February 28, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Skin of Evil"

As you may have surmised from the past 20 episode reviews, Star Trek: The Next Generation did not get off to a promising start. The scripts were, in the main, absolutely dreadful. The cast was also relatively large - nine regular actors, all of whom were jostling for screen time and character development. Some actors won out and got quite a bit of attention: Patrick Stewart, understandably, and also Brent Spiner and to an extent Wil Wheaton. One actor who seemed to lose out in particular was Denise Crosby, whose Lieutenant Tasha Yar hadn't received any real opportunities to be showcased. She was having a miserable time, the scripts were dreadful, and there was a general feeling in the air that the series was going to be cancelled before long anyway. So Crosby went to the producers and requested that they release her from her contract.

"Skin of Evil" is, therefore, Tasha's last great hurrah. Does the production team give her a proper send-off? Of course not. This is Season 1, and if there's an opportunity for the team to miss an opportunity, they're going to take it without hesitation. In this episode Tasha Yar is unexpectedly killed by an alien menace about ten minutes in, and the episodes focuses instead on Deanna Troi and Captain Picard.

February 24, 2014

First Love: The Litter on the Breeze (1997)

First Love: The Litter on the Breeze is an oddity: a semi-experimental portmanteau film directed by Eric Kot Man Fai and produced by Wong Kar-Wai. The simplest explanation for the film is that it tells two stories of first love: one of a romance as it begins, and another of a romance long after it ended.

The complicated explanation for the film involves explaining how the film is constantly narrated, interrupted, criticised and apologised for by its director. He talks over a romantic moment to explain how it incorporates his favourite camera shot from the movie. He describes at length all of the different ideas he initially had for the film. In one scene he apologises that actress Karen Mok wasn’t able to make it for the shoot one day, so he’s put on a dress and a wig to stand in for her. The end result of all of these directorial interruptions is a film that is deeply irritating, or at least certainly a film that isn’t half as funny or clever as it seems to think it is. That said, the occasional moment of beauty or clarity slips through – this is a film for those who want to see how experimental Hong Kong cinema can go, or for the die-hard completists following producer Wong Kar-Wai’s career.

February 23, 2014

PSX20 #18: Star Gladiator

PSX20 celebrates the 20th anniversary of Sony's Playstation videogames console by counting down my 20 favourite videogames for that platform. These aren't necessarily the best PSX games ever made, but they are the ones I liked and played the most.

Fighting games probably hit their peak in the 1990s, driven by the big name franchises like Virtua Fighter, Tekken and Soul Blade. While the Sega Saturn arguably got the best of the mid-90s generation of videogame consoles, the PlayStation still got its fair share. I've always enjoyed fighting games, even though I suck at them. One of the reasons I love them so much is their character design: they're almost entirely based around characters, since the backgrounds - while often beautifully constructed - are entirely secondary to the two protagonists beating each other up on screen.

Star Gladiator was never one of the most popular fighting games, but I've always liked it - partly for its great, vivid characters but also because unlike its competitors it was a science fiction game. You don't select your character from a bunch of human martial artists, you select it from a wildly varying array of aliens. Who doesn't like aliens?

February 22, 2014

Exiled (2006)

Johnnie To knocks the ball out of the park once again in Exiled, a crime thriller with a delightfully off-kilter edge. Managing to tread a fine line between multiple genres – action, thriller, drama, comedy – it presents us with a stunning story, a great cast of characters and one utterly memorable and wildly enjoyable film.

It starts in Macau, on the eve of that city’s handover from Portugal to China. Two pairs of hitmen turn up awkwardly at the same address: one pair to murder a runaway from the Hong Kong underworld, the other to protect him. Embarrassingly, all four mobsters have known each other since they were young men. They wind up having dinner with their protectee/target and his wife. For at least two of them, this upsets their boss – who was previously the victim of an assassination attempt by the target. Things rapidly spiral out of control from there.

February 20, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Symbiosis"

'Tonight, on a very special Star Trek: The Next Generation...'

I am going to state right from the outset that this episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation does not get my tick of approval. It's not because it's a pretty tedious and simplistic story (it is). It's not because there's some dodgy acting inside (there is). It's because halfway through the episode the writers make Wesley Crusher and Tasha Yar have positively the worst conversation about drug addiction that I have ever seen. It's the classic 1980s Nancy Reagan-approved 'just say no' speech, which in order for it to be delivered as written required Wil Wheaton and Denise Crosby to portray their characters as naive, simpering morons.

So this is Star Trek: The Next Generation's attempt at a drug addiction allegory, with two alien cultures - one addicted to a medication that they don't really need, and the other purposefully selling them the medication with the full knowledge that it's unnecessary. On the surface it's not a bad concept, but in practice it's an absolute disaster.

February 19, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Arsenal of Freedom"

The Enterprise arrives at the planet Minos in search of the USS Drake, which has gone missing. When an away team beams down to the surface, they discover that Minos is the site of a long-dead civilization of arms merchants, and the automated systems are intent on giving them a lethal demonstration.

Like pretty much all of the watchable episodes of Season 1 "The Arsenal of Freedom" is awkward, a bit scrappy and quite often cringe-worthy, but its heart is in the right place and it does achieve a relatively good amount of entertainment. It's production values let it down quite badly - a standing set rarely convinces as an alien jungle - but it has some nice character moments for Picard, Dr Crusher and La Forge and a small guest appearance by the late, great Vincent Shiavelli.

February 18, 2014

Oscar predictions for 2014

I'm a big fan of the Academy Awards, and usually try to watch it each year - although it gets harder now that they only broadcast the unedited ceremony in Australia during the day, and I have a job. I don't think the Oscars in any way represent the authoritive voice on the best films, performances, scripts, etc, of any given year, but I do think they represent the changing political and personal landscape of Hollywood and the American film industry. Here are my predictions for what's going to win next month.

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave.
Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity.
Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyer's Club.
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine.
Best Supporting Actor: Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips.
Best Supporting Actress: Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine.

Nobody to Watch Over Me (2008)

Nobody to Watch Over Me, which was Japan's official entry to the 2009 Academy Awards (it wasn't shortlisted), is a taut police drama that exposes one of the less attractive aspects of Japanese culture. We often assume law and order is relatively uniform across the developed world, when in fact it can vary considerably. In Japan there is a widespread assumption that if someone is arrested for a crime, then they are almost certainly guilty of it. There is also an enormous prejudice against the accused's family: if you raised a child who committed a crime, then you are by a certain logic also to blame. The families of those accused of serious crimes are hounded by the media, often verbally abused by random strangers, and placed under the most unwelcome of spotlights precisely at a time when they desperately need privacy and peace. People have been known to commit suicide from the stress and the shame. The police are often required to provide protective services.

This strange, pretty unpleasant quirk of Japanese culture forms the basis of Ryoichi Kimizuka's film. A teenage boy is arrested for the murder of two young girls. While he is questioned by the Tokyo police, his 15 year-old sister Saori (Mirai Shida) is placed in the custody of police detective Takumi Katsuura (Koichi Sato). Katsuura is not simply tasked with protecting Saori: he is also expected to get her to talk, and to provide incriminating evidence on her brother.

February 17, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Heart of Glory"

The Enterprise enters the Neutral Zone to rescue a Talarian freighter, only to discover the only survivors are three Klingon warriors. When a Klingon battle cruiser arrives to arrest and capture the three warriors, Worf's allegiances are sorely tested when he is invited to join them.

"Heart of Glory" finally takes Lieutenant Worf out of the background and into the spotlight. With hindsight it's almost impossible to imagine him as a smallish supporting character: after all, between seven seasons of The Next Generation, four feature films and four seasons of Deep Space Nine he's pretty much the longest-running character Star Trek has ever had. Back here in Season 1, however, he's barely had a line of dialogue. The character was a comparatively last-minute addition to the Next Generation cast, with Gene Roddenberry coming up with the admittedly pretty clever idea that a Klingon tactical officer on the Enterprise bridge was a pretty immediate signal that times had changed in the United Federation of Planets. Putting him in the series was one thing, of course. What, then, were the writers supposed to do with him?

February 15, 2014

The Pull List: 13 February 2014

While I've always been more of a DC fan than a Marvel fan, I've always had a place in my heart for She-Hulk. It's not the character so much as the way that she's been written. I first read her adventures via writer John Byrne, who wrote a stunning and inventive series where Jennifer (She-Hulk) would regularly break the fourth wall and address the reader, complain about her predicament and even criticise the writing. It was one of Marvel's best titles at the time.

Later iterations of the title continued to be impressive, albeit less distinctive. Never ashamed to relaunch old hits, Marvel has now added She-Hulk to its growing list of "All-New Marvel Now" first issues, and it hit comic shops both physical and digital this week.

My first impression of the book is that Hawkeye has clearly had an effect on Marvel, because not only have they continued to give its creative a pretty long leash in terms of deadlines and publishing schedules, they're now copying the formula with She-Hulk. Just like Hawkeye shows what Clint Barton does when he isn't fighting in the Avengers, She-Hulk shows what Jennifer Walters does when she isn't fighting in the Avengers or filling in for the Fantastic Four. What she does is practice law.

Yes, stupid as this sounds She-Hulk is a humorous comic book about a lawyer. Think Ally McBeal or L.A. Law, only with a giant super-powered green heroine instead of Calista Flockhart. Javier Pulido's stark, simple art pops off the page and Charles Soule's script absolutely sparkles, and it's all wrapped up in a simply beautiful cover by Kevin Wada.

Marvel has published some outstanding books in recent years, and that list is topped (in my mind) by Hawkeye and Daredevil. She-Hulk is, based on the first issue, just as good as those two books. I hope this one runs and runs - it deserves it. (5/5)

Marvel. Written by Charles Soule. Art by Javier Pulido.

Under the cut: reviews of All-New X-Men, Batgirl, Batman, The Fuse, Justice League 3000, The Mercenary Sea, Thor: God of Thunder and X-Men Legacy.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Coming of Age"

In "Coming of Age", Wesley Crusher undertakes the Starfleet Academy entrance examination, while Captain Picard finds himself under interrogation for his past actions by Admiral Gregory Quinn and his obnoxious assistant Lieutenant Remmick.

I got my hopes up after two half-decent episodes in a row. I figured maybe the kinks in the series had finally been ironed out and it might be... well not straight sailing, because I know for a fact the series doesn't settle down until its third season. I did, however, hope that the worst was behind me.

Sadly "Coming of Age" proves this is not to be the case. It's an episode divided into two halves. In the first half, Wesley enters into what has to be the most bizarre college examination ever devised. Five students are put through a rigorous set of scientific tests, followed by a strange role-play exercise where they must 'face their fears'. At the end of the process, only the highest-ranked student will progress. This seems particularly bizarre: what if two or three of the candidates excel themselves? Does Starfleet only want one of them? Given the rapidity with which young ensigns tend to get killed in the Star Trek universe, you would think Starfleet was falling over itself to get as many cadets as possible. The tests also imply that every Starfleet officer needs to be some kind of scientific genius engineer.

February 14, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy is going to be huge. Here's why.

Marvel Studios have been one of Hollywood's biggest success stories of recent years. Starting with Iron Man in 2008 they have enjoyed an uninterrupted run of eight critical and commercial hits, each one building one the other and culminating in 2012's mammoth hit The Avengers. So far their films have grossed US$5.7 billion dollars worldwide, and they will easily cross the $6 billion mark with their upcoming sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

A lot of people were surprised, however, when Marvel announced that their next film after Winter Soldier was going to be Guardians of the Galaxy. It's a comparatively obscure Marvel Comics property with an ensemble cast, set out among alien planets far away from the vast majority of the more famous superheroes. Its premise demands a massive production budget, yet in terms of brand recognition it's miles behind other potential franchises such as Ant-Man, Doctor Strange or Black Panther. With the enormous popularity of the Hulk in The Avengers you would think a second Incredible Hulk would be a more likely proposition. Despite this Marvel, bless them, have put a significant amount of money and reputation on the line and stuck to their guns: Guardians of the Galaxy opens worldwide in August 2014.

The thing is, I don't think Guardians is a big a risk as some people think. Here are some reasons why.

February 13, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Home Soil"

This is the second of two first season Next Generation episodes that I never saw as a child. Like "Too Short a Season" it does feel like a weird interloper: an episode that, no matter how many times I watch it now, simply doesn't feel like it's supposed to be there. In the case of "Too Short a Season", it hardly seemed worth the decade or so it took me to finally see it. In the case of "Home Soil", it was a wonderful little discovery: I think this might be my favourite Next Generation episode so far.

The Enterprise arrives at the terraforming colony of Velara III. The project head seems remarkably hesitant to allow the Enteprise crew to inspect the facility, and they've barely been on the planet five minutes when one of the technicians is brutally murdered. The subsequent murder investigation uncovers a disturbing truth about Velara III that no one was expecting.

Oblivion (2013)

The year 2077: technician Jack Harper is tasked with repairing security drones in a post-apocalyptic Earth. The human population are all living on Titan while he and his partner Vika oversee the slow mechanical preparations for humanity's return. One day a 60 year-old space module crashes to Earth, and its sole survivor throws Jack's entire life into chaos as he struggles to discover the truth behind his mission and his life.

Oblivion is a film with good ideas and great intentions, but the parts never quite seem to gel together to make a cohesive whole. Part of the problem is the pace: this is a film that regularly drags, backed by a monotonous droning score and populated with characters who all talk in the same slightly intense, slightly measured fashion. It's a style that actually worked very well for Joseph Kosinsky in his previous film, Tron Legacy, but that was set inside a computer. This is supposed to be set in real life. The film's best parts are back-loaded into its final half hour, and it took me quite an amount of effort to set through the preceding 90 minutes to get there.

February 12, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "When the Bough Breaks"

The Enterprise stumbles upon the mythical planet of Aldea, home to a high technology colony that has used cloaking technology to hide their existence for centuries. After Picard refuses to sell the Enterprise's children to members of the colony, the children are suddenly kidnapped - and the Enterprise is sorely outmatched in the fight to get them back.

The drama of "When the Bough Breaks" hinges on what I've always felt was one of the sillier aspects of Star Trek: The Next Generation: the idea that people would bring their families along with them when serving onboard. Pretty much any single hour of The Next Generation demonstrates why this is a potentially very foolish idea. The Enterprise is always in peril. It's getting shot at, or thrown billions of light years into deep space, or nearly gets hit by an exploding sun, or the crew gets infected by an alien virus - and these are just things from the first 15 episodes. While it's obviously traumating for the crew to lose a bunch of their children to the Aldeans, there are certainly far worse things that could have happened, and I can't entirely avoid blaming the parents for putting their kids in harms way in the first place.

PSX20 #19: Sheep, Dog 'n' Wolf

PSX20 celebrates the 20th anniversary of Sony's Playstation videogames console by counting down my 20 favourite videogames for that platform. These aren't necessarily the best PSX games ever made, but they are the ones I liked and played the most.

This pick is maybe a contentious choice, given the large number of original IP created for the PSX. Despite that, I simply can't go past it. Sheep, Dog 'n' Wolf (released in the USA as Sheep Raider) is an adaptation of Warner Bros' iconic animated shorts in which a wolf strives to steal sheep from under the nose of an ultra-vigilant sheepdog. Now videogames based on cartoons are a dime a dozen. They're generally generic platformers and they are - almost without exception - generic cookie-cutter cash-ins, produced without inventiveness and enthusiasm and relying purely on their connection to a popular cartoon to sell the product.

This one's an exception. It's got a lot of clever gameplay, and unlike most adaptations it positively nails what it is that makes the original shorts so entertaining.

February 11, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Too Short a Season"

I always find this a weird episode to watch. Let me explain why. Back in the late 1980s Paramount started releasing Star Trek: The Next Generation onto VHS in Australia, with two episodes on each tape. This is how I originally watched The Next Generation, renting each tape from the local video library as they came out. In total they released 12 volumes - 23 episodes, including the double-length pilot. The thing is, and I honestly didn't realise this for some years, Star Trek: The Next Generation has 25 episodes. "Too Short a Season" and "Home Soil" were never released. I've seen both of those episodes much less often than the rest of the season (although, to be honest, I haven't watched this season at all in about decade). They still feel weird, like sneaky little extra episodes that aren't really supposed to be there.

In the case of "Too Short a Season", not seeing it back in 1988 wasn't a great loss. It's not the worst episode of the season - far from it - but it's also fairly dull, hopelessly predictable and a bit of a chore to get through. On an alien planet, terrorists have taken hostages. The planet's governor demands that an elderly Starfleet admiral return to the planet, where he once negotiated peace, to plead for the hostages' release. While the Enterprise transports the admiral, he undergoes a startling transformation - he's mysteriously getting younger.

February 10, 2014

Robocop (2014)

When should Hollywood make remakes? Never? Occasionally? Or should it be an open season? Studios I suspect are fully for the latter. They make a lot of sense, since one of the biggest challenges in marketing a major motion picture is developing a large enough brand awareness that a mass audience will go and see it. If they already know the property - the title, the tone, the characters - then the studio has won half of the battle.

If you're a hardcore film geek, your answer is probably the first one. There's an understandable snobbery about remakes, since many of them turn out to be awful. Of course very few of those geeks ever step back and consider that, if we're being honest, most films turn out to be awful whether they're original, sequels, adaptations or remakes. It's just more noticeable with a remake, because there's a reasonable chance that we the viewers have fond memories of the original film.

Robocop is a case in point. The original was a commercial hit and has developed into a cult smash. Its fans quote lines of dialogue. You can still buy collectors' action figures of the title character. It spawned two TV series, a cartoon, a pair of sequels, some computer games and a bunch of comic books. For MGM to remake such an iconic film is understandable, since its brand remains very strong, but it's also foolhardy because much of their target market are going to despise the film on principle.

February 9, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "11001001"

The Enterprise returns to spacedock after several months exploring the galaxy. A group of cybernetic aliens called Bynars are brought onboard to supervise the re-calibration of the Enterprise's computer systems - only once left to their own devices they steal the ship, with an unwitting Picard and Riker still onboard.

First and foremost, I love that the title of this episode is in binary. It's rather amusing and really makes it stand out among some of the more boring episode titles this season. It's also fun to say out loud: 'I watched an episode of Star Trek the other day. Which one? Oh, it was one one zero zero one zero zero one.' Sadly it's more fun to say the title than it is to watch the episode. There's a reasonable idea here, but as is often the case with these early Next Generation episodes the execution is an enormous faceplant on the television screen.

Shield of Straw (2013)

Japan: a seven year-old girl has been murdered. The victim's grandfather announces a one billion yen bounty on the killer's life, and it's up to a small police unit to protect the killer until he can be taken to the district attorney's office in Tokyo and formally charged for the murder. With everyone a potential assailant, including other police officers, it will take a miracle to get the killer to Tokyo alive.

Shield of Straw is a slick, commercial action-thriller directed by Takashi Miike. It's the sort of film that screams 'Hollywood remake' for its first five minutes. If indeed it is remade, I suspect the Hollywood version will have a faster pace and be less morally ambiguous. This will be a shame, because Miike has directed a much more interesting film than it's premise might suggest. It sneaks up on you, disguised as populist cinema, and then king-hits you from behind. In narrative terms, this is a simple movie. In its treatment of the story, however, it's remarkably bleak.

February 8, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Angel One"

There is an old science fiction trope in which characters arrive on a planet where women rule the land, and all men are meek and subservient. It's a ridiculous and widely derided trope, of course, because it doesn't really explore or investigate anything. All it really shows is a male fear of female power, based on a faulty premise: the opposite of patriarchal oppression is not matriarchal oppression but rather an absence of oppression at all. The resolution of the story is almost inevitably the realisation that women do need men, and it's almost always a male character who makes the women realise this.

This tedious trope continues to rear its head from time time. It was tackled by Gene Roddenberry's own Earth II, as well as episodes of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Sliders and even The Two Ronnies. It was only a last-minute script change in 1969 that prevented Doctor Who from having its own version of the "women rule the planet" story. Sadly no such script change saved Star Trek: The Next Generation from "Angel One".

February 7, 2014

The Pull List: 5 February 2014

Credit where it's due: while Marvel may struggle with publishing successful comics with female protagonists, it's not through lack of trying. Not only are they shortly relaunching Captain Marvel to give it a publicity boost, they're also reviving former title Ms. Marvel with new character and a fresh angle. The last Ms. Marvel has graduated to becoming Captain Marvel, and the new Ms. Marvel is Turkish-American Kamala Khan.

This book received a lot of advance publicity on account of the fact that Kamala Khan is a Muslim. While it's refreshing to see religious diversity in American comics, I'm more interested in the fact that Kamala is a great, well-written character. She's immediately likeable, funny and rather sweet. She's also a fan of superheroes, and it's hilarious seeing that expressed (although I should point out that superhero slash in the Marvel Universe is a lot skeezier than Marvel slash fiction in the real world - for us they're fictional characters, whereas for Kamala they're actual people, and real person slash is something I find deeply inappropriate and sleazy).

Plotwise this is basically a nice introduction to the lead character, with a last page lead-in to the superheroic stuff next issue. It's rather by-the-numbers, albeit with some interesting stuff about how a Muslim teenager interacts with her non-Muslim classmates.

Adrian Alphona has a nice cartoony style that suits the teenage characters. It reminded me quite a lot of Runaways, so it wasn't a surprise when I looked him up and discovered he was indeed the artist on that comic as well. There's a hallucinatory sequence at the book's climax that Alphona just knocks out of the park. I really hope he sticks on the title as regular artist, because it really works.

This is a very solid and enjoyable first issue, and is certainly good enough to warrant picking up the second when it comes out. Here's hoping that with Ms. Marvel we have a female superhero comic that sticks around for a while. (4/5)

Marvel. Written by G. Willow Wilson. Art by Adrian Alphona.

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Batwing, Black Widow, Detective Comics, Forever Evil and Trillium.

PSX20 #20: Dino Crisis

In 2014 Sony's PlayStation videogame console turns 20. I'm not sure anybody back in 1994 was expecting the console to sell as well as it did. It originated as a collaborative project between Nintendo, who were looking to replace their Super Famicom (aka SNES) system, and Sony, who brought with them their own CD-based storage technology. When Nintendo pulled out of the project, Sony brought it to completion on their own. When released it became an international sensation, broke all sales records for a videogame console and pretty much left Nintendo's own effort (the Nintendo 64) in the dust. Over 10 years Sony sold 102 million Playstations, and transformed console gaming from something that kids did to a genuinely mainstream proposition.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the PlayStation, I thought I'd revisit my 20 favourite games released for the system. These aren't necessarily the best games, but they are my personal favourites. I've deliberately avoided including games that were released simultaneously on different platforms, and instead focused on PSX-exclusive (or, at least, PSX-first) games. First up: action and suspense, courtesy of publisher Capcom and the edge-of-your-seat thrills of Dino Crisis.

February 6, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Datalore"

The Enterprise makes a diversion to Omicron Theta, a deserted human colony where Commander Data was first discovered by Starfleet personnel. While exploring the laboratory of Data's creator, Dr Noonien Soong, the away team discover an identical android. When the new android, named Lore, is assembled, it turns out he may know more about the whereabouts of the missing colonists that he lets on.

The evil twin storyline is one that comes up again and again in science fiction and fantasy. It's such a well-worn trope that it's not really a surprise that The Next Generation would use it. Brent Spiner plays both Data and Lore, and it should be said first and foremost he does a stunning job of it. Lore is a much more complex, emotional character: funny, cruel, vindictive and arrogant. He's a great villain, and it's not a surprise that he returns to the series in two more episodes down the line. Sadly while Lore is great, the episode surrounding him is not as successful.

Project Nim (2011)

In 1973 a research project at Columbia University placed an infant chimpanzee within a human family, in an attempt to determine if a chimpanzee - once instructed in sign language and surrounded by people - could form and use its own language. A newborn chimpanzee was taken from its mother and named Nim Chimpsky (a joke based on theorist Noam Chompsky). Project Nim is a 2011 British documentary directed by James Marsh that tracks this project, its failings, and the life story of its titular chimpanzee.

Project Nim is simultaneously a profile on bad science and an act of waiting for the inevitable. The various human participants are all interviewed throughout the film, talking heads-style, and its immediately surprising just how self-incriminating they all are. Project head Herb Terrace comes across as a self-involved lothario, less interested in his experiment than in the fame and status it might bring, and the graduate students he might seduce. Nim's original carer Stephanie openly (and bizarrely) talks of how sensual she finds caring for him, despite the project effectively ruining her marriage. As the film develops, attempts to teach Nim to communicate are complicated as he gradually matures into an intelligent, potentially violent and extremely dangerous wild animal. Once it's clear that Nim isn't going to provide what Dr Terrace needs, he's effectively abandoned. This leads to a very depressing second-half to the film.

February 5, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Big Goodbye"

While waiting for the Enterprise to arrive at an important diplomatic ceremony, Captain Picard takes some well-earned time off inside the ship's holodeck. There, with Data and Dr Crusher in tow, he assumes the guise of 1940s Californian detective Dixon Hill. For a while it seems like a lot of fun - but then the holodeck malfunctions, and they can't stop the program.

I remember Star Trek: The Next Generation's holodeck as an appaling sort of running joke, probably unintended, in which nearly every time the characters use the thing something goes wrong. They get trapped inside ("The Big Goodbye"), or create an evil artificial intelligence ("Elementary, Dear Data") or even accidentally allow it to give birth to an entirely new life form ("Emergence"). Quite frankly the entire technology seems so dangerous that I'm surprised that the Federation didn't ban its use by the end of Season 1.

The Restless (2006)

Originality may take a back seat to the visuals in The Restless, but when they're visuals as pretty as these it's sometimes difficult to mind that much.

Yi-gwak (Jeong Woo-seong) is a demon hunter on the run from the corrupt authorities in ancient Korea. A group of villagers slip him a sleeping potion in an attempt to capture him, and claim a much-needed reward. Yi-gwak does escape their trap, but falls into a deep sleep. When he awakes, he isn't in Korea at all, but rather the supernatural world of Midheaven - a place where the souls of the dead wait before they are reincarnated. There he is reunited with two people from his past: Yon-hwa (Kim Tae-hee), the love of his life, and Ban-chu (Heo Joon-ho), his former general and mentor. The problem is that the former has no memory of who she was, and the latter is leading a revolt in Midheaven to lead an army of souls into the material world.

February 4, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Haven"

So, what happens in "Haven"? News arrives that Deanna Troi's pre-arranged fiancee is arriving to marry her on the planet Haven. The in-laws don't get along. Riker is upset that his ex-girlfriend is getting married. Troi is upset that she is getting married. Everyone gets upset with Troi's overbearing mother. A starship that may be carrying a virulent plague is on an approach vector for Haven. Armin Shimerman makes a cameo appearance as a box. All sensible viewers either cry themselves to sleep or run a mile.

I think how much you're going to enjoy "Haven" will ride or fall based on how much you enjoy Majel Barrett as the brash, over-confident and effortlessly rude Lwaxana Troi. I hate the character: I've never found her funny, groaned every time I saw her name in the guest credits and usually make a point of not rewatching any of the episodes to feature her. I think she's one of those characters where it's clear that the entertainment is levelled at the actors and the writers, rather than the audience: she looks like amazing fun to write for and perform, but absolutely dreadful to sit through for 42 minutes.

February 3, 2014

Bodacious Space Pirates: "Marika Makes a Decision"

The title to this episode made me laugh out loud, because indeed Marika makes a decision. It's a very predictable decision, and a decision that she needs to make otherwise there's no series, and she has taken five entire episodes to make it. Talk about indecisive.

The Odette II finally makes a stand against the pirate ship that's been trailing it, and together the high school space yacht club prove themselves to be more than a match for professional space pirates: either that's one hell of a school, or some really crappy pirates. It's probably a little from column A and a little from column B. This all sounds like I'm mocking the episode, and to be honest taking five weeks to reach the basic premise of the series (high school student becomes a space pirate captain) is deserving of that mockery. That put aside, however, and it's a very enjoyable episode.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Hide and Q"

The USS Enterprise is once again intercepted by Q, the all-powerful inter-dimensional alien who caused so much trouble back at Farpoint Station. This time he has arrived with a test for the Enterprise crew, as well as an unexpected offer for Commander Riker.

Q's return marks a fairly massive shift in the tone of the character. In "Encounter at Farpoint" he was presented as someone quite threatening, whereas here (and hereon in) he becomes more of a jovial trickster character. It's certainly a transition that makes the character much more enjoyable to watch. Sadly the episode as a whole is a mess: the structure is clunky, as if two separate episodes have been crunched together at high speed, and characterisation and depth is abandoned in favour of a tedious morality play.

February 1, 2014

Crossing Hennessy (2010)

Crossing Hennessy, which was released in Hong Kong in 2010, was promoted as a romantic comedy. This does the film a disservice; it’s not only inaccurate it’s also unnecessarily reductionist. It turns out Crossing Hennessy is both a comedy and a rather touching drama. It blends the two genres with what comes across as disarming ease. I’m loathe to use the word “dramedy”, since that generally brings to mind the likes of American TV series Ally McBeal, and Crossing Hennessy is a much better viewing experience than Ally McBeal. It is, quite simply, a nice story told with warm, three-dimensional characters, and one that reaches its expected conclusion is nicely unexpected ways.

The film’s title comes from Hennessy Rd, which bisects the suburb of Wan Chai, on Hong Kong Island’s north side. The film is deeply cemented into its setting: this is a Wan Chai story, in much the same way that Get Carter was a Newcastle story, or Annie Hall and Manhattan were New York stories. Here the setting is essentially an extra character in the story. Wan Chai is a suburb filled with shop fronts, all selling everyday goods and services. It isn’t a business centre like Central, which lies to the west, or a fashionista’s paradise like Admiralty, which lies to the east. Wan Chai is the everyday, ordinary suburb wedged in between. It is suffering somewhat from urban decay, something that the Hong Kong SAR government is attempting to alleviate with their numerous urban renewal projects. Such projects come with a cost, however: it’s likely that the Wan Chai depicted in this film is not going to exist in 10 or 15 years’ time.