Archive for May 2011
So you’ve probably heard of this great new sport called “roller derby.” You may even know a little bit about it; people often describe it as “a moshpit on wheels” or, less succinctly, “hot chicks in fishnets and skates beating the crap out of each other.” But do you actually know what the sport is about, and how it’s played?
The original incarnation of roller derby was essentially an endurance race on skates, popular from the 1880s onwards, and especially throughout the Great Depression. It wasn’t until the 50s that it started to resemble the moshpit on wheels we know and love today, when the endurance aspect was abandoned and a point-scoring system was put in place. Over time, roller derby veered away from sports and towards sports entertainment. Competition from Roller Game and Roller Jam, declining ratings, the increasingly screwed-up economic situation through the 70s, and a run of really bad luck combined to bring an end to roller derby as it was. Fortunately for us all, in 2001 a group of girls in Texas got together to found the very first roller derby league. In 2003, some of those girls formed the first flat track league, and from there roller derby has spread like a virus. In 2011, the first roller derby world cup will be hosted by Toronto Roller Derby in Canada, with teams coming from the USA, Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Argentina, Brazil, and France to compete. Isn’t that insane?
Modern roller derby only has a very little in common with its previous incarnations. For the sake of simplicity, this guide will be dealing strictly with flat track roller derby, compliant with the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association rules (v 4.0). A game of derby, also referred to as a bout, runs for two half-hour periods, with ten to fifteen minutes of half time. Each period is divided up into jams. Each team can have a maximum of fourteen players, five of which will be on the track at any given time. There are three types of players on each team; blockers, pivots, and jammers. The blockers and pivots skate in a big group called a pack, and the jammers must work their way through. The jammers’ first pass through the pack does not score any points—it is simply to determine lead jammer status. Jammers begin scoring on their second pass, earning points for every opposition player they pass, as well as opposition players in the penalty bin or opposition players.
A more complicated concept than you’d think, with some fairly strict rules governing exactly what it is and is not. The pack must consist of blockers/pivots from both teams, be that one of each or all four of each or four of one and one of the other or any other combination. It is defined as the largest group of blockers within ten feet of each other, and any blocker who does not make up part of the pack must be within 20 feet of the pack if they want to actually block someone. The 20-foot-rule is also referred to as “the zone of engagement,” and many derby strategies involve creative ways of exploiting it. The pack lines up behind the pivot line, and takes off at the first whistle.
Often referred to as the brain of the pack, the pivot is basically a blocker with more responsibilities. Each team gets one. They can be recognised by the stripe running down the centre of their helmet The pivot’s job is to control the pack. They speed it up, slow it down, and control the formation of the blockers within it. They’re also the last line of defence against opposing jammers, and the point off which teams will rally. Pivots tend to be skaters with loud voices and owl-like necks, who are happy to skate while staring over their shoulder; they also need to have the best grasp of strategy of the team, and the ability to react and adapt quickly to any situation that might come up. Pivots also get some special moves—holding the pivot line, and passing the star, though more on this later.
Blockers are the muscle of the pack, and are demarcated by having no special adornments on their helmet. There are three on each team. Their jobs are twofold; offence, in which they help their jammer get through, and defence, in which they stop the other jammer. Blockers can also be split into two subtypes—striking and stalling. Striking blockers, as the name suggests, specialise in the big dramatic hits that are considered the hallmark of roller derby. When playing defensively, they might take up a position at the back of the pack as a sweeper, moving back and forth across the track with the intention of taking out the opposing jammer as she comes up. Alternately, they might move to the inside line, near to the front of the pack, where it’s very easy to swing out and hit a jammer as she approaches on the outside. Offensively, they can be placed anywhere in the pack and will usually man on—more on exactly what that later. Stalling blockers are blockers who specialise in positional or obstructive blocking. As roller derby leagues evolve more nuanced and complex game play and tactics, stalling blockers have become instrumental to dozens of different strategies. Even a single stalling blocker is a force to be reckoned with; the good ones can stop even the most determined jammer dead in her tracks. When used defensively, they will often team up to make the pack tighter, or get in the jammer’s way and make it hard for her to get through; playing offensively, they might occupy particularly troublesome blockers, or they might take control of the front of the pack and stop it dead to let their jammer keep on scoring. Blockers come in all shapes and sizes. While you’d think striking blockers would all be huge muscly powerhouses, some tiny girls can perform amazing blocks simply by being low enough to take everyone else’s legs out from under them. Long legs are a bonus for stalling blockers, but not even close to being required.
Jammers wear panties with stars on, and they score the points. They start out 30 feet behind everyone else on the jammer line, and take off at the second whistle from the refs. They’re traditionally the fastest players on the team, because they have to lap the pack—the jammer who manages to get through the pack first without taking any penalties gets awarded lead jammer status—and once they’ve done that, they can start scoring points. They get one point every time they pass an opposing player’s hip, and if there are opposing players in the penalty box, they also get a point for them once they’ve scored on someone else on the opposition team. Jams either last for two minutes, or until the lead jammer calls it off, so having lead jammer is a great tactical advantage–but more on that in a later part.
On Wednesday I went to see Thor with my boyfriend. On Wednesday, during the day, on one of those Orange Wednesday deals, cinemas almost relent in their pocket-gouging, wallet-devouring expense sufficiently to make them worth going to. Also during the day the Wood Green Vue is empty enough that the desire to commit genocide doesn’t begin until after the film has finished and I’ve been spat back out into the middle of a hideous shopping thoroughfare.
It is important that you understand the circumstances: this was a cheap film, I was bored, and I have a lot of homework to distract myself from. So when I say “it wasn’t a waste of money” you will be aware that I didn’t actually spend any money, and that when I say “it wasn’t a waste of time”, you will be aware that I was actively looking to squander some.
I’m less educated about Norse myths than my other half, who is something of a fan (possibly because he looks like a wizened version of the God of Thunder himself), but the film is of course based on the Marvel Comics Avengers-member Thor. Now my opinion in this area is probably unpopular (they usually are), but I think I liked the comic-book Thor best in Ultimates – the Marvel reboot which also saw Captain America turn into a raving dickhead, and fulfilled many a teenage boy’s long-lived dream in Ultimate X-men by making Colossus gay; in Ultimates, it’s actually debatable whether Thor is really the god of thunder from Asgard, or whether he’s just a mental with superpowers. Oh, and he’s a rabid environmentalist.
The movie, which if there is any justice in box office returns will not make a great deal, leaves us with no such ambiguity. It also leaves us with approximately no surprises whatsoever, broadcasting every single event, character, and line from a thousand miles away. You do not have to be Heimdall, possessed of world-penetrating sight, to spot them, either.
Every single fight scene is dotted throughout the course of the film with precision, and I can’t help thinking someone has sat down with a stop-watch and a copy of the script and some focus group responses in order to place them in exactly the right spots to maintain peak interest from the core audience. Said audience are clearly not me, as I found them enormously boring: continuing the current tradition whereby so much swooping, shaking camerawork is involved in hand-to-hand combat scenes that it’s no longer necessary to choreograph them to make sense – no longer necessary and no longer even possible.
There is little point getting into the dialogue, which thuds along, merrily pleased with itself and its banal quips and occasional knowing asides to Marvel fans in the audience OH LOOK THERE’S HAWKEYE and a lot of the Asgardians standing around Talking Like Wankers. At least the last part is, unfortunately, canonical. I promise I am expecting very little from comic book movies – some jokes which actually make me laugh, a little charisma from the lead, a little chemistry with the romantic lead that is mandatory in almost every big-budget movie, and some heavy-handed moralising which I’d rather not have but know I’m not allowed to live without. Oh, and Stan Lee, who in this turns up in a truck trying to pull Mjolnir from the crater in which it has landed.
It is customary to find things one liked, or didn’t actively hate, about a movie one is reviewing (
no but seriously do we have to have explanatory flashbacks and the same computer-animation sequences from Lord of the Rings but in different and highly implausible armour?), so I shall lay off Anthony Hopkins phoning in his performance in favour of being pleased with Stellan Skasgard instead; I shall be pleased with Kat Dennings in general for being at least vaguely interesting, and praise Natalie Portman for gamely struggling with an abysmally dull character who – in spite of being a driven and apparently intelligent woman in the manner of female Hollywood scientists who Do It Because Daddy Did – magically lost her spine and personality the minute she became infatuated with a large blond wall, Nickelback in a plaid shirt, the All-American Hero as portrayed via Norway.
Norway in this movie, incidentally, is rendered in CGI.
The title character and supposed hero of the story actually does very little in the way of character development – he’s boorish and annoying, gets a slap on the wrist, can’t lift his hammer, falls in love with a pretty girl, becomes less of an asshole, is suddenly able to lift the hammer (because he’s PROVEN HIMSELF WORTHY, DO YOU SEE?), and then has a fight with his brother and mopes around being all manly and sad while his father blames the Little Freak he adopted.
Which is the main thing I found iffy about the film: Loki, who is one of the great characters of mythology, is masterfully portrayed by Tom Hiddleston. He is determined to act while all those around him are standing around reciting lines, chewing scenery, or extending a hand for their paycheques, and he brings far more sympathy to the role of the envious, nervous, devious outcast than anyone manages to bring to any of the Good Guys. He is also the only person from Asgard who doesn’t suffer from Talking Like A Wanker syndrome; possibly because he’s not an Asgardian, but an Ice Giant. This is painfully obvious from the get-go; what’s less obvious is his motivation, until he more or less spells it out during a final fight with his adopted (blond, huge, All-American, Shiny White Teeth) brother.
Such exposition is at least in keeping with the grand tradition of Marvel. It is very hard to forget, for example, the precise moment and manner in which John Byrne had Northstar out himself …
What about Loki’s storyline left a bad taste in my mouth? Well, apart from the idea that anyone not physically strong is automatically a traitor, the distrust of eloquence (although given the quality of writing it’s not hard to see why the script might favour a Wit Is Bad approach), and the undercurrent of “adoptees are not to be trusted”, there is the crescendo of the movie, in which Loki looks to his father for validation that he could at least have successfully destroyed Jotunheim (yes! He wanted to destroy the Ice Giants instead of defecting to them, and all for his father’s approval) had Thor not prevented him. Rather than a tactful “you could have done it, but you shouldn’t have and you didn’t need to prove anything to me”, Odin’s response is effectively “LOL NO”, after which Loki commits Pseudocide, or Disney Falling Villain Death of the “there’s no corpse so he can have him back later” school, over the edge of the world. Charming.
Women who do anything: Frigga, Thor’s mother, draws a sword against Laufy, the King of the Frost Giants (in Norse Mythology, Laufy is the mother of Loki), but immediately gets walloped aside; Jane Foster chases “disturbances” and then large blond men with unsupportable claims without doing a great deal of questioning and is more or less portrayed as a pair of delighted ovaries with a passing interest in sciense; and Lady Sith kicks some arse for a little bit while hanging around with the most boring, badly-scripted, pointless non-sidekicks imaginable.
Take away message: Adopted kids are evil, it’s okay to play favourites with your kids, everything works out if you’re big enough and blonde nough.
Special effects: Excellent when in our world, but Asgard and Jotunheim appear to have been envisaged by an imagination-deficient savant after several watchings of Lord of the Rings and a few leafings through the Encylcopedia of Fantasy & Sci Fi Art.
VERDICT: Kind of dull but an inoffensive way to pass spare hours. Will not be watching it again.