November 30, 2015

Doctor Who: "The Eleventh Hour"

It's 3 April 2010 and time for more Doctor Who.

The Doctor (Matt Smith) has just regenerated. The TARDIS needs time to repair itself. His sonic screwdriver has shorted out. Now, without ship, tools or even running at full capacity, he has 20 minutes to save the planet Earth before the alien Atraxi incinerate it completely.

"The Eleventh Hour" was in a pretty difficult position when it first aired. Doctor Who returned to television in 2005 under the control of executive producer Russell T Davies, who successfully re-introduced the series to audiences and updated its format and tone to fit a 21st century audience. Under star David Tennant Doctor Who became the most popular it had been in the United Kingdom since Tom Baker was in the role. That all came to a climax with the enormously over-the-top two-part serial "The End of Time", broadcast over Christmas and New Year. Then suddenly it was all gone: Tennant left, Davies left, the most recent companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) was already gone. Steven Moffat took over and immediately had to find a new Doctor, a new companion, and a way of ensuring viewers didn't leave the series they had grown to like so much.

For good measure Moffat also changed the TARDIS sets, the opening titles, the narrative style and the general aesthetic of the series. A completely new Doctor Who in almost every respect.

Fires on the Plain (2014)

In the final days of World War II, a bullied soldier suffering from tuberculosis makes his way through the Filipino jungle in the hope of reaching his evacuation point in time. On his journey he encounters local guerillas, hides from the American military, and discovers the frightening extent to which desperate, starving men will go in order to survive.

That's the premise of Ooka Shohei's 1951 novel Fires on the Plain, which formed the basis for Kon Ichikawa's 1959 film of the same name. While Ichikawa's film received a mixed response upon its original release it has since been re-evaluated as one of the best Japanese films ever made. It would be a foolhardy venture for any filmmaker to attempt adapting the novel again with such an acclaimed film with which to compete. Thankfully Shinya Tsukamoto was up to the challenge.

Tsukamoto is one of the shining lights of Japanese independent cinema. His films are all either self or privately funded. They usually have an experimental edge and a confronting rough-hewn quality to them. His debut feature Tetsuo: The Iron Man became an international cult hit - so much so that he's generally better known and appreciated outside of Japan than within it. Last year he finally achieved a life ambition: to adapt Shohei's novel, which he first read in high school, in an all-new film.

November 29, 2015

Doctor Who: "Heaven Sent"

Clara is dead, and the Doctor has been teleported to a mysterious castle. It's thousands of years old. Its walls keep shifting and transforming. There are television monitors everywhere, showing the point of view of a shambling, hooded creature that is slowly stalking the Doctor. There is no escape.

Let's talk about Steven Moffat. When Doctor Who finally returned to television in 2005 it was Moffat who seemed most highly praised. His two-part story "The Empty Child" was seen by many as the best of the first season, and then he continued to impress fans and viewers with "The Girl in the Fireplace", "Silence in the Library" and particularly his Season 3 episode "Blink" - widely regarded as the single-best episode of 21st century Doctor Who. Who knows? Maybe the best ever.

When he assumed control of the entire series in 2010 things seemed to suddenly get a lot more contentious. Some fans bristled at the sudden excess of sexual innuendo. Others loathed his choice for a new Doctor. Still more hated his baffling, time-twisted story arcs. I personally loathed Clara Oswald. I tried, I gave her many chances and over her two-and-a-half seasons she did admittedly improve. I still didn't like her.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Data's Day"

It's 7 January 1991, and time for more Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In a personal log sent to a Starfleet researcher, Commander Data (Brent Spiner) recounts the events of a single 24-hour period onboard the USS Enterprise. It's a day that involves a wedding, a birth, learning to dance, a mysterious Vulcan ambassador and the possibility of peace between the Federation and the Romulan Empire.

All the way back in 1972 the TV comedy M*A*S*H turned a lot of heads with its inventive first season episode "Dear Dad", in which Hawkeye narrated a letter to his father about the goings-on at his field hospital. The episode was so popular that M*A*S*H returned to the format on what seemed like an annual basis. I'm guessing the writers room at Star Trek: The Next Generation liked the "Dear Dad" format as well, because they've stolen it for "Data's Day" - and it's marvellous.

November 28, 2015

The Pull List: 25 November 2015, Part II

Professional wrestling is such a wonderful backdrop for drama that it's amazing it's been used so rarely. Darren Aronofsky famous used it as the basis for his award-winning film The Wrestler, but there's been no wrestling-based TV drama to date and until this week no real attempt to use the sport in a monthly comic book.

Ringside, then, has a great foundation to it. The book follows a former pro wrestler, Dan Knossos, who rushes home to California from Japan on an urgent - but as-yet undisclosed - mission. It's a canny mixture of wrestling drama and crime story, and this cleverly plotted first issue gives the reader just enough of both. Personally I'm gripped, and can't wait to read what happens in the next few issues. If writer Joe Keatinge is smart, and this book gives every indication that he is, then this is going to be a great mixture of gritty crime with a behind-the-scenes showcase of just how the wrestling industry works.

Nick Barber's art is beautifully sparse, using one pen stroke where a less confident artist would use five. It gives the book a nicely stripped-down look, a look helped in no small measure by Simon Gough's faded colours.

There's a huge amount of promise in this book. I'm really keen to see it develop. (4/5)

Image. Written by Joe Keatinge. Art by Nick Barber. Colours by Simon Gough.

Under the cut:reviews of Chewbacca, The Fuse and We Are Robin.

R100 (2013)

Takafumi Katayama (Nao Omori) is a meek furniture salesman. His wife is in a coma at a nearby hospital. His father-in-law helps with raising his young son. Lacking excitement in his life, Katayama signs up to a local bondage club - only there's a catch. His contract with the club will last one year, he cannot break it at any time, and leather-clad dominatrices may strike at any time to beat him senseless. On the street, in the park, in his house, at his workplace - before long Katayama is desperate to escape.

Writer/director Hitoshi Matsumoto is a stand-up comedian turned film-maker. He has directed four feature films to date. About a year ago I watched his second film, Symbol, and found it to be one of the most delightfully strange films I had seen in years. R100 is his fourth film, and while it's pretty much as odd and bizarre a movie as Symbol was I think it shows a major development in tone and range for Matsumoto. This film is not quite what it represents itself to be.

November 27, 2015

The Storm Warriors (2009)

The Storm Riders was a 1998 wuxia film directed by Andrew Lau. It was based on the hugely popular Hong Kong comic book Fung Wan by Ma Wing-shing, starred popular movie stars Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng and made then-ground breaking use of computer graphics to recreate the comic's thrilling fantasy elements. It was a rare Hong Kong film that actually found an international audience, and audiences back home eagerly awaited the arrival of a sequel.

I'm not sure anybody was initially expecting a sequel to take 11 years, but in 2009 a second Fung Wan film did hit the cinemas. It was the work of a different production company, had new directors Danny and Oxide Pang, but did manage to reunite Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng as the overly dramatic super-warriors Cloud and Wind.

A synopsis of the film feels a bit superfluous: it's a story about the evil Japanese general Lord Godless invading China, and Wind and Cloud teaming up with other sword-wielding warriors Ghostly Tiger, Nameless and Second Dream to defeat him. Wind turns evil, forcing Cloud to fight against him for the future of the nation.

The Pull List: 25 November 2015, Part I

Saga fans the world over must be relieved to see that the comic's lengthy hiatus - it feels like the longest yet - is at an end, and another six issues are on their way. The first dropped into stores this week, and is a wonderfully entertaining book.

We pick up the story two years on from where we left it. Alana and Marko are nowhere to be seen. Hazel is now four years old, and living inside a prison with her incarcerated grandmother and a bunch of other children of various species. It's a striking change of pace, and signifies what might be a rather different story arc for the book. Don't get me wrong - the tone is the same, and Fiona Staples' artwork is stunning and distinctive as always. It just feels like we're getting a slightly different story for a while.

Two things leaped out immediately. Firstly it's great to have Izabel back. The bright-red ghost was one of my favourite elements in the series' earlier issues, and it feels like she's been gone for ages. Secondly, this feels like the point where Hazel is going to take centre stage as the protagonist of her own story. She's narrated it since issue #1, but until now has been too young to really affect or drive the plot in any great way. It feels like that has started to change.

This is a great series, and will it's had its ups and down like most long-running books, it feels as if it's in a very strong, enjoyable space for now. It's great to have it back. (5/5)

Image. Written by Brian K. Vaughn. Art by Fiona Staples.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman & Robin Eternal, Darth Vader, Robin: Son of Batman, and Silver Surfer.