December 22, 2013

Star Trek Enterprise: "Twilight"

Twelve years after an accident stripped Captain Archer of his long-term memories, the 9,000 surviving members of the human race hide from the Xindi in the Ceti Alpha system. When Dr Phlox returns with a means of restoring Archer's memories, he discovers that it may in fact be possible to change the course of history and save the planet Earth after all.

"Twilight" is the sort of episode that Star Trek does all the time, in which characters get to experience an entire lifetime in the course of an episode before everything is reset in the final few minutes. How much you enjoy "Twilight" will depend to a large extent on how tired you are with this kind of story. The Next Generation did it with "The Inner Light", Deep Space Nine with "The Visitor" and Voyager with "The Year of Hell". It's about time Enterprise took its own bucket to that particular well.

December 21, 2013

The Cat Returns (2002)

The Cat Returns, like almost all Studio Ghibli animated productions, leaves you grinning from ear to ear. It fills you with warmth. It is one of these films that feels like a breath of fresh air, full of engaging characters, warm comedy and is an absolute delight from beginning to end. A shy, awkward high school student named Haru is walking home when she saves a cat from being hit by a truck. Much to her surprise, the cat stands on two legs, thanks her for saving it, and promises she will receive a reward. It isn’t long before Haru is being showered from all sides by catnip, boxes of live mice and – most unexpectedly of all – an expectation and demand that she marry the cat she rescued, actually the Crown Prince of a magical Cat Kingdom.

The Cat Returns is very obliquely spun out from an earlier Ghibli production, 1995’s Whisper of the Heart. Fans were clamouring to see more of that film’s internal fantasy sequences. A desire to accommodate those demands, coupled with an abortive plan to create a cat-oriented 20 minute short film for a Japanese theme park, led to the development of this film. Whisper of the Heart creator Aoi Hiragi had been commissioned to develop a manga based on the short, and when The Cat Returns mutated from a short into a feature it was Hiragi’s manga that was used as a starting point.

December 20, 2013

The Pull List: 18 December 2013

Daredevil #34 sees Matt Murdock reunite with his ex-girlfriend to save New York from the elusive Sons of the Serpent. The last two issues were a bit strange, with a segue to the southern USA and an encounter with a group of rogue monsters, but this issue snaps everything back into focus with the sort of faultless, immensely satisfying climax that you'd expect from Mark Waid. It has great, action-oriented artwork by Javier Rodriguez and more than one moment of perfect characterisation.

This volume of Daredevil has been one of the best things Marvel has published in years. It's got two issues to go, and this will leave it with a brilliant three-year arc that's hopefully going to be remembered as one of the character's all-time high water marks. It's genuinely been that good.

Sadly Daredevil relaunches early next year with a new issue #1 and a new- no, wait, actually the same creative team. Why relaunch it? This has been a consistently excellent seller for Marvel, with critical raves, and there is absolutely no reason to renumber the book than to sell a few extra copies of the first issue (which will, in all honesty, may as well be issue #35). While this issue is faultless, I am getting mightily bored of Marvel's constantly relaunches and renumberings. It gets even worse for a book like X-Men Legacy, which is getting relaunched and renumbered as well, only from issue #300 rather than #1. (5/5)
Marvel. Written by Mark Waid. Art by Javier Rodriguez.

Under the cut: reviews of All-New X-Men, Batman and Two-Face, Black Science, The Massive, Revival, Saga, Star Wars Legacy, Thor: God of Thunder, Umbral, Wonder Woman and Young Avengers.

December 19, 2013

Star Trek Enterprise: "The Shipment"

Armed with fresh intelligence, Captain Archer leads an away team to an isolated Xindi colony. There they find a manufacturing facility preparing the contents for the Xindi super-weapon - as well as face the revelation that not all Xindi are as evil as they had assumed.

"The Shipment" is a highly archetypal Star Trek episode, in which a group of Starfleet officers travel down to a planet and confront a moral quandary once there. Archer is driven to destroy the Xindi's new weapon before it can annihilate Earth, but he is not prepared for the discovery that the people manufacturing the weapon's fuel don't actually have a clue what their work is for. The core of the episode is a conversation between Archer and the facility supervisor, Gralik, where they learn about each other's cultures and come to a greater understanding. This sort of thing is what Star Trek does best, and as a result "The Shipment" is a pretty entertaining episode.

December 18, 2013

Five Films: Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner's had an odd sort of career. He took quite a few years before he hit the big time, and for a while in the early 1990s was one of America's most famous and commercially successful movie stars. Films such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and The Bodyguard were commercial hits while being perhaps less well received critically. In 1995 Costner starred in the sci-fi action film Waterworld, which got ridiculed in the press for its out-of-control budget before underperforming in cinemas. After that his career kind of went into a bit of a freefall: costly misfires like The Postman made him seem pretentious and arrogant, and while he's never stopped working it's been harder and harder for him to find a keen audience.

Thankfully he seems to be undergoing a bit of a resurgence in popularity. He had a showy supporting role in this year's Man of Steel, and his performance in the stellar 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys earned him both an Emmy and a Golden Globe. Early next year he co-stars in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit before appearing in an additional four features films before the year is out.

I've always liked Costner as an actor and indeed as a producer and director: these are my five favourite performances by who I consider to be America's most underrated male actor.

December 17, 2013

Bodyguards and Assassins (2009)

In 1906 Hong Kong a team of pro-democracy revolutionaries secretly prepare for the arrival of their leader, Dr Sun Yat-sen. At the same time, a representative of the empire makes preparations of his own – not to greet or defend Dr Sun, but to assassinate him. When these two forces collide the result is a blistering gauntlet through the streets of Hong Kong, in an effort to keep the revolutionary leader alive.

Bodyguards and Assassins is without question a propaganda picture. Not only does it concern itself with the foundation of China as a democratic republic, its plot presents to us in detail the nobility of sacrificing one’s life for the ideals of such a republic. This makes it a ridiculously Chinese film, rich with Confucian ideals and pro-communist rhetoric. One’s enjoyment of the film is therefore conditional on how one responds to this sort of emphatic patriotism. If the overriding political intentions of Bodyguards and Assassins do make it difficult for some viewers to watch, this is a shame. Director Teddy Chen has created an exceptional motion picture. It is full of rich, engaging performances and wonderfully vivid photography.

December 16, 2013

Doctor Who: "The Survivors"

The Doctor, Ian and Susan continue their search for Barbara, only to be ambushed by the mysterious city's residents: mechanical robot-like creatures known as Daleks. After being taken prisoner, the Doctor surmises the reason that they are all feeling sick: they are suffering from radiation poisoning. With the Daleks' permission, Susan is sent back into the stone forest to retrieve medication from the TARDIS before it is too late.

Apart from a brief cameo by a single sucker arm in the previous week's cliffhanger, this episode features the first appearance in Doctor Who by the Daleks. They completely changed the series, became a national phenomenon over the following two years and even today are arguably more famous than the television series they came from. Once you get over the immensity of the moment, however, it turns out that the Daleks are a bit of a surprise.

December 15, 2013

The Pull List: 11 December 2013

As the Big Two rationalise and relaunch their comic book lines (Animal Man and Batman: The Dark Knight just got the axe, plus Marvel are relaunching pretty much everything in January), brand is becoming increasingly important. Why should Marvel launch a new and original team book when they can just launch a new variation of Avengers? (For the record, in December Marvel are releasing Avengers, Avengers AI, Avengers Assemble, Marvel Universe Avengers Assemble, Mighty Avengers, Secret Avengers, Young Avengers and New Avengers. In January they add Avengers World.) Why should DC try to rework Legion of Super-Heroes when they can replace it with Justice League 3000?

Yep, this is the Justice League of the 31st century, replacing the Legion with five genetically replicated clones of Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Diana Prince, Hal Jordan and Barry Allen. Led by Teri and Terri, the "Wonder Twins", they're launched in a fight to save the galaxy from tyranny or somesuch.

This issue pretty much hinges on one clever concept, which is 'what would DC's greatest heroes be like if they didn't have the upbringings of their original versions?' Imagine a Superman who lacks the humility and humanity he learned via a childhood with the Kents. What is Batman like if he doesn't get motivated by the death of his parents? Think of a Wonder Woman who never lived among humans. It's a clever concept, but it's also a very stupid concept, because the answer to the question turns out to be 'well, DC, what you get is a comic book populated by complete assholes'. At one point the Flash asks "Am I the only one who thinks this is the stupidest idea ever?" No, Barry, no you are not.

This is early days, and certainly the book's saving grace is some stunning and quite different artwork by Howard Porter, but I'm not entirely certain this book is going to fly in the long-term. At a sensible US$2.99 per issue, however, I'm happy to wait for a few months to find out. (2/5)

DC Comics. Written by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis. Art by Howard Porter.

Under the cut: reviews of Batgirl, Batman, Cataclysm: Ultimate Spider-Man, FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics, Katana, Manifest Destiny, Star Trek, Star Wars, Three and Worlds' Finest.

December 12, 2013

The best comic book covers of 2013

There's a lot of pressure riding on a comic book cover. It's got to grab the attention of potential readers from the shelf while surrounded by hundreds of competing titles. It has to sell the tone of the book inside and entice the reader to pick it up. I've been picking out and posting my favourite comic book covers all year over on Pinterest, but with the year wrapping up in a few short weeks I figured it was time to pick out my 10 favourite covers for 2013.
These aren't necessarily from the best books of the year, and they may not even be from books that I've actually read (although a quick check just revealed that I did indeed buy nine of my top 10 covers this year). They are, however, my personal favourites.

December 11, 2013

Leaving Megalopolis (2013)

I'm a huge fan of Kickstarter, the crowd-sourcing service that enables artists and enterprising individuals to go directly to their audiences and hit them up for support. Thanks to Kickstarter and its fellow crowdsourcing sites I've purchased a truckload of plastic fantasy miniatures, a wordless pencil-sketched giant robot graphic novel, a Spanish comic book about dwarves, the complete history of Sensible Software and a card game based on Moby Dick.

Leaving Megalopolis is a graphic novel written by Gail Simone with art by Jim Calafiore. It follows a small group of survivors as they try to escape the fictional American city of Megalopolis. Something has happened, and the book gradually explains what, but basically all of its superheroes are now killing the population for fun. Structurally this is exactly like a zombie movie, with a disparate band struggling to escape monsters while collapsing from within. The difference is that you can run away from a zombie. You can't run away from a psychopathic version of the Flash. Or Wonder Woman. Or Superman.

December 10, 2013

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (2012)

I am a big fan of animation, and I'm particularly taken with stop-motion animation. There's something wonderfully tactile about using physical puppets and models and photographing them, frame by frame. It must take extraordinary patience to create these films, and the inventiveness of the designs and the characters always impresses me. Probably the gold standard in stop motion is Aardman Animations, whose directors have given the world Morph, Chicken Run and the rightfully famous Wallace and Gromit series.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! is their most recent feature film, following an abortive shift into CGI with Flushed Away (2006). The film follows the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) and his crew of ham-obsessed scoundrels as they encounter Charles Darwin (David Tennant), go on the run from Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) with a pet dodo, and do their best to win the Captain the coveted Pirate of the Year Award. It's tremendously British, and tremendously silly, and those two factors in tandom help to make it simply tremendous.

December 9, 2013

Babylon 5: "Severed Dreams"

With a military coup d'etat against President Clark ending in failure, two surviving military resistance cruisers arrive at Babylon 5. With senators getting arrested back home, ISN News violently taken off the air and several offworld colonies declaring independence, Captain Sheridan takes matters into his own hands and announces Babylon 5's secession from the Earth Alliance.

Pretty much everything I liked about "Messages from Earth" and "Point of no Return" I continued to like about "Severed Dreams". The President's violent takeover of Earth's government is portrayed in an absolutely stunning manner. I was particularly impressed with the shutdown of ISN News; with the broadcaster featuring fairly prominently throughout the past two-and-a-half seasons it was quite disturbing to see it violently taken off the air by the President's soldiers.

The episode's climax is Babylon 5 at its most cinematic: Earth military forces at odds with one another, engaging in a large-scale firefight around the station. Teams of security personnel and Narn fighting Earthforce commandos in the cargo bays. Exploding spaceships, the apparent certainty of defeat, and then the last-minute salvation in the form of a Minbari battle fleet. This isn't just good Babylon 5, but television space opera at its absolute finest.

December 6, 2013

The Pull List: 4 December 2013

I have always maintained that Superman is the hardest superhero for whom to write. He is almost impossibly over-powered: he can fly, he's super-strong, he's near-invulnerable, he can fly in space without needing to breath, he has x-ray and heat vision, super-speed, icy breath and any number of other less famous powers that have been added over the past 75 years. What challenges a character like that? What poses a genuine threat?

The best writers know that the secret to Superman lies in the 'man' half and not the 'Super' half. He may be super-everything, but he's also honourable, credulous to a fault, saddled with a strict sense of morality and almost perversely naive. It's a personality that Christopher Reeve nailed back in the late 1970s when he played the character for Warner Bros. It's a personality that Zack Snyder and David Goyer seemed to completely miscomprehend when they wrote this year's troublesome Man of Steel movie. It is, however, one that Greg Pak has absolutely nailed in Action Comics.

This is a relief: Action Comics is DC's oldest title still in publication. This issue is the 936th since Superman made his debut in June 1938. If there's any title the company publishes that should be as good as it can possibly be, it's this one. The New 52 relaunch started promisingly with Grant Morrison at the helm, but rapidly declined into a confusing story of alternate dimensions and time travel. An abortive attempt to replace him with Andy Diggle ended before his first issue had even been published. In recent months the title has been acting as a sort of sideline to Scott Lobdell's Superman, with Lobdell writing both titles - that was actively wretched, and saw me drop the title completely until Pak came on board.

This issue is great, reuniting Superman with teenage sweetheart Lana Lang - who's something of a kickass professional in the New 52. There's a fight with a giant monster, another fight with a mysterious government assassin, and a final page hook that has me keen to find out what happens next. Aaron Kuder's artwork is distinctive and quite unusual given the usual over-muscled depictions of Superman we usually see. In short: this is exactly what I want from a Superman comic. This is why he's one of my favourite superheroes. (5/5)

DC Comics. Written by Greg Pak. Art by Aaron Kuder.

Under the cut: reviews of Batwing, Daredevil: Dark Nights, Detective Comics, The Movement, Trillium, X-Men Legacy and Young Avengers. Also released this week was Stormwatch #26, but I've finally dropped this book - there's only so many months of Jim Starlin's godawful rubbish I can take before enough is enough.

December 5, 2013

Babylon 5: "Point of No Return"

Babylon 5's pivotal three-parter continues in "Point of No Return", the episode that just happens to share a title with Season 3 overall. The command crew struggle with an order from Earthforce to hand over control of station security to the Nightwatch, President Clark's insidious and McCarthyesque vigilante organisation. Back on Earth, the senate is dissolved and its senators arrested. Under the command of General Hague sections of the Earthforce military are splintering off and preparing a coup d'etat.

In the middle of all this chaos, Londo Mollari hosts a visit to the station by the late Emperor's third wife Lady Morella (Majel Barrett). Morella is a powerful seer, and her readings of Londo and Vir's future hold surprises for them both.

This is, in many respects, the difficult middle third of a trilogy. Events begins very much up in the air, and while they progress extensively through the episode, things end still very much in an unresolved fashion. It is, however, packed with great performances and very satisfying moments.

The world's longest-running movie franchises

Ask the average movie geek what the world's longest-running movie franchise is, or consult most websites on the topic, and you'll generally get one of two answers: James Bond, or Godzilla. This post is my little contribution to the topic to say that both answers are wrong. A few really ambitious websites appear to suggest that Wong Fei Hung tops the list with a staggering 88 movies as of 2012, however these were most disparate films based on the same character and rarely sequels to one another (Once Upon a Time in China being an obvious exception). If we're playing that game, we'd need to count up all the films adapted from Dracula, Sherlock Holmes and Hamlet as well.

For the purposes of my list I've included reboots as part of the same franchise, because they're generally made by the same producers. I haven't included direct-to-DVD sequels, which puts stalwarts like Hellraiser and The Land Before Time out of the running. So, before going ahead: do you know the answer? What is the world's longest-running movie franchise? Here's what I think are the top 10 (or 11, really, since there are ties):

December 4, 2013

The Wolverine (2013)

Ever since the character was introduced to comics in 1974 Wolverine has been one of Marvel's most popular superheroes. He's an angry Canadian mutant with a metal skeleton, rapid healing powers, apparent immortality and a pair of retractable metal claws that shoot out from his fists when he's really upset. When 20th Century Fox brought the Marvel comic X-Men to the big screen in 2000, it rather predictably put Wolverine - played by Australian actor Hugh Jackman - front and centre. The character continued on screen in X-Men 2 (2003), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and even made a short cameo in X-Men: First Class (2011). In between those last two Fox even launched Wolverine into his own solo franchise with the prequel X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). That was an unremittingly dreadful movie, plagued by a confusing plot that contradicted much of the content of the films it purported to precede, and cursed by silly dialogue and unengaging characters.

Despite its visible, and often risible, faults, X-Men Origins: Wolverine made a fairly decent profit: $373 million worldwide on a $150 million budget. As a result Wolverine returned to the big screen this year with a second solo outing. This time, perhaps in an attempt to separate itself from its poorly reviewed predecessor, the film is simply titled The Wolverine. It boasts a new director in the shape of James Mangold (Copland, Walk the Line) and new writers in the shape of Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) and Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Minority Report). It is also, I think crucially, not another prequel. The Wolverine is the first film to be set after X-Men: The Last Stand, and finally deals with some of the emotional repercussions of that movie.

December 3, 2013

Babylon 5: "Messages from Earth"

A runaway archaeologist arrives in secret on Babylon 5 with urgent news for Captain Sheridan. She recounts how, several years ago, the Earth government uncovered a Shadow vessel buried under the surface of Mars - and how elements within Earth's government colluded with the Shadows to have it recovered. What's more, a second buried ship has now been buried on the moon Io, and this time Earth's President Clark has no intention of giving it back.

Within the traditional three-act narrative, there's what you call a 'midpoint'. It's the turning point for a story that occurs halfway through, where the protagonist will usually make a decision and their ultimate mission becomes clear. "Messages from Earth" is the first part of a marathon three-part story that together form the midpoint of Babylon 5. That makes sense: it's a five-season series and we're pretty much at the mid-point of the third season. These three episodes are entirely about the long-term narrative. Major changes take place. Stakes are raised. Things, as they often say when hyping serialised storytelling, will never be the same again.

December 2, 2013

Babylon 5: "Exogenesis"

One of Marcus Cole's contacts down below goes missing. When Garibaldi refuses to investigate, Marcus applies a little deception to get Dr Franklin to come along on an undercover mission. They uncover a species of strange alien insect that borrow into the spines of human beings and apparently controlling them in an attempt to take over the station. Meanwhile Commander Ivanova meets with a newly promoted lieutenant to see if he's fit to join Sheridan's growing 'army of light'.

This is an unexpectedly good episode of Babylon 5. It begins with a worrying number of science fiction stereotypes and cliches, but then spends a lot of its second half actively inverting and transforming those stereotypes. The result is an episode that feels comfortingly familiar yet also oddly refreshing. It's not going to win any awards, but it's a pleasantly enjoyable hour of science fiction drama.

December 1, 2013

The Pull List: 27 November 2013

It's probably preaching to the choir to say that Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples' Saga is one of the best monthly comics in the market right now. That in mind, I still feel obliged to remind everybody from time to time that this really is one of the closest things to a sure bet in comics today. Every issue is enjoyable, and every issue pushes the narrative forward. The series is regularly filled with inventive ideas, interesting art and wonderfully realised characters. Oh the characters: every time someone new joins the cast they become another one of my favourites.

This weeks issue is particularly good, and very rewarding to the long-term readers, because it does a brilliant job of slotting jigsaw pieces into the overall story precisely when you're not expecting it. It makes sensational use of non-linear storytelling, and brings multiple plot strands together in a way I did not expect. So brilliantly written, brilliantly illustrated and brilliantly surprising.

If you're not reading Saga, either every month, or every few months in trade paperback, I really don't know how to help you. (5/5)

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

Under the cut: reviews of All-New X-Men, All-Star Western, Aquaman, Bedlam, Black Science, The Flash, The Green Team: Teen Trillionaires, Hawkeye, The Massive, Revival and Star Wars Legacy.

Popular Posts: November 2013

More people read something on this blog in November 2013 than in any previous month, so thank you for continuing to read The Angriest. What were people reading? Well, the most popular posts this month were:
  • Game of Thrones: "The Ghost of Harrenhal" (link)
  • Doctor Who: "The Day of the Doctor" (link)
  • Warm Bodies (2013) (link)
  • The Pull List: 23 October 2013 (link)
  • Fun with Stats: Doctor Who viewing figures (link)
As for the most popular posts written in November 2013, it's:
  •  Doctor Who: "The Day of the Doctor" (link)
  • Warm Bodies (2013) (link)
  • An Adventure in Space and Time (2013) (link)
  • Babylon 5: "Dust to Dust" (link)
  • Silent Hill: Revelations (2012) (link)