December 8, 2016

Schalcken the Painter (1979)

It is 23 December 1979, and time to watch Schalcken the Painter.

In 17th century Leiden the apprentice painter Godfried Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde) falls in love with his master's niece Rose (Cheryl Kennedy). Before he can marry her she is spirited away by the gaunt and mysterious Vanderhausen (Justin Jones), sparking off a mystery involving the supernatural, horrifying apparitions and possibly even Death himself.

Schalcken the Painter is yet another Christmas-time horror film produced by the BBC. In 1979, seeing that the long-running annual series A Ghost Story for Christmas had been cancelled, producer/director Leslie Megahey took the opportunity to provide a replacement. This 70-minute period thriller, which acts as a fine replacement for the cancelled series, created a minor controversy within the BBC at the time. Megahey had recently assumed control of the documentary series Omnibus, and allocated part of its budget to this film on the grounds that - as it focused on the real-life Schalcken as well as his teacher Gerrit Dou - it could tenuously qualify as docudrama. As it is a fictional ghost story, one adapted from a Sheridan Le Fanu short story, it makes for terrible docudrama. As yet another supernatural chiller for the Christmas season, it's rather wonderful.

December 7, 2016

The Pull List: 7 December 2016, Part 1

Okay, so every 90 years twelve gods are reborn in the bodies of young twentysomethings, who then boast supernatural powers and draw huge crowds of followers before dying after two years. We used to think it was some kind of natural order thing, but it turns out an immortal named Ananke - who ostensibly wakes and guides them - has actually been killing them to avert 'the Great Darkness'. Now one of these young gods, Persephone, has stone-cold murdered Ananke, leaving the future for the surviving gods (down to 10) very much unknown.

It's a nice and ridiculously blunt bit of symbolism to begin this new story arc on New Year's Day. The old reign under Ananke is gone, and quite frankly anything could happen going forwards. That makes it a pretty exciting time to be a Wicked + the Divine (or WicDiv) reader. It's a particularly uncertain future for Laura - now reborn as Persephone. She was our protagonist, but can we even really trust her any more?

Jamie McKelvie's subtle, expressive art is so good at capturing emotion and character. He is one of my all-time favourite comic book artists. Kieron Gillen's script is smart and beautifully paced. The ideas are phenomenal. I found WicDiv was struggling a little about a year ago but this issue feels like a phenomenal return to form. (5/5)

The Wicked + the Divine #24. Image. Written by Kieron Gillen. Art by Jamie McKelvie. Colours by Matthew Wilson.

Under the cut: reviews of Aquaman, The Electric Sublime, and Faith.

December 6, 2016

Star Trek: Voyager: "Faces"

It is 8 May 1995, and time for another episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

Torres (Roxann Dawson) and Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) are captured by the Vidiians. In an attempt to cure the Phage with Klingon dna, a Vidiian scientist (Brian Markinson) uses advanced technology to split Torres in two - one version fully human, and the other fully Klingon.

Despite some neat ideas around the edges, and a solid guest performance by Brian Markinson, "Faces" never quite escapes its ridiculous and hokey premise. 'B'Elanna Torres gets split into two' is some a-grade sci-fi nonsense, and was probably unsaveable at the conceptual level. The production team, including writers Jonathan Glassner and Kenneth Biller, deserve credit for giving the story their best shot, but I strongly suspect it was not a workable premise with which to begin.

The Ash Tree (1975)

It is 23 December 1975, and time for another annual episode of A Ghost Story for Christmas.

Sir Richard Fell (Edward Petherbridge) inherits the country seat of Castringham, and intends to settle there with his new wife Augusta (Lalla Ward). The house is cursed, however, and the longer Sir Richard stays there the more consumed he becomes with visions of his ancestor Matthew Fell who condemned a woman to death for witchcraft.

Another M.R. James short story gets a Christmas-time short feature, courtesy of director Lawrence Gordon Clark. The film is based on a script by playwright and screenwriter David Rudkin, whose other film and television works include Fahrenheit 451, Artemis 81 and Penda's Fen. While it boasts some nice horror imagery, and a particularly unexpected climax, it is the weakest of the three Ghost Story films I have seen to date.

December 5, 2016

David Bowie: Blackstar (2016)

Blackstar is David Bowie's 25th studio album, released back on 8 January to widespread acclaim. Two days later, and without warning, David Bowie was dead, succumbing to a liver cancer that he had deliberately kept quiet from the public and the press.

The death of such a hugely talented and influential artist overshadowed his final work. It was impossible for me, at any rate, to listen to Blackstar without dwelling on its creator's passing. David Bowie was and remains one of my all-time favourite performance artists. His music was astonishingly good. His various styles and performing identities were groundbreaking and near-unique. The album and the artist are irrevocably united now in his death.

That is clearly a deliberate choice on Bowie's part. It is typical of an artist of his kind to not only plan his own funeral, but to transform it into an artistic event at the same time. The album was fantastic for two days, and then upon hearing it following Bowie's death the entire work took on a new significance. Lyrics suddenly meant different things. Even the term 'blackstar' refers to a form of cancerous tumour.

Alien Nation (1988)

Los Angeles, 1991. A year after a massive alien spacecraft lands in the Mojave Desert, a population of 300,000 humanoid aliens - known as "Newcomers" - have settled in the city. A human police detective, Matthew Sykes (James Cann), is teamed with the police department's first Newcomer detective George Francisco (Mandy Patinkin) on a homicide investigation.

Science fiction is a great genre for allegory, and that's pretty much what we are dealing with in Alien Nation. It is, for all intents and purposes, a buddy cop movie with a focus on Los Angeles racism, but rather than pick up racism against Latinx or African-American communities it fictionalises the issue completely.

It is a rather clever conceit, and the Newcomers themselves look great in terms of make-up design, and it work very well to paper over the tremendously stereotypical cops-versus-drug-lords narrative underneath.

December 4, 2016

The Pull List: 30 November 2016

I have a rather ambivalent reaction to comic book annuals, since they usually only exist to fill in gaps in the weekly schedule when a month has a fifth week. They're longer than a usual book, sure, but in recent years that doesn't mean more story but rather more splash pages and a lower panel-per-page count. That is certainly the case with Superman Annual #1, the first DC annual (along with Batman, see below the cut) for the DC Rebirth period. The story is short, but the page count is comparatively long. In the end I feel somewhat ripped off by the US$4.99 price tag.

It must be said that Jorge Jimenez's artwork does a pretty sensational job, despite my general dislike of big splash pages and low panel counts. Superman investigates the disappearance of water from the farmland around his home, and stumbles upon Swamp Thing - who has arrived because he has sensed this new Superman is not properly connected to the world he inhabits. In true superhero fashion there is a misunderstanding and they wind up fighting. Plotwise it is pretty ordinary stuff. It does tease a bit of the slow-developing Rebirth arc, but not in any particularly intriguing way. It is a nice combination of characters, however, and does a reasonably entertaining job. I just wish DC would do a better job with their annuals than this: I want either a longer story, or a couple of shorter ones, and not just a normal length one-shot inflated by big pictures. (2/5)

Superman Annual #1. DC Comics. Written by Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason. Art by Jorge Jimenez. Colours by Alejandro Sanchez.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman, Black Widow, Doctor Who: The Third Doctor, MASK, Ms Marvel, Saga and Seven to Eternity.

December 3, 2016

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Relics"

It is 12 October 1992, and time for another episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Enterprise stumbles upon a dyson sphere, a huge spherical construction enclosing an entire star and producing a staggering large living environment on the sphere's interior surface. Embedded into the exterior of the sphere is a 75 year-old Starfleet vessel, with its transporter still recycling the same pattern. When La Forge (LeVar Burton) successfully beams the pattern out of the transporter, it is revealed to be legendary engineer Captain Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (James Doohan) - decades out of his own time.

After the huge success found in bringing Spock to The Next Generation is Season 5, the same trick is attempted again in "Relics". Scotty comes to the 24th century and is immediately paired up with his future replacement Geordi La Forge. At the same time the episode plays with the idea of the dyson sphere, which is one of my favourite pieces of 'out there' engineering concepts. In the end neither concept seems to get exploited quite as well as it could have been, but there is still an awful lot of fun to be had in watching Scotty interact with the Next Generation characters.