March 31, 2014

Rat Queens Vol 1: Sass and Sorcery (2014)

Image Comics has been publishing an increasing range of creator-owned titles in recent years, so rapidly in fact that it's difficult to keep up with them all. One of the books I completely failed to try out was Rat Queens, a fantasy comic by writer Kurtis J. Weibe and artist Roc Upchurch. Since the first trade paperback was released last week, collecting the first five monthly issues, I figured it was time to catch up.

Rat Queens is basically a Dungeons & Dragons campaign in which the stereotypical band of adventurers - the dwarf warrior, the elf wizard, the human cleric and the halfling thief - have been transformed into an all-female team who look and act like your average roller derby team. It's a fast-paced book, and a regularly violent one, and its protagonists swear, curse, take illegal drugs and have sex with people they meet in bars. They use all the words. They engage in table-breaking bar room brawls. Depending on your point of view, it's all adolescent rubbish or it's gut-bustingly hilarious. I am, for better or worse, in the latter camp. I laughed a lot at this book. I will be back for the second trade paperback towards the end of the year.

Sinister (2012)

A struggling true crime writer (Ethan Hawke) moves into the house where a family was recently murdered, hoping that this unsolved case will provide him with a much-needed bestseller. In the attic of the house he finds an old film projector and a set of 8mm film reels. Each one depicts a similar brutal murder. Torn between informing the police and keeping the evidence to research the crime book of the century, he soon finds himself fearing that something supernatural is at work in his home.

Sinister is a horror movie written and directed by Scott Derrickson, whose 2005 thriller The Exorcism of Emily Rose impressed me a great deal. He also directed the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, which was fairly disappointing, so to be honest I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from him this time.

It's a film with a lot of nice creepy moments and unexpected jolts, but it's also a film that falls apart if you think about it for more than 30 seconds. It's basically disposable entertainment: enjoyable for the 110 minutes running time, but probably best forgotten about once the credits start rolling.

March 30, 2014

Star Trek Enterprise: "Proving Ground"

I think there's a general rule of thumb for Star Trek that any episode is automatically improved by the presence of Jeffrey Coombs. He lightened up several episodes of Deep Space Nine as the Dominion's obsequious servant Weyoun, and his multiple appearances as the Andorian Commander Shran certainly ensured some of Enterprise's best moments. I figured that, with the Enterprise deep inside the Delphic Expanse, there would be no place for Shran in the third season. I figured wrong. Just when the Enterprise is about to lose the trail on the Xindi superweapon, Shran's Andorian battle cruiser drops out of warp to help save the day.

I am genuinely impressed at how Enterprise picked up the Andorians, a famous but rarely used alien race from Star Trek history, and spun them into the series' most interesting recurring antagonists. Well, sort of antagonists. It's complicated, and this episode keeps it complicated, and I think that's part of why it works so well. Jeffrey Coombs is a stunning actor and a veteran of genre TV and film, and any scene he shares with Scott Bakula sparkles with energy.

March 29, 2014

Gallants (2010)

In many respects Gallants was the quiet achiever of Hong Kong cinema in 2010. It lacked the star power of Donnie Yen, Jackie Chan, Cecilia Cheung or what-have-you. It lacked the budget of many of its competitors. Certainly outside of Hong Kong it hasn’t made much of a ripple at all. Yet despite its low budget and profile it sneaked up behind many other films to become one of the year’s most widely acclaimed and awarded films.

Its accolades are well deserved. Gallants is a heartfelt and laugh-out-loud kung fu comedy that is rich in character and overflowing with nostalgia for 1970s Hong Kong cinema. It quite simply doesn’t put a foot wrong.

I suspect how much you enjoy it will depend on how much you love old-fashioned kung fu films. Gallants isn’t like those films at all really, but rather acts as a contemporary riff on an old genre. Knowing the conventions and the aesthetic will make a huge difference to the viewing experience. Wong Yue-nam plays Cheung, a weedy office worker in a real estate agency. When sent out to a small backwater village in outer Hong Kong, Cheung is set upon by local thugs. He is rescued by Tiger (Bruce Leung), a chubby middle-aged man who turns out to have masterful kung fu skills. When Cheung follows Tiger back to a decrepit old kung fu academy turned tea house, he also meets Dragon (Chen Kuan-tai) and Kwai (Jia Xio Chen), as well as the academy old’s master, Law (Teddy Robin), who has been lying in a coma in the back room since 1980.

March 28, 2014

The Pull List: 26 March 2014

While I've always been more of a DC fan than a Marvel fan, there are a few Marvel characters that I've always liked. My favourite was easily the Incredible Hulk, but I've also had a long-time fascination with the Silver Surfer. He's just so utterly odd. He's a chrome-plated alien who rides around the universe on a surfboard, being generally enigmatic and regularly wracked with guilt over how he used to be the herald of Galactus, the enormous planet-eating space god in purple who wears a silly hat.

There have been long runs for the Surfer in the past, but in recent years he's struggled to maintain an audience. Marvel are clearly hoping that will change, because they're relaunching him again starting this week - written by Spider-Man veteran Dan Slott with art by Madman's Michael Allred.

The thing that's likely to make this iteration succeed where earlier attempts have failed is that Slott has found a fresh hook: this isn't Silver Surfer as a retread of cosmic guilt and weirdness, this is a deliberate pastiche of the BBC's Doctor Who, with the Surfer as the Doctor, his surfboard as his surrogate TARDIS and an unsuspecting young woman from Anchor Bay as his new companion. It's a masterstroke, and Michael Allred's artwork is perfectly matched to it. The first issue is fast-paced, funny and self-deprecating. It's aware of its own ridiculousness and is revelling in it.

I think that in future times people will look back on the history of Marvel Comics and see Fraction and Aja's Hawkeye as a key turning point for the company: more and more often Marvel are emulating that title, giving their IP to intelligent, inventive creators and allowing them free reign to write and draw out of the standard superhero box. We've got Hawkeye, and She-Hulk, and to an extent Daredevil as well. Silver Surfer is another title to add to the list. Damn it Marvel, stop publishing so many books I want to read. (5/5)

Marvel Comics. Written by Dan Slott. Art by Michael Allred.

Under the cut: a big week, with reviews of All-Star Western, Aquaman, Dead Body Road, The Flash, Guardians of the Galaxy, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Manhattan Projects, The Massive, Star Wars Legacy, Survive, Umbral, and The Wake.

March 27, 2014

The Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993)

This is probably one of the strangest movies I am likely to ever see. It’s origins are strange, the film itself is strange – if there is an element of its production to be discussed, it is likely to turn out seeming strange.

In the early 1990s director Wong Kar-Wai was one of the big rising stars of the Hong Kong film industry. While his first two films – As Tears Go By and Days of Being Wild – had not been commercial successes, they had gathered significant critical acclaim. There was a sense that, given the right material and some time, Wong could produce a big box office hit. That hit was supposed to be The Eagle Shooting Heroes, an adaptation of the popular wuxia novel by Louis Cha. Wong, perversely, had other ideas. His adaptation took out almost everything that was in the novel except for its characters, and re-set them into a new prequel story that bore little relation to the source material. He shot it, with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, in an experimental and fairly avant-garde fashion. He edited the film in an unusual way that made it difficult for audiences to understand what was going on. He didn’t even keep the title, calling his film Ashes of Time.

Wong also took a long time to shoot the film. What was supposed to be a quick location shoot of a few weeks stretched into an intolerable stretch of months. The budget spiralled out of control. It spiralled so far, in fact, that to hide the growing cost of his film Wong produced a second film simultaneously, using the same actors and locations, to cover up the additional cost of Ashes of Time by claiming the costs for two productions instead of one. The end result is The Eagle Shooting Heroes.

Gamera 2: Advent of Legion (1996)

A year after giant monsters trashed downtown Tokyo, a meteorite crashes into northern Japan - bringing with it an alien species with designs on the Earth. They infiltrate the subways of Sapporo, as a massive alien plant grows in the town's centre. With the Japanese military unable to fight back, humanity's only hope appears to be the giant angry space turtle Gamera - so long as he's on the humans' side.

Gamera 2: Advent of Legion picks up pretty much exactly where the last film left off, and pits the titular space turtle up against a new kaiju menace: in this case the electrically inclined Legion. It manifests as a species of human-sized clawed monsters, but also as a massive insectoid monster that towers over Gamera and proves a near-overwhelming challenge.

In terms of story and performances, it's probably not as good as the last film. In terms of visual effects and cinematography it's a vastly superior effort.

March 26, 2014

Star Trek Enterprise: "Chosen Realm"

The Enterprise rescues a community of religious aliens, only for the aliens to take over the Enterprise and hold the entire crew hostage using suicide bombers. The religious leader announces his plan to use the Enterprise's advanced weaponry to end a lengthy civil war on his home planet.

I get the impression, watching "Chosen Realm", that the producers probably thought they had something quite edgy and contemporary. The episode was broadcast less than two-and-a-half years after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York, and it features religious zealots and suicide bombers. This got me rethinking the entire third season, since it is based around Starfleet sending the military into enemy territory following a devastating terrorist attack, and it was broadcast during a time when the USA was invading Afghanistan and Iraq.

Go back to the 1960s: Star Trek presented us with a communist utopia right in the middle of the Cold War. It preached peace when America at large was neck-deep in Vietnam. It was, despite being populist entertainment, a willingly subversive and challenging series. I'm now wondering when Star Trek the franchise lost its way, since Enterprise is effectively towing a Republican Party line. War is good. Religion is bad. Let's send the soldiers into enemy territory and show the bad guys what-for.

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

While Goro Miyazaki's difficult 2006 debut Tales from Earthsea may have led some to fear he did not share his father Hayao's talent for animated storytelling, his 2011 follow-up From Up on Poppy Hill should assuage most of those concerns. This grounded, sweet drama about a teenage girl in 1960s Yokohama is vastly superior, and sits quite comfortably among earlier Studio Ghibli productions such as Only Yesterday (1991) and Whisper of the Heart (1995). In many respects, it's the sort of film for which the word 'charming' could have been invented.

The film follows Umi Matsuzaki, a 16 year-old high schooler living in Yokohama. In her mother's absence she manages and cooks for the family boarding house in between her academic studies. Umi connects with the editor of the school's student newsletter,Shun Kazuma, and they grow closer while working to save the school's decrepit student clubhouse from demolition. Much more happens, that's probably a fair enough synopsis if you haven't seen the film yet.

March 25, 2014

Rise of the Guardians (2012)

Rise of the Guardians is a film with a hundred different great ideas. Its problem is that it lacks a solid narrative around which to tie those ideas. The result is a wild mess of interesting concepts, pretty production design and absolutely awful plotting and dialogue. I desperately wanted to like the film, but it was adamant in its refusal to let me enjoy it. It's bright and colourful, so small children may adore it. Then again, small children generally don't go looking for plot, nuance, tone or consistency. So depending on your age, your mileage may vary with this one.

Jack Frost, a perpetual 13 year-old boy with the distracting voice of a 30 year-old (Chris Pine), is invited to join the ranks of the Guardians: appointed and immortal defenders of children around the world. There's Father Christmas, portrayed here as a gruff tattooed Russian (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny, portrayed as the most aggressively and gratingly Australian character in the history of cinema (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy, a manic and ADHD-afflicted hummingbird princess (Isla Fisher) and the Sandman, who is blessedly silent and charming. He's the film's best character. Actually, it's more than that: he's the only character in the film I could actually tolerate watching.

Doctor Who: "The Expedition"

The Doctor, Ian, Susan and Barbara are trapped on Skaro until they can retrieve the TARDIS fluid link from the Dalek city. Their only hope of assistance lies in the peaceful Thals, who refuse to take arms and fight the Daleks - unless Ian can convince them otherwise.

There's something rather distasteful about the way the Doctor and his companions act in this episode. They need the Thals' help to retrieve the fluid link, and so despite the knowledge that many of the Thals will almost certainly die Ian goes out of his way to manipulate them into helping anyway. It's a far cry from how we think of the Doctor and his companions today: for them nothing is more important than escaping Skaro, even if it means driving innocent people to their deaths. It's well written and characterised, but it has to be said that it isn't Ian's finest hour.

March 24, 2014

Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)

The giant monster movie, or “kaiju eiga”, is a peculiarly Japanese construction. It had its famous origins in the legendary 1954 classic Gojira (Godzilla), and a number of copycat and derivative works soon allowed the kaiju film to blossom into its own distinctive sub-genre. The most successful of these giant monsters – other than Gojira, of course – was Daiei’s Gamera. A monstrous flying turtle from outer space, the creature debuted in 1964 before starring in a string of successful pulp monster movies. In each of them, as is the tradition of this kind of film, Gamera was played by actors in large rubber suits crashing through a scale model city.

It’s possibly useful at this stage to note that the original Gamera was one of several monster movies featured on the American comedy series Mystery Science Theater 3000. The film, as is the genre, is seemingly ridiculous. It is filled with silly scripts, over-acting and frankly unconvincing models and visual effects. This is par for the course for its genre. Numerous filmmakers – particularly ones in the USA – have tried for years to somehow capture the concept of the giant monster yet produce a slicker, more contemporary version of it. Roland Emmerich famously failed to update Godzilla in 1998, and 10 years later Matt Reeves found great success with Cloverfield – although to make his film he needed to jettison most of the key elements of the genre in favour of contemporary horror movie tropes.

Given the inherent silliness of the kaiju eiga, and the fact that it’s most iconic elements – the rubber-suit monster, the model city, etc – are generally the ones most open to ridicule, it would be easy to assume that a straight-faced, genuinely good giant monster movie would be impossible to create. Then there is Gamera: Guardian of the Universe.

The Pull List: 19 March 2014

Why are we not singing the praises of Antony Johnston from the rooftops? It feels like he should be a much bigger name in comics that he seems to be. His epic post-apocalyptic comic Wasteland has been a sensational read for some years now, and in the past few months he's launched the exceptional fantasy book Umbral and the futuristic police drama The Fuse.

It has all been stunning work, and he's pretty much guaranteed that if his name is on a comic book I'm going to check it out. He has a near-faultless handle of character, dialogue, tone, pacing and structure. Last week saw the release of the second issue of The Fuse, and it shows off all of his talents in the best possible way. This is a police procedural set on a huge space station and is an excellent blend of those two genres.

Like all good police dramas the action focuses on two mis-matched partners, although Johnston ensures they're a little different from the usual double act you'd see. Justin Greenwood's artwork is wonderful as well, and both the writing and the art create a very believable and well thought-out future society.

I keep planning on paring back the number of comics I purchase each month, and then people like Johnston and Greenwood come along and I wind up buying more. Damn them for being so good. (5/5)

Image. Written by Antony Johnston. Art by Justin Greenwood.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman and Aquaman, Batwoman, Daredevil, Ms Marvel, Sovereign, Thor: God of Thunder and Wonder Woman.

March 21, 2014

Genesis Climber Mospeada: Episodes 2-5

As I noted in my original review, I really don't feel there's enough to each individual episode of Genesis Climber Mospeada for to devote an entire post to each one. As a result I'll be reviewing this 1983 anime in groups of 3-5 episodes at a time, giving my overall impression of each episode and noting anything that strikes me as particularly significant.

Episode 2, "The Broken-Hearted Girl's March", introduces two new regular characters. The first, whose predicament gives the episode its title is the young girl Mint who is obsessed with marriage and runs around post-apocalyptic America in search of the perfect suitor. She's dreadfully irritating, and I remember even back watching this as part of Robotech I couldn't stand her. The second, the aloof Houquet (Rook in the Robotech version), doesn't get much more than a showy cameo. The episode's central plot, in which Bernard and Ray are lured into a trap in a human city, is much more interesting. It reveals that there are communities of humans happy to collaborate with the Inbit if it means being treated better. But oh, that Mint. So tedious and irritating. I wasn't enamoured with this one.

March 20, 2014

Doctor Who: "The Ambush"

With Ian controlling one of the Dalek machines from within, the Doctor and his companions attempt to escape from the Dalek city - only to discover the Daleks plan to ambush and kill the visiting Thals. Ian rushes to warn them: but will it be in time?

"The Ambush" is a rather exciting instalment of "The Daleks", pretty much broken into two sections. The first, in which the TARDIS team make their escape from the city, is probably the better section, but the episode as a whole is still an entertaining experience. For one thing the Daleks themselves take things up a notch by finally discussing 'extermination'. It's a brilliant word for them to use: for most viewers it's just a catchphrase, but the very use of it speaks volumes on Dalek society. You might kill or murder other people, but you exterminate pests and vermin. I was also intrigued by a large stone sculpture that the TARDIS team push into a lift shaft to prevent a Dalek from reaching them: for all their genocidal tendencies, Daleks have art.

March 19, 2014

Cutie Honey (2004)

Many Western filmgoers bemoan Hollywood’s constant strip-mining of its audience’s youth, producing new adaptations of Saturday morning cartoons, classic TV shows and action figure lines. I suppose it’s a little reassuring that the same thing goes on in other countries and cultures as well. Cutie Honey is one of countless live-action remakes of a popular anime; in this case of Go Nagai’s 1970s hit TV series and manga of the same name (Nagai himself has a brief cameo in the film).

It does a serviceable job of retelling the origin story, and Cutie’s first battle against the villainous Panther Claw crime gang. It’s a non-stop hyper-active sort of a film, full of colour, movement and near-constant action. Any scene that doesn’t involve a vivid superhero fight seems to feature the lead actress lounging around in lingerie.

Director Hideaki Anno is best known for his animation work, particularly directing the Neon Genesis Evangelion TV series and films. Cutie Honey is his third live-action feature, and about as far from the serious character study of his previous works that you could get. Hiring an animation director for this film has definitely worked in its favour, since its visual aesthetic and pace owes far more to animation than it does to live-action cinema. The action sequences are boosted by hand-drawn animation effects, which not only reflect the film’s origins but also give it a fairly unique and colourful look.

Genesis Climber Mospeada: "Prelude to the Offensive"

Genesis Climber Mospeada is not a title that may be immediately familiar, but for many anime fans it's actually one of the first series they ever watched - even if they didn't know it. In the mid-1980s producer Carl Macek attempted to distribute anime to American TV broadcasters, however he faced a problem in that the average Japanese series was only 26 episodes long and American broadcasters demanded at least 65 episodes: enough to 'strip' a series five days a week for 13 weeks. Macek's solution was to buy three different series, and chain them together into one Frankenstein narrative by mucking about during the translation and dubbing. The resulting series, Robotech, was a smash hit and remains a cult favourite, with most kids at the time not realising they were watching three series rather than one: Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and, finally, Genesis Climber Mospeada. So if you've already seen the third arc of Robotech, in which Scott Bernard, Rook, Rand and their friends battle the Invid, then you've actually seen Mospeada pretty much intact save for the Robotech references in the dialogue.

I've recently been rewatching Mospeada, and while I certainly don't feel the urge to review each 25-minute episode at length I did feel it was worth covering the first episode in a bit of detail. All up, it's pretty much what you'd expect: a dated but entertaining science fiction series of aliens, grassroots rebellion and transforming robots.

March 18, 2014

The Pull List: 12 March 2014

Last week saw the release of Hawkeye #17, and to say that this issue was a surprise is an understatement. Sadly the surprise was not a pleasant one.

This book has been repeatedly delayed, so much so that - bizarrely - issue #16 was shipped before issue #15. Now that it's March we're finally getting the Christmas issue, and it's basically a children's cartoon about cute animals saving winter while Clint Barton (the book's actual star) sleeps on the couch. Some may see this is a hilarious gag, but I personally felt profoundly ripped off. It's not particularly funny. Eliopoulos' guest artwork is sloppy and lazy.

I can see the thought process behind the issue, since the cartoon characters clearly represent the characters from Hawkeye, but the execution is nowhere near clever enough to justify the issue.

It's the sort of issue so deeply misjudged, and so unremittingly awful, that you begin to question why you're buying comics at all - let alone buying this title. I think the quality of the first 12 issues of Hawkeye earned Fraction and Aja a lot of kudos and a lot of leeway to be late, so long as the quality held up. The quality hasn't. The leeway is used up. Hawkeye needs to get better, and get regular, or I suspect readers will begin to leave in their thousands. (1/5)

Marvel. Written by Matt Fraction. Art by David Aja and Chris Eliopoulos.

Under the cut: reviews of the thankfully much more entertaining All-New X-Men, Batgirl, Batman, FBP, Justice League 3000, Manifest Destiny and Star Wars.

March 17, 2014

Cure (1997)

On first inspection I dismissed Cure as one of the myriad of Ring knock-offs that flooded Japanese cinemas following the release of Hideo Nakata’s 1998 horror opus. Then I took a closer look, and realised that Cure pre-dates Ring by a year. It reveals a big problem with watching foreign films – until the past decade it has been extremely difficult to track down and see a wide range of movies from other countries.

Koji Yakusho plays Kenichi Takabe, a police officer investigating an inexplicable string of violent murders. The victims have all been killed in the same ritualised manner. The murderer has been caught. The only problem is that there’s no connection between the victims, and the police have a different murderer in custody for each of them.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is better known for the horror classic Pulse (Kairo), and here he directs a very typical – and typically effective – Japanese horror film. There is a crushing banality to how the film looks, cementing the action within a depressingly ordinary and mundane world. This has the effect of making the uncanny or the horrific violently stand out. It punctures the ordinary world, leaving terror and a lingering unease in its wake.

Escape Plan (2013)

Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) breaks out of prisons for a living, using his unique skills set to find the weaknesses in America's maximum security facilities. When he is hired by the CIA to undertake the same task on an international black-book prison, he suddenly finds himself trapped there without a means of escape and no contact with the outside world. With fellow inmate Emil Rottmeyer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) he fights to escape the unescapable, and bring down the prison governor (Jim Cavaziel) who refuses to let him leave.

Back in the 1980s the two biggest names in cinema were Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Stallone was the star of the popular Rocky and Rambo franchises, while Schwarzenegger featured in a string of smash hits including The Terminator, Commando and Predator. For the average viewer that decade, the coolest thing imaginable would be for Stallone and Schwarzenegger to appear in a movie together. Now they have, and how you respond to Escape Plan likely depends on how much you like those action movies from the 1980s.

March 15, 2014

PSX20 #17: Point Blank

PSX20 celebrates the 20th anniversary of Sony's Playstation videogames console by counting down my 20 favourite videogames for that platform. These aren't necessarily the best PSX games ever made, but they are the ones I liked and played the most.
Gun peripherals certainly aren't anything new: the Nintendo Entertainment System sold a lot of units based on the popularity of Duck Hunt, for example. The Megadrive had the Menacer and the SNES had the weird bazooka-like Super-Scope. To be honest I don't think it was until the PlayStation's GunCon that there was a gun controller that actually worked. It was developed for the console by Namco for use in ports of their then-popular light gun arcade games.

I spent a lot of time playing Time Crisis on my PlayStation. That said, I still think the best GunCon title was Point Blank. The arcade game came out in 1994, and the PSX adaptation was released three years later. It's a collection of mini-games, sure, but they're great mini-games and the whole package was simple, breezy and highly addictive.

March 14, 2014

Babylon 5: "Ceremonies of Light and Dark"

It's been a while since I reviewed an episode of Babylon 5. The last episode, "Severed Dreams", was very much the midpoint of Season 3 - and for that matter the midpoint of the entire series - so it seemed an appropriate time to take a break. Now that I'm watching "Ceremonies of Light and Dark", it seems Straczynski was very much aware of this too, since if nothing else this episode feels like a bit of a break too. It's a chance for the series to pause and collect its breath before diving headlong into the Shadow War.

Delenn leads a rebirth ceremony, allowing the crew of Babylon 5 to reflect and compose themselves after splitting from Earth's government. Garibaldi is left to argue with a hostile A.I. when the computers are reset. Londo challenges Refa over the latter's continued communications with Mr Morden, and his invisible associates. Remaining members of the Night Watch target Delenn for assassination.

Night Crossing (1982)

I've always been fascinated by Disney's "dark" period, which commences with The Black Hole in 1979 and winds up with the catastrophic failure of The Black Cauldron in 1985. Now Disney has always leavened its family films with elements of darkness and horror, but in that six-year period they went on the most peculiar bender of horror, shocks, mature concepts, violence and other comparatively confronting material. In The Black Hole you have cyborg zombies and someone getting murdered by effectively having a chainsaw shoved through their chest. The Watcher in the Woods (1980) has supernatural mayhem and a genuine sense of menace. Dragonslayer has live human sacrifice and an unbelievably cynical take on Christianity. In Return to Oz there's electric shock therapy and a witch who wants to cut off Dorothy's head and wear it like a hat. Almost certainly the best of this crop of films is Jack Clayton's 1983 thriller Something Wicked This Way Comes, based on the Ray Bradbury novel. It has top-notch performances by Jonathan Pryce and Jason Robards, a cracking plot and a distinctive sense of creeping dread.

One film from the period I hadn't seen until recently was Night Crossing, a 1982 drama based on the true story of two East German families attempting to defect to the West in a hot-air balloon. Before I saw it I had always thought it was an odd choice of film for Disney to make. Having now seen it, it fits in quite perfectly. There's implied torture. There's a prolonged sense of menace and paranoia. There's the brutal on-screen murder of a teenage boy.

But that's Disney for you: overly sweet and cloying, saccharine, ruthlessly commercial. Except, you know, if you actually watch their films.

March 13, 2014

AKB0048: "Their First Handshake Event"

While the trainees prepare to make their public debut at a handshake event, Orine receives video-recorded hate mail that shatters her confidence. Will the public accept the new performers, and will Orine recover her nerve in time to make a good impression?

Despite that fairly mundane description, there is actually a nice amount of action in "Their First Handshake Event" - assuming lightsaber microphone wielding pop starlets versus interplanetary shock troopers combat is something that interests you. It's a relief to see this kind of ridiculous mash-ups of genres returning to the series, because it's been missing since the second episode and it's exactly what got me enjoying AKB0048 in the first place.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season 1 in Review

I can't think of a long-running, successful SF drama that had as shaky a first season as Star Trek: The Next Generation. The reason for this is that if pretty much any other series had a first season this bad it wouldn't have been commissioned for a second year. The fact that The Next Generation made it through intact is likely down to the gravity of the Star Trek brand: it may have been awful, but audiences watched it anyway.

Its creation was troubled, with Paramount having to go with Gene Roddenberry as their third choice for showrunner after both Harve Bennett and Leonard Nimoy declined. It may seem treacherous for a Star Trek fan to criticise Gene Roddenberry, but it has to be said that by the mid-1980s he was a fairly appalling writer and producer. He may have created the original Star Trek, but it was writers and producers like Dorothy Fontana and Gene Coon who gave the series its spirit, and actors like William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley who made the characters so memorable. On The Next Generation Roddenberry had far more direct control and influence than he'd ever had before, and a lot of his choices were bizarre to say the least.

March 12, 2014

The Pull List: 5 March 2014

Wild Blue Yonder has had a fairly erratic schedule, as its artists have slipped behind their deadlines and struggled to get the book out. Sadly this has robbed the book of a lot of its momentum - not to mention irritating the Kickstarter donors whose funds enabled the book's production in the first place.

I think there's a lesson here: make sure you don't bite off more than you can chew. As a serialised medium, comic books rely on a regular schedule to retain their audience. Readers don't like unpleasant surprises, another one of which may include this book's quiet extension from five issues to six. While I'm not necessarily averse to getting another issue of the series - I've been really enjoying it - it does make me wonder how carefully Mike Raicht and Austin Harrison plotted their story in the first place.

If the release schedule is costing the book sales that's a genuine shame, because Wild Blue Yonder has been a great miniseries. It's a pastiche, certainly, and pulls on a lot of other source texts, but it's also a thrilling adventure book with great characters and well-crafted artwork. I have no idea when the next issue is due for release, but I'm happy to wait. It's a great comic with a lot of promise, and I hope they give it a better scheduled sequel series in the future. (4/5)

IDW. Written by Mike Raicht and Austin Harrison. Art by Zach Howard.

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Batwing, Detective Comics, Forever Evil, Revival, She-Hulk and Trillium.

Gravity (2013)

Medical engineer Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are in orbit around the Earth, servicing the Hubble space telescope. When a catastrophic satellite collision develops into a wave of lethal debris, they find themselves separated from the space shuttle Explorer and lost in the blackness of space. Their attempts to survive and successfully return to the Earth form the remainder of Gravity.

This is a slightly odd film in that it seems to be falling between the cracks, genre-wise. A lot of people are praising it as an exceptional science fiction film, even though it's not actually science fiction. It's been acclaimed in a way that effects-heavy thrillers very rarely are (including a Best Director Oscar for Alfonso Cuaron), and that's probably because it's unlike most effects-heavy thrillers. Barring a few cameos this film has a cast of two. In a time when movies regularly run more than two and a half hours long, Gravity runs a tight 91 minutes. This film wastes no time. It brings everything it needs with it. It's centred on a strong character played by a talented actor (Bullock) and it never, ever pauses to give the viewer a rest.

March 11, 2014

Pacific Rim (2013)

In the Earth's near future, humanity is under near-constant attack from giant monsters known as 'kaiju'. When the funding is cut for the 'jaegers' - giant monster-fighting robots - in favour of enormous monster-defying walls, the agency responsible undertakes one last mission to end the kaiju menace once and for all.

Pacific Rim was in many respects an enormous gamble for Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures: a massively expensive summer blockbuster based on original IP, inspired by Japanese pop culture and without any A-list stars in the cast. It's the work of director Guillermo Del Toro, whose previous works have included absolute class acts like The Devil's Backbone, Cronos and Pan's Labyrinth. Its cast includes several actors whose work I admire immensely, including Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi.

It is also, by the by, absolutely and jaw-droppingly dreadful.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Neutral Zone"

The Enterprise discovers a centuries-old derelict spacecraft, and recover three cryogenically frozen humans from the late 20th century. Before they can properly bring these survivors up to speed on their situation, the Enterprise is dispatched the border of the Romulan Neutral Zone - where several Federation outposts have mysteriously disappeared.

This is a fairly significant episode for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Not only is it the first season finale, but it also re-introduces the Romulans to the franchise and gives viewers their first hint of a major new threat. It's another half season before we discover the identity of who destroyed the Federation outposts, but the sense of menace exhibited here is already palpable.

All up, this is a strong episode that certainly leaves the season in much better shape at its end than it was in at its beginning.

March 10, 2014

The Pull List: 26 February 2014

I am slowly catching up in regards to updating this blog. Here, at last, are my thoughts on comic books from Wednesday 26 February - starting with Three.

For the past five months I've been enormously impressed by Three, Kieron Gillen's intelligent, thoughtful and historically accurate response to Frank Miller's loathsome graphic novel 300. The final issue was published last week, and it gives Gillen's story a beautifully rendered, wonderfully bittersweet conclusion. Once collected together this is going to be a great historical adventure to read in one sitting, and to give away as a gift for friends and the like. I enjoy giving a way a nice graphic novel, and I can think of several friends already who'd really enjoy this book.

As one might expect given a comic miniseries about Sparta, the ending is more than a little brutal and not entirely happy. It is, however, a gripping and tremendous read. The multi-part interview Gillen has been conducting in the final pages with an English history professor on the actual Spartans has been genuinely interesting reading.

I simply adore the idea of responding to a work of art with another work of art. While I personally dislike 300 quite intensely, I do think it's worth reading it first in order to fully appreciate the beauty of what Gillen and artists Ryan Kelly and Jordan Belaire have achieved here. (5/5)

Image. Written by Kieron Gillen. Art by Ryan Kelly and Jordan Belaire.

Under the cut: reviews of All-Star Western, Aquaman, Black Science, The Flash, Guardians of the Galaxy, Hawkeye, Manhattan Projects, The Massive, Star Wars Legacy, Umbral, The Wake and Worlds' Finest.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000)

In 2000, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon exploded across international movie screens like a firecracker, winning numerous awards and widespread critical acclaim, and earning US$213 million in the process. For many viewers it was their first (and in most cases I suspect only) glimpse of wuxia cinema, that specifically Chinese genre combining historical fiction, fantasy, martial arts and super-heroic swordplay.

It's been almost 15 years since its release, and the film impresses just as much as it did the first time around. This isn’t simply a great film, and it isn’t even just the most creatively successful wuxia film of all time – Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is one of the all-time best films in the history of world cinema.

The film focuses on two separated couples: in one case they are separated by class and distance, in another by an overwhelming fear of rejection.

March 7, 2014

Confession of Pain (2006)

Felix Chong and Alan Mak are possibly Hong Kong’s best commercial screenwriters. They are the writing team behind the internationally acclaimed Infernal Affairs (remade in the USA as The Departed) as well as local hits Overheard, Initial D and Lady Cop and Papa Crook. In among that string of successful movies they also wrote this neat little police thriller.

Confession of Pain (its Chinese title translates literally as Forlorn City) is a gripping melodrama with a rare spin. It is, in essence, a murder mystery. The difference is that we know the identity of the killer within 20 minutes. The remaining 90 are spent finding out why the murder occurred, and whether or not the killer is going to get away with it.

Coming home after a sting operation, police officer Bong (the always appealing Takeshi Kaneshiro) finds his pregnant girlfriend dead from suicide. Three years later, Bong is now an alcoholic private investigator. He is dragged back into the life of his ex-partner Hei (the always excellent Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) when the father of Hei's wife Susan (Xu Jinglei) is murdered. While the police investigation is ongoing, Susan asks Bong to conduct his own investigation.

March 6, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Conspiracy"

Captain Picard is summoned by an old colleague to a covert meeting: someone, or something, is infiltrating Starfleet. No one can be trusted. With his allegiance sorely tested, Picard sends the Enterprise back to Earth in order to investigate.

So this is The Next Generation's first sequel, seeing as it follows up directly from "Coming of Age" in which Picard was first alerted to a potential conspiracy to take over Starfleet. It's also the darkest and most macabre thing the series has developed to this point. I'm trying to think right now, and I'm pretty sure the series never gets this graphic again. There's one climactic shot in particular that's so gory that the episode was initially banned from broadcast in the UK and came with a pre-episode warning in Canada.

So it's controversial, and kind of confronting, but is it any good?

March 5, 2014

The Pull List: 19 February 2014

A vacation in Tokyo that crossed two Wednesdays has meant that I'm only now catching up with the past fortnight's comic book releases. Thankfully Wednesday 19 February was a pretty quiet day for comic books, as far as my own pull list goes: four books, starting with the final issue of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee's Daredevil.

It's a cheat, really, because Daredevil continues next month with the same writer/artist team. The only things that are changing are the setting - for reasons made clear in this final issue - and the cover price. I see what you've done there, Marvel; simply raising the cover price from US$2.99 to US$3.99 would elicit complaints from readers, but if you relaunch the book as a whole new volume no one's going to notice. It's a cheap stunt, and completely unnecessary since sales have been pretty steady around the 35,000 unit mark for the whole of 2013.

I'm here to review the book, however, and not the shoddy business practice. Daredevil #36 provides a neat, entertaining conclusion to the Serpent Society arc with some humour, some intrigue and plenty of action. There aren't too many comics where a claim of big changes actually come true. Here they kind of have. It's nice to look back at where this current volume of Daredevil started, and see how neatly Waid has book-ended this chapter of Matt Murdock's life. Samnee's artwork continues to be exceptional.

I'll be onboard in March for the 33% more expensive Daredevil #1. I'll be there grudgingly, but I will be there. Superhero comics this good are arguably worth that extra dollar. (5/5)

Daredevil #36. Marvel. Written by Mark Waid. Art by Chris Samnee.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman and Two-Face, Batwoman and Wonder Woman. Told you it was a quiet week.

More SFTV to watch in 2014/15

The Strain (FX)
In my last post I covered all of the science fiction, fantasy and horror TV shows that were at the pilot stage across the USA's main networks. There are, of course, also all of the cable channels - HBO, Starz, AMC, BBC America, et al - not to mention new direct video players such as Netflix and Amazon. These channels generally use different production models: they're a lot more likely to simply develop a series and commission a whole season at once. Some still use the pilot model, and I'll try to note that where applicable.
There's some interesting stuff coming over the horizon in the next 12-18 months from the cable networks, and I'm interested to see how a lot of these series turn out. A rundown of everything I've been able to find is under the cut.

March 4, 2014

Pilot Season: The SF Series to Watch in 2014/15

The US TV networks are deep into pilot season, so now is as good a time as any to have a first look at the sorts of science fiction, fantasy and horror shows we might be able to start watching in late 2014 and early 2015. While there's a chance some of these won't get commissioned as a series, it's still a pretty good indicator of the sorts of shows that will be out looking for a fanbase in the coming 12 months.

What's hot in 2014? Superheroes and comic books, zombies and aliens. What's not? Spaceships. It's been a long time since a US network took a serious punt at a series set in space, and with the highly anticipated Star Wars Episode VII and Guardians of the Galaxy on the horizon and the likes of Star Trek and Gravity making record amounts in cinemas I think that's something that should change pretty soon.

Under the cut: all of the pilot commitments for the season, by network.

March 3, 2014

Oscar predictions: how did I go?

About two weeks ago I posted my predictions on who would win the Oscars today, so I figured it was only fair to see how many of the 24 nominations I got right. So here we go:

Best Picture:
What won? 12 Years a Slave.
What did I say would win? 12 Years a Slave.

Best Director:
Who won? Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity.
Who did I say would win? Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity.

Best Actor:
Who won? Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyer's Club.
Who did I say would win? Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyer's Club.

Best Actress:
Who won? Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine.
Who did I say would win? Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine.

Best Supporting Actor:
Who won? Jared Leto, Dallas Buyer's Club.
Who did I say would win? Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips.

Best Supporting Actress:
Who won? Lupita N'Ongo, 12 Years a Slave.
Who did I say would win? Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "We'll Always Have Paris"

The Enterprise comes to the rescue of the reclusive scientist Dr Paul Manheim, whose experiments are causing ripples in time across the sector. For Captain Picard the mission reunites him with Manheim's wife Jenice - with whom he shared a brief love affair many decades earlier.

"We'll Always Have Paris" is one of those episodes where, despite more than a few decent ideas and moments, by the end you're quite happy to move on and forget that you had ever seen the thing. It's disposable television, which isn't in itself a bad thing, but when it comes to assessing whether it's worth ever watching again or not it kind of wobbles on the fence. Whatever direction it falls in is likely up to the individual viewer. For me it falls into the 'could quite happily never see it again' camp, but your mileage may vary.