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.

November 26, 2015

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Loss"

It's 31 December 1990, and time for more Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Enterprise unexpectedly collides with a previously-unknown colony of two-dimensional beings, which trap the ship and drag it along in their wake. While the crew work to free the ship from the colony Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) discovers that the collision has robbed her of her empathic abilities.

"The Loss" is an episode that attempts to do something quite admirable, but suffers the limitations of its running time and the general need to keep episodes relatively self-contained. As a result it's only a partial success. On the other hand it does manage to keep its two storylines fairly well connected throughout; a common pitfall that it manages to avoid. Add in some solid performances by Marina Sirtis and Jonathan Frakes, and some wonderfully bonkers science, and it all pulls together into something that's pretty entertaining.

A Scene at the Sea (1991)

Shigeru (Kurodo Maki) is a garbage collector in a coastal Japanese town. He's also both deaf and mute. One day he finds a broken surfboard left out for collection. After repairing it the best he can, he sets out on a quest to learn how to surf. Over the summer, as his skills improve, he forms a romantic relationship with the similarly deaf young woman Takako (Hiroko Oshima).

A Scene at the Sea, by writer director Takeshi Kitano, is one of those maddening films that makes a mockery of film genres. We always want to pigeon-hole films: is it a drama, or a comedy, or an arthouse movie? In this case it's all three, jumping from slapstick comedy to thoughtful drama to bizarrely detached scenes where nothing much seems to happen at all. It is a 100 minute movie with the sort of narrative that would usually struggle to fill half an hour. It has hardly any dialogue. It spends minutes at a time just watching its characters walk to and from the beach. It's not easily categorised into any genre at all. It's simply a film to climb into and experience. It's a wonderful place to visit.

November 25, 2015

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

Is there a cultural artefact that screams "1990" more definitively than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie? You could maybe turn to pop music - Technotronic, Ya Kid K, MC Hammer - but they're all in the film's soundtrack. You could turn to other films - Ghost, Home Alone, Pretty Woman - but none of them seem to be so aggressively of their time nor capitalising so heavily on the pop culture around them.

The Ninja Turtles originated in a 1984 comic book: its creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird heavily parodying Marvel's X-Men and Daredevil in the process. Readers soon got hooked on the ridiculous set-up - masked anthropomorphic turtles named after Renaissance artists and instructed by a talking rat - and the comic went from strength to strength. Once a television cartoon and toy line were created in 1987, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles exploded into a genuine phenomenon.

With such huge success one would assume a feature film adaptation was a no-brainer. Instead it was a real struggle to convince any studio to produce it. Hollywood had strong memories of Cannon's Masters of the Universe, another cartoon-to-film adaptation that came to cinemas far too late to catch the craze at its height. In the end the Ninja Turtles movie was produced by Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest, shot in North Carolina, and distributed by New Line Cinema. Hollywood may have scoffed at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but upon its release it grossed more than $200 million dollars worldwide and became the ninth-highest grossing film of 1990.

Bodacious Space Pirates: "The Hakuoh Pirates' First Job"

It's 21 April 2012, and time for another episode of Bodacious Space Pirates.

Their initial teething troubles behind them, the temporary crew of the Bentenmaru pirate shop begins preparations to storm the pleasure cruiser Princess Apricot. Yacht club president Lynn appears to have something on her mind, and when she's spied secretly communicating to somebody off-shop it sets off Grunhilde's suspicions.

Something that's been bugging me about Bodacious Space Pirates for the whole series has finally slipped into clarity: there's no conflict. Conflict is the basis for drama: it's either a person against another person or a person against their environment. It's arguable that the conflict in Bodacious Space Pirates is between the characters and their own self-doubt, but assuming that to be the case it's a pretty thin foundation upon which to build a story.

November 24, 2015

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001)

It's the year 2071. On the Mars colony, a terrorist attack destroys a container truck and spreads a deadly pathogen that infects more than 300 civilians. When a staggering bounty is placed on the head of the man believed responsible, a group of space-faring bounty hunters set off to track him down.

Those bounty hunters are Spike Spiegel, Faye Valentine, Jet Black and Edward Wong - known to anime fans around the world from their popular television series Cowboy BebopBebop was a sensational science fiction anime that combined bounty hunter action with a stunning and eclectic musical score. Each episode felt like a small 25-minute feature, combining its various inspirations and creating a highly dynamic and tremendously entertaining series in the process. The cinematic qualities of the series made it a pretty easy fit for a spin-off feature film. While anime series receive film spin-offs and follow-ups all the time, they're rarely as satisfying or as well produced as this one.

Babylon 5: "Secrets of the Soul"

It's 4 March 1998, and time for more Babylon 5.

As more rogue telepaths flock to Babylon 5, tensions begin to flare up between them and the people living in Down Below. Dr Franklin (Richard Biggs) begins cataloguing the various diseases and viruses that might threaten the Interstellar Alliance, only to uncover one race's terrible secret.

Franklin's medical research seems a little unlikely the moment you pause to think about it. How many different intelligent species go to and from Babylon 5? How many different species would need to be analysed, interviewed, examined and scanned? More importantly, shouldn't much of this information be available already? It seems more of a job for a clever team of desktop researchers liaising with all of the galaxy's governments, rather than a task for a single medical chief on a space station.

November 23, 2015

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Final Mission"

It's 19 November 1990, and time for more Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) has finally received an invitation to enrol at Starfleet Academy. As a parting gesture Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) invites him on a final mission to help negotiate a mining dispute in the Pentarus system. When their shuttle crash-lands en route onto a desolate moon, their mission of negotiation instead becomes a fight for survival. Meanwhile the Enterprise travels to aid the planet Gamelan V when a radioactive waste barge enters their orbit.

"Final Mission" is, as the title neatly suggests, Wesley Crusher's final adventure as a regular member of the Next Generation cast. He does return to the series for three guest appearances in Seasons 5 and 7, but this is effectively the character's swansong. I'm sure many fans, who bore a dislike for the character that bordered on the irrational, were overjoyed to see him leave. I was actually rather sad: he was and remains one of the series' most underrated and poorly utilised characters. We could have had so much more had the writers respected the character and the actor a little better.

The Wicker Man (1973)

Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) travels to the northern Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate a report of a missing girl. There he finds a community that has abandoned Christianity for pagan worship, and locals who obfuscate and frustrate him at every turn. Even the island's owner, the laconic Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), seems unwilling to help. Howie doggedly refuses to abandon his search, leading him towards a sinister secret.

The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy from Anthony Shaffer's screenplay, is one of the most famous British films ever made. It's widely regarded as a classic of its genre, and while time has perhaps not been entirely kind it remains a unique sort of peculiarly British horror film. It spends much of its time being unsettling rather than frightening, and almost wilfully absurd. It's also suffered from multiple cuts and competing versions over the years. This review is based on the 2013 'final cut', which incorporates some of the footage from the earlier 'director's cut' but remains closer to the original theatrical cut. To be honest there's not enough of a difference here to make it matter too much which version of the film one watches.

November 22, 2015

The Pull List: 18 November 2015, Part III

Marvel sure does love relaunches. It used to be a sign of a failing book. Then it became a publicity stunt: cancel a popular book, renumber it, launch it all over again and get a huge sales boost. Those kinds of boosts can be addictive if you're in a declining market, so I suppose one can't fully blame Marvel for relaunching books over and over again.

Take The Mighty Thor, launched this past week with an all-new extra-length (and extra-cost) first issue. It's written by Jason Aaron with art by Russell Dauterman, who were also the writer and artist of the recently cancelled Thor. What's more, it features not Thor Odinson but his former love interest Dr Jane Foster, who now wields the magic hammer Mjolnir and transforms into a female Thor when the need arises. To his credit Aaron writes a pretty easy-to-understand first issue, but it still feels like we're jumping into the middle of the story. The number on the cover might promise a first chapter, but it's really more like a ninth chapter. This is pretty much where issue re-numberings are with Marvel. They're now so commonplace that they don't have meaning any more. They're just a cheap sales stunt. They're so lazy that they don't even act as proper jumping-on points for new readers.

Now The Mighty Thor #1 is pretty great. It's got wonderful artwork by Dauterman and a script by Aaron that's brimming with character. Let's not fall for cheap tricks, however: this is issue #9, not issue #1. (4/5)

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Ms Marvel and Rat Queens.

Doctor Who: "Face the Raven"

A telephone call from an old friend lead the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) back to present-day London, and to a secret street invisible to the humans around it. It's a refuge for aliens in hiding. Someone has been murdered, and the hunt for those responsible may not end as the Doctor has planned.

"Face the Raven" by newcomer Sarah Dollard is in some ways a difficult sort of episode to review. It's nicely thought-out and atmospheric, and boasts some excellent dialogue and character work. It brings back a likeable supporting character from last season - Rigsy (Joivan Wade) from "Flatline" - as well as one from this season - Ashildr (Maisie Williams) from "The Girl Who Died". Where it becomes difficult to properly assess is in its plot: there's not a great deal of it here, because it's actually the start of a multi-episode story. How successful the episode is at setting up story elements and presenting a satisfying narrative probably won't be known for another two weeks.

November 21, 2015

Babylon 5: "Strange Relations"

It's 25 February 1998, and time for more Babylon 5.

In "Strange Relations", Bester (Walter Koenig) arrives on Babylon 5 with orders to hunt down and arrest the community of rogue telepaths. Captain Lochley (Tracy Scoggins) seems happy to help him out as well, which enrages Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle).

Despite some now well-familiar problems with dialogue and rushed performances, "Strange Relations" actually manages to be a reasonably entertaining hour of television - something that's been in reasonably short supply during Babylon 5's fifth season. While it's still struggling with the execution of the rogue telepath story arc, it gives some properly decent material to Tracy Scoggins for the first time. She grabs it with both hands, and finally pushes her character away from being a last-minute Susan Ivanova replacement into a properly defined character in her own right.

November 20, 2015

Sorcerer (1977)

In the middle of the South American jungle an oil well is burning out of control. To close off the well, explosives are desperately required. The only explosives available started to rot away months ago, and the nitroglycerin pooling at the bottom of each case will explode at the slightest disturbance. So four runaway criminals desperate for money board a pair of trucks - three cases of explosives in each - to make the treacherous 218 mile drive to the well.

William Friedkin's 1977 thriller Sorcerer is a loose remake of the classic French film The Wages of Fear. Or, at least, it's another adaptation of the Georges Arnaud novel. I call the adaptation 'loose' because all it really takes is the basic premise: driving trucks of unstable explosives through a jungle. Friedkin took this concept and added his own cast of four disparate criminals: an American getaway driver (Roy Scheider), a corrupt French businessman (Bruno Cremer), a Mexican professional killer (Francisco Rabal) and an Arabic terrorist (Amidou). The first half of the film introduces their respective back stories, and brings them all to the same backwater Latin American town. The second half is one long, relentless chain of suspenseful set pieces.

The White-Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom (2014)

Baifa Monu Zhuan, variously translated as Biography of the White-Haired Succuba or Romance of the White-Haired Maiden, is a serialised Chinese novel by Liang Yusheng. It was enormously popular when originally published in 1957. Within two years it had already been adapted into a Hong Kong wuxia film, Story of White-Haired Demon Girl. A television adaptation appeared in 1978, another film in 1980, and another TV serial in 1986. In 1993 the novel received its most famous and still most widely acclaimed adaptation, Ronny Yu's phenomenally successful The Bride with White Hair. His film stripped out the majority of the novel's plot - the political machinations, the civil war, the rival clans of nobles and bandits - to concentrate primarily on its central tragic love story. He also cast Hong Kong film legends Brigitte Lin and Leslie Cheung, which never hurts.

Last year the novel got yet another adaptation - its 10th including film and television - in the form of Jacob Cheung's lavish CGI-filled epic The White-Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom. The film stars Huang Xiaoming as the dashing warrior Zhuo Yihang and Fan Bingbing as the bandit queen Lian Nishang, destined to become the white-haired witch of the title.

November 19, 2015

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Future Imperfect"

It's 12 November 1990 and time for more Star Trek: The Next Generation.

While on an away mission Riker (Jonathan Frakes) is overwhelmed by toxic gas and collapses unconscious. When he wakes, it is 15 years in the future: he has a son, he is captain of the Enterprise, and he is about to finalise negotiations for peace with the Romulan Star Empire.

"Future Imperfect" takes a critically flawed premise and reworks it into an excellent little paranoid thriller that showcases Jonathan Frakes' performance as Will Riker and allows the series to play around with a potential future for the Next Generation characters. The critical flaw is obvious from the outset: this is a continuing series, and there's absolutely no chance that the future Enterprise upon which Riker wakes is authentic. The moment Riker wakes, the episode becomes a exercise in waiting for the penny to drop. How the episode overcomes this is part of why I like it so much.

The Pull List: 18 November 2015, Part II

Jump back 20 years and DC's Vertigo imprint was the go-to place for intelligent, well-written comic books for mature readers. While Vertigo has marched on over the years, producing quite an impressive number of high-quality comics including 100 Bullets, Scalped, Northlanders, Fables and The Unwritten, its profile is certainly not as high as it once was and in very recent years it's struggled to find any significant successes at all. Basically all of the creators have been producing Vertigo's books for themselves via Image.

DC aren't taking this lying down, however, which is why we're in the middle of the biggest mass launch in Vertigo's history: 12 new monthly comic books, debuting one per week over three months. I have a lot of affection for Vertigo. My all-time favourite comic book, Grant Morrison's The Invisibles, was a Vertigo title. I figured I owed it to DC to sample at least one of their new books. Debuting this week is Red Thorn, a dark fantasy by writer David Baillie and artist Meghan Hetrick. The book follows Isla, an American travelling to Glasgow to investigate the death of her sister many years ago. It's an investigation involving mythical creatures and Isla's unexplained ability to draw pictures that transform into real people.

To be honest, I'm not feeling it. This issue feels remarkably derivative, less like a Vertigo book and more like a Vertigo fan having a go at writing one. The artwork is competent without being outstanding or distinctive. It all feels tremendously derivative, not to mention just a little bit too awkward and self-aware. It's biggest problem appears to be that it's trying to emulate the Vertigo of 20 to 25 years ago, rather than the Vertigo that the line needs to be today. Ardent fans of urban fantasy might get a kick out of it, but in the end it just left me cold. (2/5)

Under the cut: reviews of Batman and Robin Eternal, Usagi Yojimbo and Vader Down.

November 18, 2015

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Reunion"

It's 5 November 1990, and time for more Star Trek: The Next Generation.

K'mpec (Charles Cooper), Chancellor of the Klingon Empire, is dying. He knows he has been poisoned by one of the two rivals for his throne: the upstart Gowron (Robert O'Reilly) or the treacherous Duras (Patrick Massett). To ensure an honourable succession he appoints a reluctant Picard (Patrick Stewart) to oversee the selection process. Meanwhile Ambassador K'ehleyr (Suzie Plakson) returns to the Enterprise with a surprise for Worf (Michael Dorn): their son.

"Reunion" is a fairly momentous episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It pushes the Klingon story arc that began in "Sins of the Father" into a surprising new stage, and sets the scene for the forthcoming Season 4 finale. It's an episode with remarkable repercussions for Worf, giving him a young son named Alexander. While the episode's end would appear to conveniently sweep the character out of frame, he does return in a fairly prominent way in the future.

Jubilation Street (1944)

As the Pacific War goes on, the Japanese government orders that the residents of a quiet Tokyo street be relocated to accommodate the war effort. As the various residents prepare to leave, they experience their various regrets and face up to their unspoken desires.

That's the basic gist of Jubilation Street, a 1944 Japanese propaganda picture directed by Keisuke Kinoshita. It's a relatively short film, running a tidy 73 minutes, but it's also an incredibly leaden and melancholic one, which has a tendency to make the film feel an awful lot longer than it actually is. As far as propaganda movies go it's rather unusual. While it does ostensibly tell a story about how people should move out of the military's war for the war effort, and sacrifice anything they can to prevent an American victory, it also makes no secret that war-time Japan is a pretty depressing place, and that people will die, and that all the plans you hope for in your life mean nothing if the government spontaneously decides to take them away.

November 17, 2015

The Pull List: 18 November 2015, Part I

Andre the Giant was a legend of 1980s pop culture, whether you knew him from his performance as Fezzik in The Princess Bride or as one of the most popular stars of the World Wrestling Federation. Born Andre Roussimoff, he grew up in rural France before shooting to fame as a touring wrestler: first in France, then Japan and ultimately in the USA. He has a fascinating, and often-times quite sad life story, and it's ripe for adaptation. IDW clearly felt so, since this week they're publishing a graphic novel about his life: Andre the Giant: Closer to Heaven, by Brandon Easton and Denis Medri.

Weirdly this is the second Andre the Giant comic book biography in two years. Last year the acclaimed independent writer/artist Box Brown released his own very popular take, Andre the Giant: Life and Legend. It's kind of odd to see another attempt turn up so soon - I can only assume they were simultaneously developed without either book's creators knowing of the other. It does unfortunately put this new volume in an uncomfortable place: does the market need another Andre book so soon?

Easton's script is heavily reliant on narration, and that gives the book a slightly passive feel. There's also a sense of being told of one live event after another, without any strong narrative drive to help sculpt it into a readable story. Denis Medri's artwork is fantastic, however, with great likenesses of Andre as well as a host of other famous faces.

Sadly this book isn't anywhere close to being a 'must-read', and I don't think it manages to transcend it's subject matter: if you're not already a fan of professional wrestling or Andre I'm not sure there's enough here to make it worth your while. It is a nice enough package for the pre-existing fan, however, so if this sounds like your kind of book it's definitely worth checking it out. (3/5)

IDW. Written by Brandon Easton. Art by Denis Medri. Colours by Davide Caci.

Under the cut: reviews of Godzilla in Hell, Star Trek/Green Lantern and Tet.

Hidalgo (2004)

Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) is a washed-up distance rider working in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. When he is visited by representatives of the Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Shariff) he is offered the chance to enter the "Ocean of Fire" - a 3,000 mile endurance horse race across the Middle East. To win the race he must overcome fierce rivals and bandits, anti-western bigotry, sabotage and the relentless heat of the Najd desert region.

Hidalgo is a sweeping adventure film inspired by Frank T. Hopkin's unpublished account of a long distance race he claimed to have won in the Middle East. Of course no such race likely existed, and much of Hopkins' claims have long since been discredited by historians. As a result Hidalgo is one of those tenuous Hollywood films claiming to be 'based on a true story' while simultaneously embellishing itself to such a degree that the term has very little meaning. The film is directed by Joe Johnston, who appears to have made a long career out of making films that are almost good. Jumanji (1995) had potential but suffered from a saccharine screenplay and over-ambitious CGI animals. Jurassic Park III (2001) had a lot of fun scenes but lacked a third act. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) was a knockout in terms of casting but a crushing disappointment in terms of actual story. Of his ten feature films as director I'd personally rank The Rocketeer and October Sky as his best works. I wouldn't rank Hidalgo - although as with all of his lesser films it does still have plenty to recommend.

November 16, 2015

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Legacy"

It's 29 October 1990, and time for more Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Enterprise responds to a distress call on the planet Turkana IV, which has been locked in civil war for several decades. For the Enterprise crew the lawless planet has a particular resonance: it's the birthplace of their late comrade Tasha Yar. The resonance only increases when their efforts to rescue two Federation pilots brings them face-to-face with Tasha's sister Ishara.

For those keeping count, this is the fourth episode this season focusing on themes of family. Oddly enough, however, the family link is to a character that has been dead for almost three seasons. The spectre of Tasha Yar hangs over this episode, notably over Commander Data (Brent Spiner), who spends the most time with Ishara (Beth Toussant). He of course had one of the closest relationships with Tasha back when she was alive, and he rapidly forms a personal connection with Ishara as well. It's another one of those "Data explores humanity" episodes, where Data demonstrates a wonderful ability to feel and express gentle emotions while simultaneously claiming he doesn't experience them.

Five great found footage movies

The most recent episode of Doctor Who utilised a 'found footage' technique: that is, the episode was shot entirely from a subjective point of view using helmet-mounted and surveillance cameras. As I noted when reviewing the episode, the found footage style was pretty much invented with the 1980 horror film Cannibal Holocaust and has been a predominantly horror-based form of cinema ever since. There have been some notable exceptions, of course, with comedies, thrillers and science fiction films also using the technique.

I've always liked found footage. It gives films an immediacy and a wonderful sense of tension. You can only see and hear what the characters see and hear. It places you firmly at the centre of the action and removes the opportunity for filmmakers to expand the world view or show what characters are doing in other places. With this form of cinema in mind, I had a think about the most effective movies with found footage are. Here's a list of five that I particularly enjoy - not necessarily the best ever made, but simply personal favourites I'd recommend to anybody interested in trying found footage movies out.

November 15, 2015

Doctor Who: "Sleep No More"

It is the 38th century. Orbiting Neptune is a space station housing the Morpheus project. Its crew has vanished. A rescue team has arrived to investigate, finding terrifying monsters marauding the decks as well as two intruders: the Doctor and Clara. It's a fairly by-the-numbers premise for Doctor Who, but one given a 21st century update that's sure to please some viewers and irritate others beyond belief. This is Doctor Who's first attempt at a found footage presentation.

Found footage is a popular technique in horror, essentially presenting a story through the purely subjective viewpoint of a character's camera. We the audience see only what the characters see, and that immediately makes whatever horrors that are stalking them more mysterious and terrifying and the atmosphere more intense. It's a technique that originated in the 1980 horror film Cannibal Holocaust, but which became a mainstream proposition with the release of The Blair Witch Project in 1999. It's since been used in films like Paranormal Activity, REC and The Chernobyl Diaries, as has expanded to a variety of genres via Project X (comedy), Cloverfield (monster movies), Chronicle (superhero movies) and Interview with the Assassin (conspiracy thriller). This week it's been applied to a new genre: the Doctor Who 'base under siege' storyline.

The Pull List: 11 November 2015, Part III

"Commercial Suicide", the third arc of The Wicked + the Divine, is rather aptly named. Each issue has focused on a different member of the Pantheon and utilised a different artist. One issue abandoned an original artist at all, and simply cut-and-pasted art from previous issues. It's all quite a challenging way to continue this ongoing urban fantasy, and my enjoyment of each issue has varied pretty wildly based on what I think of the art.

Issue #16 concentrates on the back story of Morrigan, a troubled goth who spontaneously ascended to godhood when the Pantheon returned. At present, however, she's trapped in a prison by Baal - another reborn god. One big surprise in this issue was how her past was so closely interrelated to Baphomet's. It's a well-crafted character piece, and fills in another section of the world of gods and monsters that writer Keiron Gillen has created.

While it does step away from advancing the series' core storyline, thankfully it also boasts some really strong artwork by Leila del Duca. I think the real star, however, is colourist Mat Lopes, who does a fine job differentiating between past and present, and representing emotional beats with subtle use of colour and tone. I do miss regular artist Jamie McKelvie - the book really doesn't seem the same without him - but as far as substitutes go Del Duca and Lopes are pretty great. (4/5)

Image. Written by Keiron Gillen. Art by Leila del Duca. Colours by Mat Lopes.

Under the cut: reviews of  Hellbreak and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

November 14, 2015

Survivors: "Corn Dolly"

It's 7 May 1975 and time for the fourth episode of Survivors.

Abby (Carolyn Seymour) remains intent on looking for her son. On the way to her old house she, Jenny (Lucy Fleming) and Greg (Ian McCullough) meet Charles (Denis Lill), an idealistic survivor attempting to build a permanent community at a nearby farmhouse. With the potential for a proper home and base of operations, Abby is sorely tempted to join Charles' growing village - but is it too good to be true?

Well of course it's too good to be true. We may only be four episodes into the series, but if there's anything the first three have taught us it's that Survivors is a bleak and uncompromising experience. It has a remarkable penchant for dangling hope in front of its three protagonists - only to snatch that hope away and leaving them back where they started. To its credit "Corn Dolly" sustains the hope for a lot longer than I had expected, making it an increasingly uneasy case of trying to work out not if something awful is going to happen but rather what form the awful turn towards despair the episode will take.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

I recently re-watched The Empire Strikes Back, which as I noted at the time is widely - and in my opinion correctly - regarded as the best of the six Star Wars movies to date. Call it masochism, call it unnecessary curiosity, but it got me thinking about the opposite end of the franchise. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, released in 1999, was pretty much the most eagerly anticipated film of all time. When it finally released into cinemas it was met with an immediately negative response, and disappointment soon changed into waves of hostility against its writer/director, Star Wars creator George Lucas. It's not that the film was simply disappointing for Star Wars enthusiasts: it was widely panned as one of the worst big-budget films of its time. Things probably weren't helped by the film coming out in 1999, one of the all-time great years for American cinema.

So while it's easy - and again in my opinion correct - to consider The Phantom Menace to be a bad film, it's not necessarily so easy to identify precisely why it's as unenjoyable a film as it is. This led me to watch the film again, and actually try to identify it's biggest problems one by one.

The synopsis, for cave-dwellers: the Trade Federation of Cato Nemoidia has established a blockade around the peaceful planet Naboo following a dispute over the taxation of galactic trade routes. When two Jedi - Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) - attempt to negotiate an end to the crisis, they are targeted for assassination. After rescuing Queen Amidala of Naboo (Natalie Portman), they escape via Tatooine to the galactic capital of Coruscant to plead Naboo's case and try and resolve the invasion.

November 13, 2015

The Pull List: 11 November 2015, Part II

The Autumnlands is a fantastic fantasy comic book, and if you're a fan of fantasy and a comic book enthusiast, you should already be reading it. In case you aren't: the series is set in a world of anthropomorphic animals (they walk and talk like humans), where rich and powerful wizards rule the world from great floating cities. Magic is fading away, however, so a group of powerful magicians attempted to pool their skills and bring back the mythical "Great Champion". They manage this, but (a) it takes so much power that their floating city crashes to the ground, and (b) the champion appears to be a human from a high-technology civilization some time in the ancient past.

Issue #7 picks up with the surviving magicians getting rescued and starting blame games, while the Champion and the dog apprentice Dusty are on the run cross-country from a vengeful bison chief. Everything I liked about the first six issues is back: great writing by Kurt Busiek, a wonderful literary quality to the narration and the introductions, and beautiful artwork by Benjamin Dewey. Dewey has an unusual style for a comic book: it's the sort of thing you more often see in an illustrated novel, and that adds to the literary quality.

The first collected volume is available now, so between that and this issue you'll be completely up to date. It's a marvellous comic. (5/5)

Image. Written by Kurt Busiek. Art by Benjamin Dewey. Colours by Jordie Bellaire.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman and Robin Eternal, Descender and Rebels.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Remember Me"

It's 22 October 1990 and time for more Star Trek: The Next Generation.

When Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) attempts to run an experiment with the Enterprise's warp core, it sets off a chain reaction surrounding his mother Beverly (Gates McFadden). People keep vanishing around her. With the Enterprise's crew rapidly diminishing, with no record of them having ever existed, Dr Crusher is on a race to find a solution to the problem before she's the only person left.

"Remember Me" is an episode with a fairly neat premise, and certainly a lot of dramatic promise, but in the end it's strangled by three key problems that are ultimately too damaging for the episode to succeed. It's a shame because the central idea could have been terrifying: imagine having the entire universe contract around you, until you're the only person left in a reality only a few hundred metres wide. If only the episode had worked.

November 12, 2015

The Pull List: 11 November 2015, Part I

Catwoman has always been a tricky character for DC to get right. Some times they manage it, and there have been more than a few excellent runs on her solo titles over the past 20 odd years. Unfortunately there have been more than a few bad runs as well, generally ones that give the character a leering sexuality and present her adventures through a semi-seedy male gaze.

In the past year Catwoman (the comic) has avoided all of that, thanks to solid non-typical artwork by Garry Brown and later David Messina and a truly outstanding set of scripts by Genevieve Valentine. The covers by Jae Lee and Kevin Wada have also been exceptional. The story has seen Selina Kyle assume control of one of Gotham City's most powerful crime families, enter into a relationship with the daughter of a rival crime head, and fight to stop Black Mask from overthrowing the apple cart and taking all of Gotham for itself. It's been a great and intelligent run that actually gave Selina things to do and a supporting cast to care about.

This run ended this week with Catwoman #46, as the book's various threads finally pull together and wrap up. Not all of the endings are happy, and by the conclusion Selina's riding a motorcycle out of Gotham on her own. It's all wrapped up for whoever replaces Valentine as writer next month. This has been a sensational run, and hopefully will come to be remembered as one of the great ones for this character. The first half is already available in a trade paperback, so I strongly recommend you track it down and see what you've been missing. It might have just been for a year or so, but this has been one of DC's very best books. (5/5)

Under the cut: reviews of Batman, Chewbacca and Darth Vader.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Suddenly Human"

It's 15 October 1990 and time for another episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Enterprise comes to the rescue of a crippled Talarian starship, only to find a human teenager among its crew. The boy turns out to be the child of Starfleet officers murdered in a Talarian raid, but when Picard attempts to reunite him with his family he faces opposition from his adoptive Talarian father - as well as the boy himself.

"Suddenly Human" is an episode with a lot to recommend, but also one that makes a few critically damaging choices that come very close to ruining the entire story. Curiosity it's another episode about family issues - the third in a row - as Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) struggles to overcome his awkwardness around children to become a father figure to the confused, restive teenager Jono (Chad Allen). Basing an episode around Picard is always a good idea for Star Trek: The Next Generation, because Patrick Stewart's performance will more often than not overcome any deficiencies in the script to make the episode enjoyable. In this case Stewart can't quite move past the episode's shortfalls, but he gets damned close.

November 11, 2015

Bodacious Space Pirates: "Smuggling, Leaving Port and a Big Jump!"

The Bentenmaru risks losing its pirate's license if it does not embark on a piracy mission immediately. Unfortunately the crew are in quarantine after being infected by a shipment of space monkeys. Thus the Odette II yacht club crew set off on their secret mission to pilot the Bentenmaru and save Marika's career as a budding pirate captain.

This is episode 15 of Bodacious Space Pirates. The earliest episodes showcased teenager Marika Kato joining the space yacht club of Hakuoh Academy, and interacting with its large cast of amiable high schoolers. Later episodes sort of abandoned those characters to focus on Marika's experiences as the captain of a pirate spaceship, the Bentenmaru. This appears to be the episode where those two separate casts finally join together: the yacht club do their best to operate the Bentenmaru while its actual crew provide support from the hospital.

Stray Dog (1949)

During a crippling Tokyo heatwave, a homicide detective (Toshiro Mifune) has his gun stolen right out of his holster while taking the tram. When the stolen gun is used to murder someone, the desperate rookie teams up with a veteran detective (Takashi Shimura) to track the killer down.

I've been slowly rewatching Akira Kurosawa's films in chronological order, watching his directorial and storytelling styles develop and gradually mature. There have been some excellent films among his first eight works: Sanshiro Sugata, The Men Who Tread in the Tiger's Tail and One Wonderful Sunday. His ninth film, his 1949 police thriller Stray Dog, is Kurosawa's first masterpiece. It is his third collaboration in a row with actors Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, and here the working relationship pays remarkable dividends. This isn't just an outstanding movie: it's one of the most significant motion pictures ever made.

The most obvious derivative work at which to point is David Fincher's 1995 thriller Seven, which shares so many similarities that it's obvious one film is heavily indebted to the other. It doesn't stop at Seven, however: Stray Dog is the first-ever film to match two cops - one a cynical veteran, the other an upstart rookie - and send them off to fight crime. If you've ever watched a buddy cop movie in your life, there's a chance you have Akira Kurosawa to thank for it.

November 10, 2015

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The general wisdom is that, of the six Star Wars films released to date, The Empire Strikes Back is far and away the best of the series. Certainly that's the opinion I've held for most of my life, following a brief childhood period where I preferred Return of the Jedi because Luke was cooler in black and with a green lightsaber. I still regularly watch at least three of the Star Wars films, finding new little background details and moments each time, and as part of this I recently re-watched Empire for about the fiftieth time.

It really is still the best of the Star Wars saga, and in my opinion that's by a considerable margin too. It's more dramatic, more visually attractive, it's funnier, and it has much stronger emotional stakes. It takes its starting point from the original Star Wars and pushes everything that worked in that film while adding much more believable characterisation.

The synopsis, for those who've been living under a rock for the past 35 years: the Rebel Alliance are chased out of their secret base by an Imperial attack. While Luke Skywalker travels to the jungle planet of Dagobah to train as a Jedi with the mysterious Yoda, Han Solo, Chewbacca and Princess Leia go on the run from the Empire. They are pursued from a dangerous asteroid field to a mining colony on the planet Bespin, where the villainous Darth Vader is already waiting for them.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Brothers"

It's 8 October 1990, and time for more Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Commander Data (Brent Spiner) hijacks the Enterprise, taking it off course from an emergency medical mission and to the planet Terlina III. There he has an unexpected encounter with his presumed-dead creator Dr Noonien Soong (Brent Spiner) and his twin brother Lore (Brent Spiner).

It's actually kind of funny that a week after broadcasting the only episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that doesn't feature Brent Spiner, Paramount broadcast an episode in which he plays three characters at the same time. If nothing else, "Brothers" is a bravura showcase of Spiner's acting, since he spends the bulk of the episode essentially talking to himself. Unfortunately with all of the focus on the technical requirements of the episode, it feels as if the script - by executive producer Rick Berman - was left badly undercooked.

November 9, 2015

Survivors: "Gone Away"

It's 30 April 1975, and time for the third episode of Survivors.

Now travelling together, Abby (Carolyn Seymour), Greg (Ian McCullough) and Jenny (Lucy Fleming) set about finding a permanent home base and sourcing supplies. When they find a well-stocked and abandoned supermarket, they think their problems are solved - until they're confronted by an armed militia working on the orders of regional despot Arthur Wormley.

It's a relief to see the Wormley plot thread set up in the second episode actually get carried over to the third, with a small posse of gunmen led by Wormley's violent-minded lieutenant Dave Long (Brian Peck). There's a really effective sense of tension in these episodes: each time the protagonists encounter somebody new the paranoia ratchets up. Are they friendly? Hostile? Are their intentions open and honest? Will they betray the heroes at the first step? It's been running like this for three episodes running and shows no sign of letting up.

The Pull List: Comic Book Catchup

During the last two weeks of October I was out of the country, so as a result I have a huge backlog of comic books that I didn't get the chance to pick up and read, or review. Better late than never; here are some of them.

One of the things that DC Comics keeps claiming to be doing is trying to expand its audience and find new styles and tones for its comic books. In practice that really doesn't seem to be happening that often, but it's definitely continuing to happen on Batgirl. Issue #45 is about as far from the angst-ridden, violent original New 52 run as you could get and still be able to call it Batgirl. It's Alycia and Jo's wedding, and Barbara is all set to be maid of honour, new boyfriend Luke Fox in tow - until the unexpected arrival of Dick Grayson through her window.

Everyone loves a wedding, and in my experience most Batman fans have a soft spot for the never-ending romantic interplay between Dick and Barbara. It's been going on for decades, bouncing along the margins but never quite coming together. This issue he finally straight-up asks her out, but of course it's too late - she's dating Luke now, and it can't happen.

So this isn't angsty violent action any more. Instead it's Batgirl as soap opera, but what's important is that it's Batgirl as a really good soap opera. Babs Tarr's artwork really makes it work with her cartoonish style and near-pastel colouring. The growing cast of supporting characters have been well established over previous issues to make the wedding really feel important. The pairing of Barbara with Luke (secretly Batwing) really works. This is a brilliant comic book, and it's doing something no other DC Universe book is - and that makes it a valuable book too. (5/5)

28 Oct 2015. Batgirl #45. Written by Cameron Stewart and Brendan Fletcher. Art by Babs Tarr.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman and Robin Eternal, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, Invader Zim, ODY-C, Revival, The Spire and Usagi Yojimbo.

November 8, 2015

Doctor Who: "The Zygon Inversion"

20 million shape-shifting Zygons live on the planet Earth. They've been living there via a secret arrangement with UNIT, only now the ceasefire has failed. UNIT has been disabled. Clara is a captive, her body being used to let a Zygon rebel leader assume her identity. Kate Stewart has been captured in the USA, and the Doctor and Osgood are about to get blown out of the sky by a rocket. Roll on part two.

I am absolutely adoring the string of two-part stories that have populated this season of Doctor Who. It's brilliant because it brings back the cliffhanger at the end of every second episode. Cliffhangers are part of what made the 20th century Doctor Who so wonderful and so addictive as a child. It's also brilliant because it's given stories room to breathe. There's more time now. Time for nuance, time for character development, and time at last for some proper storytelling. If "The Zygon Invasion/Inversion" had been told over 45 minutes it would have been a rushed, by-the-numbers and to be honest slightly tiresome episode. Told over 90 minutes though, and instead of a rushed, perfunctory climax you get several minutes of Peter Capaldi - one of Britain's most accomplished actors - acting his socks off at you.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Family"

It's 1 October 1990 and time for more Star Trek: The Next Generation.

While the Enterprise undergoes repairs following the Borg incident, Picard (Patrick Stewart) makes a long overdue visit to France to visit his brother Robert (Jeremy Kemp). Worf (Michael Dorn) shows his adoptive parents around the ship, while Wesley (Wil Wheaton) receives a holographic recording made by his dead father.

"Family" is a truly ground-breaking moment in Star Trek. The preceding two-parter, "The Best of Both Worlds", were written on the fly: Michael Piller wrote the first part without having a clue how its cliffhanger would be resolved in the second. By the time the second part had been written, it became clear that something absolutely traumatic had been done to Jean-Luc Picard. The character had been assaulted and violated in the most horrifying fashion. He had been forced against his will to murder 11,000 Starfleet officers in a devastating massacre at Wolf 359. Simply moving ahead as if nothing had happened didn't just seem unreasonable, but actively offensive. As a result the writer's room went to war with the producers to get the right to address these issues in another episode. "Family" is, for all intents and purposes, the third part of "The Best of Both Worlds".

November 7, 2015

Stand by Me Doraemon (2014)

Since 1969 Doraemon has been a permanent fixture in Japanese children's entertainment. Originally the star of his own serialised manga, he soon graduated to TV animation. The first series was not so popular, but the second ran for a jaw-dropping 1,787 episodes between 1979 and 2005. A third series was on television before 2005 was out. In addition to the TV anime, there have also been 35 animated feature films since 2005. Nobita's Dinosaur was the first. Stand be Me Doraemon is the most recent, and marks a striking change in the long-running franchise. Rather than form part of the annual hand-animated series of films, Stand be Me Doraemon is the first CGI Doraemon film, and retells the key storyline of the original manga on the big screen for the very first time.

Nobita is a lazy and foolish fourth grader living in Japan. One day he is visited by his great-great-grandson, who reveals that the mistakes Nobita will make as an adult will bankrupt his family for generations. To ensure a better future comes to pass, and that Nobita will stay on the road to success, his great-great-grandson leaves behind Doraemon: a blue atomic robot cat armed with a four-dimensional pouch containing a wide variety of technological gadgets. In other words, Doraemon is essentially The Terminator for Japanese primary schoolers.

Survivors: "Genesis"

It's 23 April 1975, and time for more Survivors.

With most of the planet's population wiped out by a mystery virus, the few remaining survivors begin making plans for the future. Abby (Carolyn Seymour) stumbles upon a former union leader now establishing himself as a feudal style overlord. Jenny (Lucy Fleming) continues to wander alone through the countryside. Engineer Greg Preston (Ian McCullough) encounters two strangers in a quarry: one a rich socialite out of her depth, the other a badly injured survivalist who may be crippled for life.

Terry Nation's portrayal of post-apocalypse Britain continues in this fairly bleak second episode that benefits from some stark, quite shocking moments of selfishness and greed but suffers from disconnected and somewhat haphazard plotting. Altogether it's a worthwhile hour of television, but does feel more than a little like its author was making the script up as he went along.

November 6, 2015

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Best of Both Worlds, Part II"

It's 24 September 1990, and time for Star Trek: The Next Generation.

A Borg cube has arrived in the Alpha Quadrant. Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) has been kidnapped and altered to become Locutus - a mouthpiece for the Borg's intentions and a source of intelligence on Starfleet strategy. With the Borg racing towards Earth to assimilate humanity, newly promoted Captain Riker (Jonathan Frakes) must find a way to destroy them even if it means killing his former commander and mentor in the process.

The middle of 1990 was a pretty exciting time for Star Trek fans. Season 3 of The Next Generation had unexpectedly ended on a monster cliffhanger, with Riker ordering the Enterprise to fire on a horrifyingly transformed Picard. Rumours were rife over the summer that Patrick Stewart was leaving the series, that Picard would die at the beginning of Season 4, and that guest character Commander Shelby (Elizabeth Dennehy) would be joining the series as a regular in his place.

Robo Rock (2007)

There will always be a special place for the ultra-low-budget cult film, produced on a shoestring but boasting a highly idiosyncratic storyline and a distinctive tone. They're often quite shakily produced, with more enthusiasm than craft, but they have such a punk-rock enthusiasm that it's difficult not to forgive their drawbacks and focus on whatever weird, one-of-a-kind type of story they're telling.

Robo Rock is a pretty decent example: it was the first live-action project by Japanese animation studio Gonzo, released without fanfare in Japan in November 2007 and pretty widely ignored upon release. To date it's yet to receive a home video release outside of Asia. The film follows Masaru (Shun Shioya), a failed rock singer in his mid-twenties who tries to earn a living by either mooching off his tattoo artist girlfriend or working as a 'handyman' for a local yakuza. He might have to do any number of things as a handyman: steal underwear from a clothes line to sell to a pervert, take a new and illegal drug to find out its side effects, or even something as simple as taking an elderly resident for a walk around the neighbourhood.

One day Masaru is accosted by an eccentric public servant who informs him that aliens are plotting to invade the Earth, that there is a giant robot constructed to defeat them, and that after the robot's creator died Masaru is the only person in the world capable of operating it.

November 5, 2015

Survivors: "The Fourth Horseman"

Terry Nation will long be remembered for his contributions to British television, chiefly for his creating the Daleks for Doctor Who but also for creating and writing Blake's 7. In between he also created the 1975 post-apocalyptic drama Survivors. It's not quite as well known as his other two creations, most likely because - if we're to be frank - it's not quite as good. It does have much to recommend, however, and as I've enjoyed watching through both Blake's 7 and fellow 1970s BBC series The Omega Factor it seemed reasonable enough to give Survivors a rewatch as well.

So it's 16 April 1975, and time for Survivors.

The first episode, "The Undiscovered Country", shows the sudden and catastrophic collapse of human civilization after a fast-spreading plague-like virus sweeps across the planet. It's told from the perspective of two women: twentysomething Londoner Jenny Richards (Lucy Fleming) and rich country wife Abby Grant (Carolyn Seymour).