January 31, 2014

The Pull List: 29 January 2014

When it launched in September 2011 All-Star Western was one of my favourite books in DC's New 52. It teamed up 19th century bounty hunter Jonah Hex with the fastidious and bookish Amadeus Arkham - who would ultimate found Gotham City's infamous mental institution Arkham Asylum. The books seemed like a wonderful blend, combining western action with historical Gotham, allowing for numerous references to the broader DC Universe while still telling entertaining stories.

Sadly my tastes don't seem to have aligned with general comic book readers, because while I thought it was a great book very few comic fans seemed to buy it. The sales dropped from 39,000 at launch to 23,000 by the end of its first year, then 14,000 by the end of its second. It's now hovering perilously close to cancellation. To give the book a chance at gaining some new readers, writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray have thrown Jonah Hex into his far future where he is now trapped, wandering 21st century America. He's basically on a road trip. He's met Batman, John Constantine, Swamp Thing and - in All-Star Western #27 - gets to hang out with Superman.

It's a dreadful idea. They may co-exist in the broader DC Universe but Superman and Jonah Hex do not mesh together at all well. It's also getting ridiculous how Hex's road trip is leading him from one DC hero to another without any real logic dictating why. In the issue's second half Hex is dragged to a museum where his own life story is presented as an exhibit, a scene that could be good but isn't. All up I'm rather sad. Moritat's art continues to impress, but the writing has gone out of the window. This used to be an excellent comic that couldn't find an audience. Now it's a bad comic that still can't find an audience. (1/5)

DC Comics. Written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti. Art by Moritat.

Under the cut: reviews of Aquaman, Batman and Robin, Black Science, Cataclysm: The Ultimates' Last Stand, The Flash, The Green Team: Teen Trillionaires, Guardians of the Galaxy, Revival, Saga, Thor: God of Thunder and X-Men Legacy. I want to say right here above the cut: this was a really decent week for comics, with only one other glaring misfire in my stack.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Battle"

The Ferengi are back! Everyone's least favourite new alien species return, because despite not remotely working the first time around the production team are going to flog this horse until it's a pile of bones. Looking ahead, it will take Armin Shimerman's rounded three-dimensional performance as Quark in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine before the Ferengi are watchable again - until then (more than five seasons from now), we have to cope with what we're given.

The Enterprise makes a rendezvous with a Ferengi starship when its captain, Daimon Bok, claims he has a gift for Captain Picard. It is the USS Stargazer, Picard's first command, presumed lost when it was attacked by an unknown assailant nine years earlier. When Data examines the Stargazer's log, however, it tells a very different story to the one Picard told on the record - and why is the captain suddenly plagued by headaches?

January 30, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Justice"

The Enterprise arrives at Rubicon III, where the peaceful inhabitants seem to live an idyllic life of fun, camaraderie and sexual pleasure. When Wesley tramples a flower bed and is sentenced to death, it brings Captain Picard up against Rubicon III's harsh justice system - and the alien intelligence that controls the planet from above.

"Justice" is an episode with a kernel of quality at its centre, in which Picard must choose whether to abide by Starfleet protocols and allow Wesley to die or to save the young ensign but go against his own beliefs - and anger a powerful alien force in the process. That aspect is actually rather good, and certainly Patrick Stewart seems to appreciate the chance to play something a bit more weighty than he's been given so far. Unfortunately this kernel of quality is encased in an inch-thick shell of some of the worst television America produced in the 1980s.

The Grey (2012)

A plane full of oil rig workers crashes in the Alaskan wilderness. While the survivors gather themselves and wait for rescue, they come under attack from a pack of grey wolves. When it becomes clear that the wolves will not stop attacking until they are dead, the survivors start a trek through the forest in the hope of escaping.

I was a big fan of Joe Carnahan's debut film Narc, and after his entertaining but bloated action blockbuster The A-Team failed to bust any blocks he retreated to a lower budget and profile with this film. The Grey come to cinemas with the reputation already set for being "the film where Liam Neeson has a fistfight with a wolf", and certainly he does punch at least one wolf in the head before the first half hour has passed. Neeson has undergone a remarkable career transformation in recent years, moving away from the dramas and smaller pictures he made his name upon in favour of fast-paced, brutally violent action thrillers. It is easy to glance at The Grey and see it form part of that run of films, but it's also inaccurate. There's a lot more going on here than Liam Neeson punching wolves.

January 29, 2014

The Pull List: 22 January 2014

Marvel are trying something new with their current soft relaunch. They responded to DC's line-wide New 52 with what they called "Marvel Now", a set of new volumes for most of their old titles with new storylines, and creative teams, and new issue ones for the speculators to buy in ridiculous quantities. It worked okay, and certainly Marvel have maintained their market share lead over DC more months than not in the past year.

Now for some reason they're already launching again, with "All-New Marvel Now". Yet more titles are getting new volumes, only this time they're being relaunched in the most pointless of ways. Daredevil is a key example: the character's staying the same, the writer's staying, the artist is staying. All that's changing is the number on the cover, and a new story arc is starting.

Then there are the "Now" issues. New story arcs are being published not just with some signage on the cover indicating it's a new storyline; they're actually getting numbered with ".NOW" on the covers. It's a follow-up to their weird ".1" issues, I suppose. So, for example, this week's All-New X-Men isn't issue #22. It's issue #22.NOW. It looks ridiculous, and makes no sense. Am I the only one finding this all a bit weird?

As for the issue itself: certainly it's a new story arc, but it's an arc that's following on from the previous 21 issues with the original X-Men still trapped in the present day. This issue crosses over into Guardians of the Galaxy, and you know how much I love being forced to buy comics that aren't on my list just to understand a storyline. It's reasonably okay, but not entirely satisfactory. And really: what's with the .NOW numbering? Stop it. (3/5)

Marvel. Written by Brian Michael Bendis. Art by Stuart Immonen and Wade von Grawbadger.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman, Batman and Two-Face, Batwoman, Bedlam, Black Widow, Dead Body Road, Deadly Class, Hawkeye, The Massive, Star Wars Legacy and Wonder Woman.

Fun with Stats: Comic Book Sales in 2013

Since we're into January, and since I review the comics I buy on a weekly basis, I figured it might be worth having a look back at 2013 and see how the US comic book industry went. To do this I've assembled all of the sales data of single issues from Diamond Distribution - who pretty much have the monopoly on comic book distribution to the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK.

In terms of raw numbers, 10 titles managed to shift more than one million units in 2013. These were:
  1. Superior Spider-Man (2.28m)
  2. Avengers (1.65m)
  3. Batman (1.47m)
  4. All-New X-Men (1.31m)
  5. Uncanny X-Men (1.22m)
  6. The Walking Dead (1.18m)
  7. Age of Ultron (1.16m)
  8. Justice League (1.12m)
  9. Justice League of America (1.05m)
  10. Uncanny Avengers (1.02m)
In terms of single issues, however, the 10 best-selling books were:
  1. The Walking Dead #115 (310,584)
  2. Justice League of America #1 (307,734)
  3. Superman Unchained #1 (251,456)
  4. Guardians of the Galaxy #1 (211,312)
  5. Infinity #1 (205,819)
  6. Superior Spider-Man #1 (188,182)
  7. X-Men #1 (177,633)
  8. Uncanny X-Men #1 (177,463)
  9. Age of Ultron #1 (174,952)
  10. Superman Unchained #2 (165,754)

January 28, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

Jack Ryan is a bit of a strange character for Hollywood. He's the protagonist in a string of two inch thick military/political thrillers written by the late Tom Clancy, and he's been adapted to the screen five times by Paramount Pictures. He was first played by Alec Baldwin in 1990's The Hunt for Red October, then by Harrison Ford in its 1992 and 1994 sequels. Then in 2003 Paramount rebooted the franchise, made the character younger and less experienced, and cast Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears. Now in 2014 they've rebooted the character again and cast Chris Pine (Star Trek) as Ryan in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. That's five films, three of which have essentially been origin stories. Talk about redundant.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit re-introduces Ryan as an Afghanistan veteran turned CIA stock market analyst, as he uncovers a Russian conspiracy to cripple the United States economy. The film, directed by Kenneth Branagh (who also plays the villain) has already had a fairly disastrous opening in American cinemas. It's made about $30 million in two weeks, and an additional $46 million worldwide, so at this stage it's difficult to imagine Paramount going ahead with a sequel in the near future. I have already blogged about the possible reasons why the film has underperformed (you can read that entry here), but now that I've actually gone and seen the film for myself I figured it was worth giving it a quick review.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Lonely Among Us"

The Enterprise is en route to the planet of Parliament, where two rival species - the Anticans and the Selay - will apply for membership to the United Federation of Planets. When the ship passes by a strange cloud of gas in deep space, an electrically charged entity invades the ship and begins to take over members of the crew.

"Lonely Among Us" is a strange, messy episode, but for all its scrappy, shaky quirks I couldn't help but enjoy it. It is far from perfect, but after so many irredeemably bad episodes this season I'll take what I can get. In particular the predatory antics of the Anticans and the Selay - sneaking around corrdiors, laying traps, murdering and eating rival delegates - is an entertaining diversion. The main plot, in which an alien entity jumps from officer to officer in an attempt to turn the Enterprise back to the cloud from which the alien came, is less successful.

January 25, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Where No One Has Gone Before"

The Enterprise is visited by a Starfleet propulsion expert, the arrogant Kosinski, and his nameless alien assistant. When their attempt to fine-tune the warp drive malfunctions, the Enterprise is thrown almost three million light years across the universe. When they attempt to return to their starting point they instead warp to an unknown region of space entirely, where the crew's thoughts appear to be turning into reality.

Oh thank goodness: an enjoyable episode. "Where No One Has Gone Before" is far from perfect, but it stands head-and-shoulders above the four episodes broadcast before it. It feels quite different to the old-fashioned scripts thus far, and is the first opportunity for The Next Generation to try something new. It also gives Wesley Crusher something interesting to do, and is actually written in a way that doesn't make him look and sound like an idiot.

January 24, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Last Outpost"

When Gene Roddenberry set about updating Star Trek for The Next Generation he made a conscious decision to put a Klingon on the Enterprise bridge. Lt Worf was a symbol: a sign that the future had progressed, and progress that in James Kirk's day might have seemed unimaginable was now a tangible reality. This caused a new problem, however, because with the Klingons now allied with the Federation some new alien menace was required.

"The Last Outpost" introduces The Next Generation's replacement villains, the Ferengi. In hindsight it was probably a bad idea to hype them in advance, because by the time the episode was broadcast fans seemed to be actively anticipating them. They're built up in advance as well, with an ominous name-check an episode or two beforehand, and descriptions of savage, violent behaviour in "The Last Outpost"s opening minutes. Then they make their on-screen debut, and to be honest everything falls apart.

January 23, 2014

Natural City (2003)

This is hell of a fun movie. Natural City is a Korean sci-fi action flick, boasting buckets of CGI backgrounds, slow-motion kung fu gunfights and impassioned melodrama. It's set in the near future, where the rich are heading off to off-world colonies and the poor are living out what life they can in the rain-slicked, neon-lit streets of a huge expansive city.

That all might sound a little familiar to you. Never mind. The film is based around a police officer employed to kill rogue cyborgs who - with an artificially induced shortened life-span - tend to go a little crazy in the final days before their de-activation. This too may sound a little bit like you've seen it before.

Okay so here’s the deal: Natural City is, for all intents and purposes, the Korean remake of Blade Runner. I use the word ‘remake’ rather than ‘homage’ deliberately. This is not simply a case of one film heavily inspiring or influencing the other. As far as Natural City and Blade Runner are concerned even individual shots and scenes are damn-near identical. Sure, the plot is slightly different and there are a bunch of neat new ideas thrown in, but this is not a film that can deny its pedigree – not while keeping a straight face anyway.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Code of Honor"

Oh my goodness.

In "Code of Honor", Lieutenant Yar is kidnapped by the leader of Ligon II and invited to become his number #1 wife. This leads his existing wife to challenge Yar in a duel to the death, because women fighting to the death over their patriarchal masters is what Star Trek is all about, right? Right? Oh, and all of the Ligonians are played by African Americans. Sure it might look dodgy to have all of the violent, warlike and comparatively primitive people be black, but I'm sure it's not that racist. It doesn't even look racist. Does it? Really?

"Code of Honor" is an epsiode that moves from the bland awfulness of the first two episode and enters into its own brave new world of racist, sexist, and deeply unlikeable trash. Nobody likes this episode. Not audiences at the time, not fans, not the cast, not the crew. The original director, who was responsible for casting the Ligonians as Africans, was fired before the shoot was complete. It's a pity he wasn't fired before the shoot began. This is Star Trek at its worst: not just incompetently written and produced, but quite difficult to sit through and a direct refutation of everything nice that the original series stood for.

January 22, 2014

What went wrong with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit?

Paramount's spy thriller Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was intended to relaunch one of the studio's key franchises. Instead it's simply failing to capture audiences. It premiered in the USA last weekend in fourth place, grossing just US$15.4m, a far cry from what Paramount executives would have hoped. Even without taking inflation into account, it is the lowest-grossing opening in the USA for any of its Jack Ryan films. It lags behind The Hunt for Red October ($17.2m), Patriot Games ($18.5m), Clear and Present Danger ($20.3m) and particularly behind The Sum of All Fears ($31.2m). Without a unexpectedly long tail, or huge international box office, this is probably the last Jack Ryan movie to get made.

Of course, adjusted for inflation the film's performance looks even worse. In today's terms, the four earlier films' openings would be $29.8m (The Hunt for Red October), $29.8m (Patriot Games), $31m (Clear and Present Danger) and $39.5m (Sum of All Fears). So it's fair to say that Shadow Recruit has performed about half as well as its predecessors. What went wrong? There are some potential reasons.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Naked Now"

The pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced the all-new USS Enterprise of the 24th century, its captain Jean-Luc Picard and its valiant crew: Riker, Data, Worf, Yar, Troi, Dr Crusher, La Forge and Dr Crusher's teenage child prodigy Wesley. It launched them off into new adventures that could go to places and situations never-before imagined during the three seasons of the original Star Trek back in the 1960s.

Except that, in their second episode, they go where someone has gone before. In this case, into a knowing retread of classic 60s episode "The Naked Time", in which a strange gravitational effect causes the crew to become dangerous intoxicated. Picard and Dr Crusher start flirting madly. Yar has sex with Commander Data. Wesley takes over the Enterprise. You read that right: the series has been on the air for one week and its writers have already found a way to make you want to slap Wesley Crusher out of the nearest airlock. It's maddening: Wil Wheaton is great. Why are they doing this to him?

January 21, 2014

Mirror Mirror (2012)

There's a regular phenomenon in Hollywood where two films will get released very closely to one another that share a basic plot, or theme, or concept. Whether it's duelling volcanos in 1997 (Dantes Peak and Volcano), asteroids hitting the Earth in 1998 (Deep Impact and Armageddon) or this year's rival Hercules projects (Renny Harlin versus Brett Ranter? It's a veritable sophie's choice), it comes about due to coincidence or, more often, pure bloody-mindedness. Studios always have an enormous number of projects on the boil, and if a rival announces a similar project is getting made you can either abandon your own plans or rush into production yourself and try to get into the cinemas first.

The subject matter of choice in 2012 was the popular folk story Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Of course it had been tackled many times before onscreen, both in animation and live action, but with the unexpected success of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland Hollywood was keen to start exploiting children's stories and fairy tales all over again.

In the red corner: Universal Pictures' Snow White and the Huntsman, an ultra-serious, effects-heavy action epic pitting Charlize Theron's wicked witch against Twilight's Kristen Stewart and Thor's Chris Hemsworth. The blue corner: Relativity Media's Mirror Mirror, a deliberately lighter, colourful and more aggressive self-conscious take starring Julia Roberts as the villainous queen and Lily Collins and Armie Hammer as Snow White and the prince respectively. I saw Huntstman in cinemas in 2012, because its trailer made it look rather awesome. It wasn't. I avoided Mirror Mirror until this weekend because its trailer made it look terrible.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Encounter at Farpoint"

Nostalgia has taken hold, and this past week I've found myself rocketing through an episode-by-episode rewatching of Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season. I remember first hearing about it, and how excited I was when this 90-minute pilot episode turned up at my local video library. In 1987 Star Trek was very much a movie franchise, with the most recent instalment - The Voyage Home - the most successful film so far. It was the perfect time to bring the franchise back to television where it began, and in a not-unexpected move they set the new series a few decades (seven of them it turns out) into the future. The Voyage Home had introduced a second Enterprise, its registry code NCC-1701A. The Next Generation was to focus on the Enterprise-D, captained by the French Jean-Luc Picard and dispatched on a whole new set of missions into the galaxy.

It's not a very common piece of knowledge for some reason, but Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was Paramount's third choice for executive producer on The Next Generation. Before he was offered the job it had already been turned down by Harve Bennett and Leonard Nimoy, both of whom were convinced a new cast and series was pure folly.

On 28 September 1987 series pilot "Encounter at Farpoint" premiered in US syndication. A little over 26 years later, I've given it a fresh viewing... and it isn't very good.

January 20, 2014

The Pull List: 15 January 2014

One of the best superhero comics of recent years has been Mark Waid's Daredevil. He managed to take a character that felt creatively tapped out and relentlessly morose and turn it into a fast-paced, dynamic and brilliantly clever monthly serial. With Paolo Rivera and subsequently Chris Samnee the book leaped off the page. It was one of the best-written books of recent years (up there with Hawkeye, Batman and Saga) and one of the best-looking as well.

All things come to a relaunch, however, and so in March Marvel will be publishing an all-new Daredevil #1 - still by Waid and Samnee, but with Matt Murdock relocated to Los Angeles and with a promised 'fresh take' on the character. I had no idea what they were going to do to relocate Murdock from his base in Hell's Kitchen, but the last page of Daredevil #35 manages to make that suddenly and astoundingly clear.

One of the best talents Waid has displayed on this book is an ability to place the answer to a problem in plain sight and then write in such a fashion that the answer only become apparent when you read it. It makes for a wonderfully satisfying comic, and this issue is just as good as the 11 other issues I've given five stars to since August 2012. I can't wait for Daredevil #36. I can't wait for Daredevil #1, either. (5/5) Marvel. Written by Mark Waid. Art by Chris Samnee.

Under the cut: reviews of All-New X-Men, Batgirl, Justice League 3000, Thor: God of Thunder, Worlds' Finest and X-Men Legacy.

Saving Mr Banks (2013)

In 1961 Los Angeles, children's author P.L. Travers arrives at the Walt Disney Studio to negotiate selling the rights to her novel Mary Poppins to its titular studio founder and producer. Disney has been pursuing the movie rights for 20 years. Travers does not want to sell them. Of course in Saving Mr Banks, directed by John Lee Hancock and starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, the result of this battle of wits is a bit of a foregone conclusion: we all know that Walt Disney Pictures released Mary Poppins in 1964 to enormous critical and commercial success. Thankfully Saving Mr Banks has more than enough additional elements in it to be one of the most entertaining films I've seen in quite a while.

The film is centred on Emma Thompson's wonderfully spiky performance as Pamela Travers: sharp, blunt and almost perpetually irritated by the world around her. If it wasn't for a cleverly placed recording of the real Travers during the closing credits you would be forgiven for thinking she's playing a caricature. The character is a delight, and the film's extensive flashbacks to her childhood ensure that she has a depth and backstory to explain why she acts the way that she does.

January 18, 2014

13: Game of Death (2006)

13: Game of Death is a strange movie. Based on the Thai comic book by Eakasit Thairatana, it features an unsuccessful trumpet salesman, Pusit (Krissada Terrence), egged on by a mysterious voice on his mobile telephone to complete thirteen challenges. Each challenge he completes wins him increasing amounts of money. Complete all thirteen and he wins 100 million baht. Quit halfway through and he loses everything. At first the challenges are easy – the first is to use a rolled-up newspaper to kill a fly. The second is to eat the fly. The third is to walk out onto the street and make three children cry. Challenges four to thirteen I will leave for you to discover by yourself.

It is a sensational premise, and one guaranteed to be snapped up and adapted by Hollywood any day now. The execution is pointedly bizarre. While the script would suggest some kind of increasingly tightly-wound horror-thriller in the vein of Saw or Old Boy, the direction and performances work towards an oddly amiable form of black comedy. Every moment of disgust, or horror, or tension is immediately deflated by a funny line, or a hilarious facial expression, or a joke. The result is a schizophrenic viewing experience – the film simply refuses to let its audience know if it is supposed to laugh or cry.

January 17, 2014

Wong Kar Wai's Oscar Woes

What is it that Wong Kar Wai has to do, precisely, to score an Academy Award nomination? His martial arts film The Grandmaster was Hong Kong's official selection for the Best Foreign Picture category, and indeed it was one of the nine short-listed films. When the nominations were announced earlier this morning, however, it was conspicuously absent. Wong has never been nominated, not for Best Director, not for Best Foreign Picture.

Part of the problem is the labyrinthine manner in which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) runs the Best Foreign Picture category. Each country's nominated film authority is tasked with selecting one feature to represent their nation, and the film has to have been released theatrically in its home country not in the immediate past calendar year - as is the case with the main Oscar categories - but between the start of October two years previously and the end of September in the immediate past calendar year. Once each country has submitted its film, a special AMPAS committee reviews them and selects a short-list. AMPAS members who attend special film screenings can then nominate from that short-list and subsequently vote for the winner. You're not allowed to watch the films on screener DVDs - you have to attend an official AMPAS theatrical screening to be qualified to vote.

January 16, 2014

Choose Me (1984)

A late night radio counselor moves in with the owner of a bar, neither of them aware that they talk to each other every night on the air. When they both encounter an escaped mental patient, a love triangle rapidly develops.

Choose Me is a low budget drama from 1984, written and directed by Alan Rudolph and starring Genevieve Bujold, Lesley Ann Warren and Keith Carradine. You don't need to check the back of the DVD case to know that this is a 1980s film: it's practically soaked in neon, the on-the-nose musical score never seems to give up and the crass self-importance of its characters is a major giveaway. The film is entertaining in fits and starts, but never really gets its act together to be worth the 105 minutes it takes to watch it.

This isn't the cast's fault: they all give fantastic performances, particularly Bujold as the tightly wound, complicated radio host Nancy and Carradine as the unsettling drifter (and escaped mental patient) Mickey. The effect is like getting a Formula One racing driver to take your Cortina down to the shops: they do a stunning job driving it there, but the car still is what it is.

The Pull List: 8 January 2014

Hot on the heels of their "Marvel Now" soft relaunch, Marvel are now diving headlong into "All-New Marvel Now", which does seem to confirm what I've suspected for some time: Marvel Comics is in a continuous state of relaunch. Books are regularly getting reworked and rebooted, and the numbering gets reset on a near-annual basis.

This past week saw the debut of Marvel's second attempt at an ongoing Black Widow comic. The first lastest eight issues, but since then the character has co-starred in one of the most popular motion pictures of all time so I guess it's worth them giving her another shot.

Black Widow #1 is written by Nathan Edmondson with art by Phil Noto. It features the titular Russian assassin on personal missions in-between her adventures with the Avengers. First up it's worth noting that Noto's artwork is sensational. It presents a more grounded and realistic look than the typical Marvel comic book, and that's a good way to present what is basically a non-superheroic espionage book. Noto's simple cover is remarkably effective as well, allowing Black Widow to really stand out on the comic shop shelf.

Edmondson's script is a stand-alone story, which is something I'm appreciating more and more these days. It's tightly plotted and the characters are all believable. The one thing is seems to lack is any real sense of originality. A by-the-numbers spy/assassin story only takes you so far, and based on this issue there's not really enough to Black Widow to make it a must-read. It's nice to see Marvel give yet another female hero a shot at a solo book, but unless the stories pick up significantly I don't see this book surviving past its first year. (3/5)

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Batwing, Cataclysm: Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, Daredevil: Dark Nights, Detective Comics, FBP, Manifest Destiny, Star Wars, Three and Young Avengers.

January 15, 2014

Throw Down (2004)

A man loses all of his money in an illegal gambling den. Rather than see him walk home empty-handed, his friend impulsively snatches the cash and runs for her life. They run down the street together, chased by a trio of gangsters. When the gangsters are about to catch the girl, the man leaps into their path. He submissively takes the beating of his life while she hides around the corner. When the man finally staggers around the corner to re-join her, he is missing a shoe. She walks back to the gangsters to retrieve it. And it’s one of the most romantic scenes ever committed to film.

Throw Down is a marvel: a unique film experience that blends genre so effortlessly that it becomes difficult to describe its genre at all. It is too funny to be a drama. It is too whimsical to be a thriller. It’s too sedate and meditative to be an action film. It’s too heartfelt and melancholic to be a comedy. It is, instead, simply a wonderfully told story. It is rich in visual imagery, overflowing with heart and originality, and stands head-and-shoulders above almost every Hong Kong movie ever made. It is a particular favourite of mine.

January 14, 2014

Doctor Who: "The Escape"

When we last saw the Doctor and his companions, Susan had just retrieved the vital anti-radiation medication from the TARDIS. In "The Escape", the third instalment of "The Daleks", she makes contact with Alydon and his people, the tall, Aryan-looking Thals, and relays their message of peace to the Daleks. When she, the Doctor, Ian and Barbara continue to be imprisoned by the Daleks, they conspire to escape.

The Daleks clearly captured the public imagination from the get-go, since an additional 2.5 million viewers tuned into this episode compared to "The Survivors" the week before. By the end of the serial in February 1964 Doctor Who was getting more than 10 million viewers a week - a far cry from the 4.4 million who tuned into "An Unearthly Child" in November 1963. It would be tempting to say that "Doctor Who had arrived at last", or some such hyperbole, but the truth is that at this stage the series still isn't really resembling the one that we've all been watching for the last 50-odd years.

January 13, 2014

Star Trek Enterprise: "Carpenter Street"

In "Carpenter Street", Archer and T'Pol are sent by the elusive Crewman Daniels to early 21st century Detroit, where a small team of reptilian Xindi are creating another super-weapon with which to destroy the human race.

This is all feeling suspiciously like deja vu. Last episode we were revisiting one of the worst episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, the episode before that was revisiting classic Star Trek "human history on another planet" shenanigans, and now we're travelling back in time to the present day in a well-worn fashion. This story arc is beginning to feel less like a bold new direction and more like a greatest hits package. No wonder audiences were fleeing the series in droves - we've seen all of this many times before.

Audition (1999)

A recent online article about the most disturbing movies ever made sparked a short discussion over at my Facebook page. Conversation focused mainly on Takashi Miike's Audition. I figured this was as good a time as any to reprint my review of Audition from my now-defunct Asian cinema website Eiga. I hope you enjoy it.

Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi), a middle-aged widower, is encouraged by his son to start dating again. The widower’s colleague, a successful film producer, devises a plan to find his best friend the perfect girlfriend. They will conduct an audition session for a non-existent film role, and see what young women come along who might be perfect girlfriend – even future wife – material. The widower can then swoop in and romance her. What could possibly go wrong? The answer, of course, is that an awful lot can go wrong, but no amount of foreshadowing can genuinely express how far this cynical act of auditioning girlfriends will take its protagonist. Shigeharu is not by any means a bad person, but his senseless participation in what can only be described as a cattle call receives one of cinema’s greatest karmic punishments.

January 10, 2014

Star Trek Enterprise: "Similitude"

Okay, so back in the second season of Star Trek: Voyager there's this episode called "Tuvix". There's a transporter accident, Lt Tuvok and Neelix have their bodies fused, and a single humanoid creature named Tuvix emerges. When the Voyager crew discover a means of splitting him apart again, Tuvix doesn't want to go - it might restore Tuvok and Neelix, but he will die. At the episode's conclusion, Captain Janeway has him forcibly separated against his will. Everyone is reunited, and there's tidily no long-term repercussions that a Starfleet officer just willingly and openly murdered somebody because she wanted her friends back. It's a series-breaking episode, because no matter what Janeway does from that point forth, she's always going to be an unrepentant murderer.

Jump forward to 2004, and we get the Enterprise episode "Similitude". When Commander Tucker is mortally wounded in an engineering accident, Dr Phlox suggests a morally questionable cure: using an alien organism he can create a fast-lived clone from which vital neural tissue can be harvested and Tucker's life saved. Things don't go according to plan, however, when the Tucker clone - named Sim - doesn't want to die. We're back in the same situation as "Tuvix", and all that's left is to see what choice Captain Archer makes vis-a-vis murdering an innocent person.

January 9, 2014

The Pull List: 1 January 2014

After a Christmas and New Year break, I'm back to the grindstone on the Pull List, reviewing all of the comic books that I buy each week. As this is the beginning of a new year, it's worth briefly looking back at 2013 to see what the highlights were.

For my money the best comic series of 2013 was Dark Horse's 47 Ronin. Mike Richardson wrote a highly effective adaptation of the Japanese legend, while Stan Sakai took a rare break from his creator-owned anthropomorphic animals to give the story exactly the sort of pastel-coloured, gently styled artwork that it needed. It may have only been a five-issue miniseries, but I gave every issue five out of five - it was simply that good.

Speaking of five out of five, across the whole year I awarded five stars to 115 comics - an average of 2.2 comics per week. Marvel had the lion's share of those with 48 five-star comics, although that came from a fairy narrow band of titles: Thor: God of Thunder, Young Avengers, Hawkeye and Daredevil accounted for 26 of those between them. Thor had the most five-star issues with eight, mainly due to the sensational "Godkiller" arc that kicked off that series.

If there's an award for Publisher of the Year, however, I really think it deserves to go to Image. The publisher has released a massive quantity of creator-owned titles over the year, across a range of genres. It's left the American comic book industry in a much healthier place that it was in at the end of 2012, proving that a broad range of genres can thrive outside of the "big two" paradigm of superhero comics. Image has successfully expanded science fiction through books like Black Science and Storm Dogs, horror through Revival, fantasy with Umbral, edgy drama through Sheltered and Lazarus and crime via Fatale, Dead Body Road and a number of others.

All up, I really enjoyed being a comic book reader in 2013, and have high hopes for the year ahead. Let's start reviewing: this week, the reviews cover All-Star Western, Aquaman, Batwoman, The Flash, Forever Evil, The Green Team: Teen Trillionaires, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Manhattan Projects and The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys.

January 7, 2014

Disney's Second Renaissance

Walt Disney's Frozen hit Australian cinemas on Boxing Day and has been raking in the cash ever since. So far it's grossed more than $16 million dollars and remains at #2 in the box office charts behind only The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. It's been a long time since Walt Disney's animated features were looking this healthy. Quite frankly it's been a long time since Disney's animated features were this good.

Film historians refer to "the Disney Renaissance", a creative resurgence within the Walt Disney Animation Studios that saw the company scale commercial and creative heights with a string of hits starting with The Little Mermaid in 1989 and running through to Tarzan in 1999. This golden period of studio animation stumbled to its knees over the 2000s due a variety of factors: internal schisms within the Walt Disney company, an aggressive release schedule that saw the studio release too many films too quickly (seven animated features between 1999 and 2002, for example) and an industry-wide shift away from traditional animation to computer-generated images (CGI). On a financial level Disney was fine, since they distributed and later purchased Pixar Animation Studios, the outfit that drove the CGI animation industry and whose own films enjoyed a creative drive that equalled - and arguably surpassed - Disney's own. Creatively, however, Disney was in a fallow period. A few more traditionally animated features crept out - Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Home on the Range, Treasure Planet - while Disney's own attempts at computer animation didn't exactly inspire audiences.

January 6, 2014

Star Trek Enterprise: "North Star"

The crew of the Enterprise infiltrate a mysterious colony of humans living in a 19th century civilization within the Delphic Expanse. When they observe the human bigotry towards the alien Skagarans, Archer feels compelled to interfere.

This is the sort of Star Trek episode that generally sets my teeth on edge. The Enterprise is out in an isolated region of space, yet magically discover a human civilization based on the wild west? It's ludicrous. For some strange reason, however, this time it works for me. "North Star" takes its ridiculous premise and gives it a broadly sensible treatment. Aesthetically it works as a solid western. Plot-wise it is by-the-numbers, broadly entertaining Enterprise. As part of Star Trek as a whole, it's a knowing throwback to the original series, where episodes like "A Piece of the Action" and "Patterns of Force" were commonplace.

Chernobyl Diaries (2012)

Is it ever acceptable for a motion picture to co-opt a real-life tragedy as fodder for horror? I'm troubled by the notion; on the one hand I think it's perfectly acceptable to modify the real world to generate art, but on the other it's very easy for a film to come across as crass, tasteless and sometimes even actively offensive. Chernobyl Diaries, written and produced by Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity) and directed by Brad Parker, treads the line in a fairly haphazard fashion. For the most part it's a diverting low budget horror flick, but then from time to time it feels... inappropriate somehow. The Chernobyl disaster was a real event, with 5,000,000 people in its contamination zone. Turning that into the basis for a (look away now if you don't want to know) mutant cannibal film is a fairly tacky manoeuvre.

The film follows a group of relatively clueless young American tourists as they accompany Russian tour guide Yuri in a journey to Pripyat, the residential city that once housed Chernobyl's workers. They quickly realise they are not alone. They rapidly find their van sabotaged. Yuri goes missing. People start panicking. And so on and so forth.

January 4, 2014

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

John McTiernan's 1988 action film Die Hard was a game-changer in Hollywood action cinema, pitting a single ordinary protagonist against a group of armed villains. Police lieutenant John McClane (Bruce Willis) was a working-class everyman who panicked, got injured and generally survived the movie and saved the day by the skin of his teeth. The film was such a hit that 20th Century Fox repeated the formula in 1990's Die Hard 2: Die Harder, and then repurposed an unrelated screenplay to make 1995's Die Hard with a Vengeance. After a lengthy break the series got a fourth instalment in 2007 with the amiable but ridiculously over-the-top Live Free or Die Hard, and that film's success led to a fifth film six years later.

In A Good Day to Die Hard, the increasingly old and cranky Lieutenant McClane travels to Russia when his wayward son Jack is arrested for murder. Once there he discovers his son is a top-level CIA agent neck-deep in rescuing a disgraced dissident from an aspiring defence minister in the making. Or something. To be honest I'm fuzzy on the details because this is the worst film from 2013 that I have seen.

January 2, 2014

AKB0048: "Their Day Off"

After a month of training, the recruits are granted a day off to relax and explore Akibastar. For some it's a chance to get to know one another better. For another it's an opportunity to meet the Successors of AKB0048. For the production team it's a chance to indulge in a little fan service with naked teenage girls having a bath together.

That's annoying. I get that fan service is a thing, and generally speaking female characters are going to accidentally flash their underwear at the viewer or somesuch, but in this specific episode it irritated me more than it usually would. Part of the problem is that the episode is overall a very lightweight one. It meanders along via a series of character vignettes but overall doesn't add a great deal to the series.

January 1, 2014

Popular Posts: December 2013

Here are the five most popular posts on The Angriest this past month:
  • "An Adventure in Space and Time" (link)
  • Doctor Who: "The Day of the Doctor" (link)
  • Babylon 5: "Voices of Authority" (link)
  • The world's longest-running movie franchises (link)
  • The best comic book covers of 2013 (link)
Here are the five most popular posts originally published in December 2013:
  • The world's longest-running movie franchises (link)
  • The best comic book covers of 2013 (link
  • The Wolverine (2013) (link)
  • Babylon 5: "Messages from Earth" (link)
  • The Pull List: 27 November 2013 (link)

Doctor Who: "The Time of the Doctor"

I have just returned from a week-long holiday in Sydney, during which time the BBC aired the Doctor Who Christmas special. "The Time of the Doctor" is a significant episode for the series. It marks the final appearance of Matt Smith's 11th Doctor, heralds the introduction of Peter Capaldi's 12th Doctor, ties up three seasons' worth of loose continuity strands and by coincidence also happens to be the 800th episode of Doctor Who ever broadcast.

A mysterious signal is being transmitted from an isolated planet. Every power-mongering civilization in the universe arrives out of fear, while the Doctor arrives out of curiosity. He finds a crack in the universe he thought he had left behind, a town named Christmas and a future he has been desperately hoping to avoid. On the planet Trenzalore, the Doctor's faces a 300 year-old siege that can only end in his death.