price you'd be hard pressed to extract.”

Her sabre blurred through where Beau's neck should have been, if he hadn't suddenly been leaning out of his saddle, pressing a pistol to her side. With a blast of smoke and flame he shot her. Still her blade came down, and Beau tumbled from his saddle to avoid it.

As Charlie dismounted and he scrambled to his feet, she said, “You're fast.”

He spread his hands, producing two loaded pistols in the motion. “And you're bulletproof. What are the chances of us meeting like this? I think a hug is in order.”

She swung at him twice more, and each time he stepped aside with preternatural speed and cat-like grace.

“Should I shoot you again?” he asked. “Or shall we both accept that it's futile for us to fight?”

She let a half-smile form on her wind-blasted features and sheathed her sword. “We need that paper.”

The professor crawled out from beneath the cart, clearing his throat. “I thought it best to let you settle this between yourselves. My friend, you can have untold riches. But only after we follow that code to its source.”

Beau beamed. “A treasure map!”

“In a way,” the professor said. “But the treasure is a puzzle in itself.”

“Or so you would say,” Beau mused. “To maintain your importance once we know where we're going.”

Charlie said, “We?”

“We three,” Beau clarified.

“Please,” the professor said, extending shaky hands. “Let me see those papers.”

Beau drew a long breath through his lips and then exhaled slowly. “I... suppose. As long as I'm now a part of your little treasure syndicate.”

Charlie's face was unreadable. “Sure.”

“Wonderful! And a chance for us to catch up... sister.”

The professor frowned. “You don't look like-”

“We're not,” Charlie said curtly.

“Family in a very modern sense,” Beau said. “Let's get going. We can talk on the way.”

Charlie grimaced.


Farewell Spirit

Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
More info and larger version

It's sad, but not especially surprising that NASA has now officially called time on silent Mars rover Spirit.

What may be surprising is that the image above, captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's powerful HiRISE camera, shows the rover's solar panels glinting perfectly in the sunlight, suggesting that lack of power isn't the root of the problem (damage caused by a previous lack of power over winter is probably the next best suspect).


Monday Movie: The King's Speech

"Bertie" is a shy man with a speech impediment. As the younger brother to the heir to the throne, he does have the odd public speaking engagement, but at least he's not going to be king or anything. Actually, having said that... Oh dear. Perhaps an unorthodox, antipodean speech therapist can help?

The King's Speech is an impeccable historical drama charting the unlikely friendship between two men from wildly different backgrounds. Colin Firth's portrayal of an introverted man propelled into overwhelming duty is deservedly Oscar-winning, but the film's also a fantastic ensemble piece, with Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham-Carter, Guy Pearce and Michael Gambon all giving engrossing performances, working from a script that breathes life into historical figures without being weighed down by grandeur.


The Reflexive Engine IX

[Chapter List]

Thanks for the Horse

Stepping down from the stagecoach, Beau paused to consider the broken tripod as the rising sun glinted on its golden hide, casting strange patterns of reflected light on the thatched roofs of the village.

The driver peered down at Beau from his perch. “Are you sure, sir?”

He waved the man away. “Yes, yes. I'm more than capable of getting in and out of trouble by myself. Scurry back to civilisation.”

Adjusting his tricorne, Beau ducked into the local inn. Empty, as he'd expected. Just a burly innkeeper and a lot of empty seats.

“Good morning!” Beau announced cheerfully.

The innkeeper regarded his good spirits with unconcealed suspicion.

“I'm looking for the Franke brothers. I understand they've been a bit of a nuisance in these parts lately.” He set his hat down on the bar. “Perhaps I can help in that regard. They've just now become a nuisance to me too.”

The innkeeper shrugged. “Too late, friend. We all pitched in - those of us left and able - and paid someone to get rid of them for us.”

“I see. And anything they might have had with them?”

“She took it.”

“And which way did she go?”

Beau's perfect smile moved the man only to shrug again.

“My good man,” Beau said, “she, whoever she is, is much better able to look after herself than you are.” With a flick of his wrists, he held a pistol in each hand.

The innkeeper raised an eyebrow. “East. She took the east road.”

“Excellent,” Beau said, tossing his hat carelessly onto his head. “Oh, and thanks for the horse.”

As Beau turned to leave, the man said, through clenched teeth, “You'd be better off steering clear of her altogether.”

“Oh?” Beau said. “And why is that?”

“In all my years as a professional soldier, I never saw anyone as good with a sword as she is.”

Beau examined the barrel of one pistol. “Your concern for my welfare is touching, but fire beats steel every time. Cheerio.”

Beau strolled jauntily out into the street. A minute later, the innkeeper sighed as a horse galloped into the distance.


"Cole Phelps, traffic."

So I just bought an Xbox especially for L.A. Noire, my second most expensive recent purchase after my new glasses. (Well, I say "especially" but hopefully I'll find some other stuff to play on it too.) I'm surprised at how big the thing is, and how heavy. When I planned taking it home on the bus I was kind of expecting something more like my friendly little Wii.

Anyway, here's how my first proper case went: first I accused the only witness of lying and she stopped speaking to me. Then, driving away from the crime scene, I crashed straight into a shop front. Getting out to make sure that none of the people who ran away screaming were hurt, I stepped in front of a car and was knocked down. Now confident that no-one was injured (except me) I then got back in my patrol car and proceeded to reverse over the body and fail the case.

Shortly after that, I was promoted to the traffic division.


Thursday Book

The City & the City - China Miéville

When an unidentified woman is found dead in the city of Besźel, Inspector Borlú quickly begins to suspect that this is far from a typical case for the Extreme Crime Squad. For Besźel is a unique place, where the inhabitants must live every day without seeing what's right in front of them. Anyone who breaks this taboo is subject to terrible penalties. Could this murder be tied up in the very nature of Besźel - and the other city?

Okay, this book blew me away. Kafkaesque is probably the most obvious adjective to use to describe it - not Kafkaesque like Brazil, I mean Kafkaesque like, you know, Franz Kafka. But that's not all there is to it, I mean Kafka was this guy who didn't finish much and died young, while this is a carefully planned and plotted book with memorable characters and a strong sense of cause and effect (at least, within its surreal premise). It has these great, obvious, seemingly overwhelming themes, and then it engages with them and files them down with nuance and complication. And, at the same time, it's a crafty crime novel with a fantastic setting.

The City & the City is, in my ignorant opinion, a stonking great work of modern literature - but, just as importantly, it's also a bloody good read.


"She's behind the pillar!"

One of my inspirations while working on Gun Mute was a little Flash rail shooter called Nobuyuki Forces 3 - a fast paced game, full of secrets and unlockables, with a very neatly implemented (if far from original) cover system.

So huzzah and hooray, Nobuyuki Forces 4 has just blasted its way onto the interwebs. It's missing a lot of the things the third game had (although I suspect there's more to it than first meets the eye), but the most obvious improvement is that this one looks pretty sweet compared to the simplistic visuals of previous instalments.

Via Tim.


Pacian's Eurovision 2011 Picks

Wait, stop, they forgot to count my votes!

Okay, for all that I like a multitude of different kinds of stuff, one thing I always disavow any authority on is music. All the same, after watching some of the show and YouTubing the rest, here's how I'm distributing my points:

12 - Moldova
10 - Italy
8 - Germany
7 - Bosnia and Herzgovina
6 - Sweden
5 - Georgia
4 - Hungary
3 - Iceland
2 - Estonia
1 - France

Based on the music videos, you can swap Germany and Italy around, but on the night Raphael Gulazzi pulled out a fantastic live jazz performance, while Lena Meyer-Landrut seemed a bit lost amidst all the light and noise. Hungary has a similar deal - the song itself is a bit mediocre, but Kati Wolf sung her heart out and really sold me on it.

Anyway, here's the hats - I mean, song that got my douze points.

The Reflexive Engine VIII

[Chapter List]

The Skysail

They sat on the gently sloping roof of a cottage, one of the many little dwellings that clung to the sides of the valley. A valley currently occupied – dominated, rather, by the massive skysail.

The vessel's wooden hull blotted out the sun for many of the more rickety homes at the valley's bottom, and though its sails were folded along its sides like the wings of a bird, the sound of the wind riffling through sailcloth was inescapable. The smoke from the furnace that kept its envelope heated was just as pervasive.

“It's a beautiful ship,” the woman said. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, she sat girlishly, with her wineglass in one dainty hand. “But you've yet to set foot on deck?”

The man wore the uniform of a Royal Navy lieutenant. His perfect features were not so much young, as untouched by life, swathed in a halo of short golden curls. “I felt like taking in the village first. All work and no play, as they say.”

She giggled and raised her glass. “To play! May you find escape from your worries, however long it lasts.”

He laughed and raised his own glass. As he swigged back the wine, he didn't notice that the woman drank none of her own.

“What was your name again?” the woman said. “Nicholas Weatherly?”

He set down his glass and leaned back on the roof tiles. “That's me.”

“And you're the new second mate of the HMS Cockatrice?”

He nodded and yawned. “Exciting, isn't it? I feel perfectly exhausted.”

She leant across to kiss his temple. “Close your eyes and sleep a while. The night is still young.”


The Cockatrice would soon be underway, and the captain oversaw the loading of the last of her passengers and cargo from the quarterdeck. A stocky man, his left cheek proudly bore the scar of some freebooter's cutlass.

“Cutting it a bit fine, lieutenant,” he quipped, as a young man of uncommon delicacy approached and snapped a perfect salute.

“Sorry sir,” the officer replied, removing his bicorne. His long black hair was tied into a neat ponytail. “Lieutenant Weatherly, reporting for duty.”

The captain was about to rebuke the man further when a sailor blundered past, shooting the lieutenant a strange look that was returned with a frown.

“We seem to have picked up a lot of new crewmen at this stop,” the captain sighed. “So many unfamiliar faces.”

The lieutenant suppressed a smile. “Don't worry, sir. I have absolute confidence in their loyalty.”


Thursday Comic

20th Century Boys, vols 10-13 - Naoki Urasawa

So volume 12 sees Urasawa finally blow the lid on a mystery that has so far been central to the series. And then, reading volume 13, I couldn't help but think, "Wow. This is the book where it all kicks off."


As Promised

Remember I said you'd get a thing?

Here it is.


The Reflexive Engine VII

[Chapter List]


The sun was only just setting and already the hybrids were abroad, their presence evident from an odd electricity in the air, and howls that were not quite the wind. The wild-haired professor stood anxiously in the doorway of a run-down inn, glancing anxiously down cobbled streets that ran all too quickly past windowless cottages and into open, exposed hills. Half-hidden by the landscape, a massive, golden tripod lay broken on the horizon, weeds warily scaling its armoured hide.

The tall woman rounded a corner and strolled casually towards him.

“Charlie,” he hissed, “come on!”

She maintained the same pace, through the door, with a brief nod to the innkeeper as, musket in hand, he closed and bolted it behind her. “You sure my horse will be safe?” she asked.

The innkeeper let the barrel of his gun rest on his shoulder. The flickering light of the single oil lamp reflected strangely in one of his eyes. “That stable's kept our few draught horses out of harm's way so far, but no, I wouldn't be sure that anyone's safe in this village.”

The two visitors glanced around the empty inn – a few bare tables and only a single barrel behind the bar.

“Why do you even stay here?” the professor asked.

The innkeeper shrugged. “Why does anyone stay anywhere? I'm headed upstairs, where I'll have a better vantage of any trouble.”

They watched him disappear up the stairs, finding his way by memory into sheer darkness.

“It's not straightforward,” the professor said. “Once decoded, the papers will tell us where to go next. Finding them and getting them back will seem trivial compared to the next leg of the journey. We may have to travel over land untouched by humans in decades to reach our goal.”

Charlie peered through cracks in the door, her arms folded. “And then?”

The professor watched her carefully as he said: “And then we have infinite power. And we destroy it before anyone else can have it.”

Her eyes met his briefly. “Huh.”

“Unless,” the professor said slowly, “you want infinite power?”

Perhaps the barest hint of an almost-smile ghosted into existence on her thin lips. She shook her head.

The professor's shoulders slumped. “I'm so tired. It feels like I've been tired for years now.”

She said nothing. Just stood unmoving, leaning against the door frame.

He turned to the stairs. “I'm going to bed. Good night.”

As he began to fumble into the shadows, she said, without turning, “Take the lamp.”

He thanked her, and left her in darkness. After his footsteps had receded, she grabbed a chair and propped it against the wall opposite the door, slouching into it with one hand on the hilt of her sabre.

If she slept, her eyes still flicked open each time claws scratched the cobblestone outside.


Meanwhile, in education...

The University of Lincoln.


Monday Movie: Ip Man

Living a quiet life in Foshan with his wife and son, Ip Man (Donnie Yen) is nevertheless still frequently called on to exercise his incredible prowess at Wing Chun kung fu to sort out petty feuds and public disorder. But the stakes become life and death when China is invaded by Japan, with starving Chinese bandits threatening his friends, and the occupying army trying to draw him into a brutal martial arts tournament.

Yip Wai-Shun's Ip Man combines beautiful cinematography, a lean and efficient script, sublime action direction from Sammo Hung and a rousing score by Kenji Kawai to create one of the best martial arts films of the past few years. The only niggling dissatisfaction is the fact that this slick, nationalistic action film is supposedly based on the life of a real, flesh and blood man.