April 30, 2014

Judging the New 52: March 2014: Green Lantern

Before the New 52 launched in September 2011, Green Lantern was one of DC Comics' biggest success stories. After many years as a second-string title, it had been revitalised by writer Geoff Johns into one of the publisher's tentpole franchises - so successful that a Green Lantern motion picture got produced by Warner Bros ahead of The Flash, Wonder Woman and numerous other potential movie properties. While Johns remained to spearhead the Green Lantern Corps into the New 52, he has since departed the lead title - and the entire franchise seems to be in trouble without him.

If you want to know how much trouble Green Lantern is in, consider this: total sales across all five books in March 2014 was 136,797. Jump back one year, and that total was 191,248 - and that was across only four books. In the past 12 months the range has declined by 28%. Jump back to March 2012, and those four books sold 219,942 copies. Let's jump back even further to March 2010, when there were only two books in the line and between them they shifted 174,089 copies. That splits up to an average of about 87,000 copies per Green Lantern title. That average in 2014 is down to just over 27,000. In the past four years Green Lantern sales have effectively declined by almost 70 per cent. It was a tentpole for DC. Now it's just another second-string title.

Since September 2011 DC has published five ongoing Green Lantern titles. Of these, all five are currently ongoing - Larfleeze is selling so badly it has to end soon. The average number of issues per title currently sits at 26.

All sales data is taken from Comichron, and is the estimated sales of comics via Diamond Distribution to retailers - that is, what went into the stores, not what was actually sold to customers.I will be removing sales from September 2013, however, when DC ran its villain month. Some titles had as many as four issues in that months, and others had none, and sales regularly bore no resemblance to the titles they were ostensibly a part of. It's clearer without them.

Charts are colour-coded: anything in green is safely selling about 40,000. Sales below 40,000 move to blue, those below 30,000 to orange, and those below 20,000 to red. Anything selling less than 10,000 copies is listed in black: dead book walking.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Schizoid Man"

The Enterprise rushes to the aid of the eccentric genius Dr Ira Graves, who lives in isolation on a remote planet. Despite Dr Pulaski's best efforts, Dr Graves dies - and Commander Data appears to have taken on the late scientist's personality.

"The Schizoid Man" continues Season 2's disproportionate fascination with Data. The series may have another seven lead characters around which to base its stories, but for now there's a clear interest in Data's artificial intelligence and robotic nature. This is only the sixth episode of the season, but it's already the third episode to be based either in whole or part around him. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, since "The Schizoid Man" is that most welcome kind of Next Generation episode: a good one.

April 29, 2014

Judging the New 52: March 2014: Superman

The Superman titles are an interesting part of the New 52. Let's be honest: Superman is a difficult character for DC Comics. He's hugely iconic, arguably more than Batman, and in merchandising sales alone towers over pretty much every comic book hero in the world. In practice, however, he proves extraordinarily difficult to write. There's a lot of clear demand for the character when these books launch: Action Comics alone launched with more than 200,000 units. That demands seems to slide off in the following months and years: basically, we want to read Superman, but we don't necessarily like the Superman comics that we get.

Seven Superman titles have been launched since September 2011. All seven continue to be published - although Superman Unchained is coming to a pre-planned conclusion with issue #9 - and the average number of issues per title is 20.

All sales data is taken from Comichron, and is the estimated sales of comics via Diamond Distribution to retailers - that is, what went into the stores, not what was actually sold to customers.I will be removing sales from September 2013, however, when DC ran its villain month. Some titles had as many as four issues in that months, and others had none, and sales regularly bore no resemblance to the titles they were ostensibly a part of. It's clearer without them.

Charts are colour-coded: anything in green is safely selling about 40,000. Sales below 40,000 move to blue, those below 30,000 to orange, and those below 20,000 to red. Anything selling less than 10,000 copies is listed in black: dead book walking.

Babylon 5: "A Late Delivery from Avalon"

I was dreading watching this episode from its basic premise: a man arrives on Babylon 5 claiming to be the King Arthur of British legend. It's the sort of ridiculous premise that J. Michael Straczynski loves on Babylon 5, whether it's Sheridan meeting Jack the Ripper or people travelling the galaxy searching for the actual Holy Grail. Sometimes it seems like there's no story idea too wacky and no premise too unwatchable for JMS. I steeled myself for another round and started watching.

Against my expectations, "A Late Delivery from Avalon" turns out to be a pretty good episode. It surprised me more than once, and it was a pleasant surprise each time. "Arthur" is played by Michael York, the first of the pleasant surprises since he's an excellent actor and gives his character a lot of dignity. The script allows him to interact with several lead characters - chiefly Dr Franklin, G'Kar and Marcus - and the encounter shines fresh lights on each of them. The episode's conclusion - and Arthur's true identity - is an effective and intriguing surprise. This is why I've been enjoying this slow rewatch of Babylon 5. While many of the episodes confirm my suspicions that the series is not for me (that's my polite way of saying it's pretty awful), the odd gem like this really does surprise me. There's something to this show - it doesn't get it right half of the time, but when it does it's often quite distinctive and special.

April 28, 2014

The Pull List: 23 April 2014

Evan Dorkin is one of my favourite comic book writer/artists. His comedic works are second-to-none, and I'm a proud owner of his collected works from Dork and Milk & Cheese. Eltingville Club is his scabby, relatively unpleasant story about a group of acne-ridden, selfish, horribly cringe-worthy teenage comic book nerds. They've had a string of strips included in the likes of Dork for some 20-odd years, and even starred in their own unsuccessful TV pilot, but now Dorkin has extended their misadventures into a two-issue miniseries in their own right.

It is absolutely cruel, gut-bustingly funny stuff, with no holds barred in depicting the worst possible kind of comic book shop with the worst possible kind of manager. The thing is, I've been to comic shops like this, and while Dorkin may be slicing into the subculture with a knife, it's a remarkably well-aimed and razor-sharp knife. As is generally the rule with comedy, this is not going to be for all readers, but if you're sick of the way Big Bang Theory softballs its criticism of bottom-of-the-barrel geekdom then this is probably right up your alley.

What's particularly impressive is how Dorkin manages to dig into all of the nasty satire and deliver a first-issue ending that's actually rather heartfelt and sad. You may hate these characters, but you identify with them too - or at least I did. Other readers may be too busy laughing at their expense. (5/5)

Dark Horse. Story and art by Evan Dorkin.

Under the cut: reviews of All-Star Western, Aquaman, Batman Eternal, Daredevil, Dead Body Road, The Flash, The Fuse, Manhattan Projects, The Massive and Star Wars Legacy.

Judging the New 52: March 2014: Batman

The Batman titles are pretty much the bedrock of DC's New 52: strong sellers, critically acclaimed (for the most part) and topping sales charts when collected into trade paperbacks and hardcover collections. Batman itself is the best-selling title of the entire New 52 and regularly tops the list as the highest-selling direct market comic book each month.

Since September 2011 DC has published 15 ongoing Batman titles. Of these, only three have been cancelled - Batman Incorporated back in July 2013 (although that was a natural end rather than a sales-based cancellation), and both Batman: The Dark Knight and Talon in March 2014. That means 80% of the line is still ongoing. The average number of issues per title currently sits at 25.

All sales data is taken from Comichron, and is the estimated sales of comics via Diamond Distribution to retailers - that is, what went into the stores, not what was actually sold to customers.I will be removing sales from September 2013, however, when DC ran its villain month. Some titles had as many as four issues in that months, and others had none, and sales regularly bore no resemblance to the titles they were ostensibly a part of. It's clearer without them.

Charts are colour-coded: anything in green is safely selling about 40,000. Sales below 40,000 move to blue, those below 30,000 to orange, and those below 20,000 to red. Anything selling less than 10,000 copies is listed in black: dead book walking.

April 25, 2014

Hugo Nominations: Best Graphic Story

This is the fourth and final Hugo category I wanted to talk about, and it's the one I want to talk about the most. Hugo Awards, we need to have a talk. I think you know what it's going to be about, because we've had this exact conversation before. First, let's just quickly recap the five nominees for Best Graphic Story.

- Girl Genius, Volume 13: Agatha Heterodyne & The Sleeping City, written by Phil and Kaja Foglio; art by Phil Foglio; colors by Cheyenne Wright (Airship Entertainment)
- “The Girl Who Loved Doctor Who”, written by Paul Cornell, illustrated by Jimmy Broxton (Doctor Who Special 2013, IDW)
- The Meathouse Man, adapted from the story by George R.R. Martin and illustrated by Raya Golden (Jet City Comics)
- Saga, Volume 2, written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples (Image Comics)
- “Time”, Randall Munroe (XKCD)

The Best Graphic Novel intervention takes place under the cut.

April 24, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Loud as a Whisper"

If something is made for a noble reason, and produced with the best of intentions, but still winds up feeling simplistic and on-the-nose, should we cut it a break? Or should we strictly stick to how an episode is executed? "Loud as a Whisper" is a difficult episode to review, because I applaud its intentions so deeply yet can't deny it's a pretty awful piece of television.

The Enterprise arrives at a planet to collect Riva, a celebrated Federation negotiator, in order to take him to settle a violent civil war on Solais V. The Enterprise crew are surprised to learn that Riva is profoundly deaf, and communicates via three telepathic translators. When all three translators are murdered in a disastrous first meeting on Solais V, Riva must find a way to recover from the emotional blow and learn a new way to communicate.

Guest star Howie Seago is, like Riva, deaf. He proposed an episode about a deaf character directly to The Next Generation's producers, and they happily took the project on. This was a great thing - deaf characters rarely get to be seen on television, and "Loud as a Whisper" does seem like a great idea on paper. That's the problem, however, it seems good on paper.

April 23, 2014

Judging the New 52: March 2014: Justice League

It's been an age (well, 10 months) since we had a look at the performance of DC's New 52 line. I do wonder at what stage does the New 52 stop being called "the New 52", since it no longer consists of 52 monthly titles and has been around for two and a half years.

As with last time let's break the line down into its seven sales groups, beginning with the Justice League books. Since September 2011 DC has published 18 monthly titles as part of this sales group: 10 of them, or 56%, are currently in publication. The current average issue run of this group is 18.

All sales data is taken from Comichron, and is the estimated sales of comics via Diamond Distribution to retailers - that is, what went into the stores, not what was actually sold to customers.I will be removing sales from September 2013, however, when DC ran its villain month. Some titles had as many as four issues in that months, and others had none, and sales regularly bore no resemblance to the titles they were ostensibly a part of. It's clearer without them.

Charts are colour-coded: anything in green is safely selling about 40,000. Sales below 40,000 move to blue, those below 30,000 to orange, and those below 20,000 to red. Anything selling less than 10,000 copies is listed in black: dead book walking.

Hugo Nominations: Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)

This Hugo category is often a ridiculous one, because a particularly popular series might dominate the nominees and fans often get together and nominate some really ridiculous choices. Previous nominees in this category have included a joke song about having sex with Ray Bradbury and an MTV awards acceptance speech. With a pedigree like that it's a little hard to take this category seriously.

This year's nominees continue this trend, in that two of the five works listed aren't even science fiction. Of the two, An Adventure in Space and Time is probably the most worthy, however as with Gravity in the long-form category I find it hard to support a docudrama winning an award for science fiction. The same goes for Peter Davison's The Five(ish) Doctors, which is a video spoof made to coincide with Doctor Who's 50th anniversary. That leaves two episodes of Doctor Who, and one each of Game of Thrones and Orphan Black.

Babylon 5: "Sic Transit Vir"

Centauri ambassador to Minbar Vir Cotto returns to Babylon 5, encountering a pleased Londo Mollari, a potential wife hanging on his every word, and some difficult questions from the Babylon 5 command staff. Meanwhile Sheridan asks Delenn out to dinner, and Ivanova is plagued by bad dreams.

I'm finding Vir to be one of the best characters in Babylon 5. He doesn't appear a lot, mainly because Stephen Furst juggled playing him with other roles in other shows at the same time, but every time he does appear he's well worth the time. J. Michael Straczynski writes him well, and Furst performs the character brilliantly. I can't help feeling badly for Vir: he's the Jiminy Cricket archetype, the voice of reason and sense squashed flat by an uncaring Pinocchio. We get that in spades here: he's surrounded by Centauri diplomats and civil servants, all making jokes about the mass genocide of the Narn when he - seemingly the one good man in the Republic - is secretly smuggling Narn prisoners to freedom underneath his own government's noses.

April 22, 2014

The Pull List: 16 April 2014

Translucid is a new six-part miniseries from Boom Studios. It follows a former supervillain, recently released from prison, and their encounter with their old sparring partner and local superhero. In many ways it reminded me of Bedlam, with its returning-from-obscurity villain and pre-established superhero universe, but the story it's telling here feels much more straightforward.

It's promising stuff, with Sanchez and Echert writing an intriguing opening chapter that promises a gripping story down the line. That said, it doesn't feel entirely perfect. In some moments stuff with seems like it should be archetypal comes across as stereotypical instead. Daniel Bayliss' artwork is superb, as is the vivid colouring - check out the eye-catching cover to the left.

As with Lumberjanes last week, I'm hooked tightly enough to keep reading. This is a promising start, and with luck it'll wind up an excellent miniseries. (3/5)

Boom Studios. Written by Claudio Sanchez and Chondra Echert. Art by Daniel Bayliss.

Under the cut: reviews of quite a lot of Batman. We've got Batman, Batman and Wonder Woman, Batman Eternal and Batwoman. We've also got Ms Marvel, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: New Animated Adventures, Thor: God of Thunder and Wonder Woman.

Hugo Nominations: Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)

Best Dramatic Presentation is one of the Hugo categories I always pay attention to: I'm actually fairly poorly read as a reader of science fiction, comparatively speaking, so in any given year I'm unlikely to have a clue what each nominated short story is like. Films, however: these I know. In this case I've seen all five nominees for the Long Form section. They are:
  • Frozen screenplay by Jennifer Lee, directed by Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee (Walt Disney Studios)
  • Gravity written by Alfonso Cuarón & Jonás Cuarón, directed by Alfonso Cuarón (Esperanto Filmoj; Heyday Films; Warner Bros.)
  • The Hunger Games: Catching Fire screenplay by Simon Beaufoy & Michael Arndt, directed by Francis Lawrence (Color Force; Lionsgate)
  • Iron Man 3 screenplay by Drew Pearce & Shane Black, directed by Shane Black (Marvel Studios; DMG Entertainment; Paramount Pictures)
  • Pacific Rim screenplay by Travis Beacham & Guillermo del Toro, directed by Guillermo del Toro (Legendary Pictures, Warner Bros., Disney Double Dare You)
I think far and away the best film of the five nominees is Gravity, but I do question whether it qualifies as science fiction. Apart from a few bits of what I'm told are 'shaky physics', there's nothing in the film that wouldn't happen in the real world. I know that there is scope within the Hugo rules for 'or related' genre works, but that's the sort of catch-all with which I don't really agree. Truth is, from this shortlist I think it's almost a lock to win.

April 21, 2014

The Infidel (2010)

Mahmud Nasir (Omid Djalili) is a Pakistani Muslim living in suburban London. He’s pretty relaxed about his religion, but he’s a loving husband and father. When his mother passes away, and he needs to clear her possessions from her home, he discovers an adoption certificate. It turns out that Mahmud, a proud (albeit slack) Muslim, is not only adopted but he was born Jewish.

The Infidel (titled The Reluctant Infidel here in Australia) is a 2010 comedy from the United Kingdom. It was written by popular comedian and novelist David Baddiel, and directed by Josh Apignanesi. This is a really funny movie. It’s also, fairly obviously, a pretty bold and brave one. It walks a very narrow tightrope – it pokes an awful lot of fun at Islam and Judaism, particularly the extremist ends of organised religion, but at the same time it comes across as largely respectful of both.

April 20, 2014

Hugo Nominations: Best Novel

The nominations for the 2014 Hugo Awards, which form a key part of the annual World Science Fiction Convention, have been announced. They're actually pretty interesting this year for a whole pile of reasons, none of which are exceptionally promising, but at least there's grist for a lot of late night conversations about the relative merits of what's nominated.

I don't read a huge number of short stories each year, so a lot of the professional categories aren't something I can speak to. I thought I'd post up some thoughts on categories where I do have an opinion, however, starting with Best Novel.

This is a very surprising shortlist to me. The oddest omission I think is Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Everyone had been praising it as the best work of Gaiman's in years, and yet it didn't even make the top five. The inclusion of Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson's The Wheel of Time saga is even stranger, however, taking advantage of an old rule about serialised novels to justify nominating all 14 novels published over the course of 23 years.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Outrageous Okona"

Just the title of this episode sets my teeth on edge. "The Outrageous Okona". It brings to mind tedious attempts at comedy that fall flat on their face, and unlikeable guest characters acting out in ways that are supposed to charm and amuse, but instead irritate and annoy. As it turns out, "The Outrageous Okona" features tedious attempts at comedy that fall flat on their face, and a titular guest star who acts out in ways that are supposed to charm and amuse but instead irritate and annoy. It's all so dreadfully staged and hopelessly old-fashioned - even for 1988.

The Enteprise intercepts a damaged cargo ship, whose pilot Okona accepts Picard's offer of assistance. While Okona's ship is under repair, the Enterprise is ambushed by two starships - each hailing from a different rival planet, and each demanding Okona's return to face prosecution for his crimes. Meanwhile, Data uses the holodeck to practice his comedic skills.

April 19, 2014

The Pull List: Graphic Novels Special #1

I've been reading quite a few graphic novels lately, generally borrowed from my local library, so I thought it might be worth having a quick look over them and see what they were like.

Halo: Initiation
Dark Horse. Written by Brian Reed. Art by Marco Castiello.
At the end of 2014 Dark Horse lose their lucrative Star Wars license, and that leaves a massive hole in the company's publishing schedule - not to mention a massive void in the middle of their revenue going forward. One thing they seem to be playing with as a possible replacement is a string of videogame licenses. They're already having quite a lot of success with Mass Effect, and with Halo: Initiation they've started up adapting the popular Xbox franchise as well. It's slightly odd that they've got the Halo license, since it used to belong to Marvel - who now have the Star Wars license. Swings and roundabouts, I guess.

This is a very nicely packaged book, collecting a four-issue miniseries (or it might be the first story arc of an ongoing - I'm not sure) into a slick hardcover volume. It tells a pretty solid action-adventure tale as well, setting up the lead characters for what I assume will be further adventures. Marco Castiello's artwork is excellent, and really boosts the script. Obviously you're going to get more out of this book if you're familiar with the Halo videogames, but I don't think that's necessary. It's an enjoyable slice of military SF regardless. (3/5)

Under the cut: reviews of Iron Man: The Secret Origin of Tony Stark, Iron: Or, the Water After, and Savage Wolverine: Kill Island.

April 17, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Elementary, Dear Data"

With some leisure time available, Data and La Forge embark on a holodeck adventure based on Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories - with a doubtful Dr Pulaski in tow. When the Enterprise computer is instructed to prepare a mystery that would be a genuine challenge for Data, it somehow bestows sentience on one of the game's characters - a character that now wants to be free from his holographic prison.

Katherine Pulaski is such an appalling racist. She's been on the Enterprise for three weeks now, and despite all evidence to the contrary she continues to treat Data like a mechanical thing rather than as a self-aware, conscious individual. It's all rather offensive, particularly since Pulaski seems to afford more respect to Professor James Moriarty, the holodeck character that has become self-aware. You'd expect there to be some payoff by the end of this episode, where Pulaski apologise to Data and promises to treat him with respect, but instead we're found wanting.

April 16, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Where Silence Has Lease"

In "Where Silence Has Lease", the Enterprise encounters a strange void in space unlike anything anyone has encountered before. Which, rather perversely, makes it exactly like everything everyone has ever encountered before. I'm not one hundred per cent certain, but I'm reasonably sure that there's never been an episode of Star Trek where someone - Spock, Data, whoever - has conducted a scan, and confidently declared that the phenomena in front of the Enterprise is identical to something in the ship's records.

Once trapped inside the void, the Enterprise is at the mercy of the mysterious alien presence called Nagilum. It threatens to kill half of the crew. Riker and Worf get trapped in an Escher-like mass of duplicate starship bridges. Illusory starships turn up and promptly vanish. By the episode's climax, Picard realises he may have to destroy the entire ship and everybody on it just to defeat Nagilum.

April 14, 2014

PSX20: Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee

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.

Abe is a slave working in an alien meat factory. When he learns that he and his fellow slaves are to be murdered and processed as the latest foodstuff, he breaks free from captivity and goes about rescuing all of his fellow slaves. He has the ability, via chanting, to possess the enemy Sligs and send them to their deaths. He can also communicate with his fellow slaves, using a combination of gestures, faceslaps and farts to get them to follow and cooperate with him.

Any game where there's a specific control to make your character break wind is going to get my attention. Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee was a rather peculiar hit back in 1997. At a time when most hit videogames were presenting faux 3D graphics, awash with polygons, Oddworld was a 2D platform game. It wasn't even a scrolling platformer: you controlled the protagonist Abe from screen to screen. It felt remarkably old-fashioned. It looked great. It played very addictively.

God Bless America (2011)

To a certain generation of movieogers, Bobcat Goldthwait is always going to be Zed the squeaky-voiced gang lord turned police officer in Warner Bros' dreadful Police Academy movies. He's been flying under the radar in recent years, however, as a writer and director of some exceptionally black comedies. His 2006 and 2009 films Sleeping Dogs Lie and World's Greatest Dad both had their fans, but he really got some sensational notices for his 2011 satire God Bless America. And rightfully so: it's razor-sharp and brutally violent, but most importantly it's a smart movie comedy that actually has something to say.

Middle-aged insurance salesman Frank Murdoch is divorced with a brat daughter who hates him and neighbours who won't give him enough quiet to cope with his constant migraine headaches. When he is diagnosed with a brain tumour and fired from his job, Frank goes on a violent killing spree - egged on by teenager Roxy Harmon - to kill everyone who are collectively dragging American culture into the gutter.

April 13, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Child"

So we're back onto the Star Trek: The Next Generation bandwagon with a review of the Season 2 premiere, "The Child", aired all the way back in November 1988. In "The Child" a mysterious alien presence invades the Enterprise and finds its way inside Counselor Troi. She then gives birth to a human-like child, who rapidly grows from infancy at a frighteningly accelerated rate. Meanwhile the Enterprise is transporting a dangerous set of plague specimens that will kill the entire crew if released.

Before going into the episode itself, it's worth looking at Season 2 as a whole because they have been a few changes. Firstly Gates McFadden has followed Denise Crosby's lead and quit the series. In her place, rather oddly, is Diana Muldaur as Dr Katherine Pulaski. I say oddly because for some reason she is never credited in the opening titles, but instead spend the entire year making a "special guest appearance". She's an older, crankier medical chief, deliberately styled more like the original Star Trek's Dr McCoy. It's fascinating that, as the show struggles to find an identity for itself, it's first major response is to make it more like the original series, when apeing the original is actually one of its biggest problems.

April 12, 2014

The Pull List: 9 April 2014

Lumberjanes boasts one of those awesome indie covers that I find difficult to walk past: it's got a sense of energy and whimsy to it that I just love diving into. It's also the sort of thing I track down in collected editions, but in this case I figured I'd take the plunge and support the creative team on a month-by-month basis.

Sadly the book's a bit of a disappointment. It's okay when I wanted it to be phenomenal. It's amusing when I wanted it to be laugh-out-loud funny. It's important that I stress it isn't a bad comic, but it's not the knocked-out-of-the-park indie hit I wanted it to be. Expectations are so annoying that way.

The comic follows five teenage girls at a summer scouting camp who find mysterious monsters in the surrounding woods. It's got the tone down right, but for some reason it doesn't quite gel together as well as it should. The art is great, although with some comparatively large panels it does wind up being a very quick read. There are some nice touches in the comic's back-end. I did really like the cut-out-and-keep CD sleeve for fans wanting to compile their own Lumberjanes mix CD.

This is a good comic, but I want it to be better. I think it has the potential, and certainly I'll be buying the next issue. For now, however, it's not matching the potential of its own cover, and that just left me a little unsatisfied. (3/5)

Boom Studios. Written by Noelle Stevenson. Art by Brooke A. Allen.

Under the cut: reviews of Batgirl, Batman Eternal, FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics, Manifest Destiny, Star Wars and Worlds' Finest.

April 11, 2014

Invisible Target (2007)

Invisible Target is a high-octane, passionate action flick from Hong Kong that despite its visible pace and enthusiasm feels about 10 years out of date. Released in 1990s and this would have been a gripping stunt-filled thrill ride. Unfortunately for Invisible Target I think Hong Kong cinema has partially moved on. A new wave of directors including Andrew Lau and particularly Johnnie To has led audiences to expect something a little more. As it stands the film fails to offer Hong Kong movie viewers anything they haven’t seen before, leaving it a competent but fairly missable film experience.

The film comes from writer/director Benny Chan, who boasts a long pedigree in Hong Kong action cinema. I have always had a lot of affection for Gen-X Cops, which he directed in 1999. He has also directed several Jackie Chan films – Who Am I?, New Police Story and Rob-B-Hood. If anything Invisible Target feels like another instalment of Chan’s famed Police Story franchise, albeit one missing its most crucial ingredient. It feels as if the film is seeking a replacement, either Chan’s own son Jaycee Chan or New Police Story alumni Nicholas Tse, but the vacancy never quite seems to vanish. Like a Jackie Chan film the actors do their own stunts, which is always fairly impressive to watch.

April 10, 2014

Emil and the Detectives (1931)

Here's an odd change of pace: I've been watching a lot of independent American horror movies of late, so it was quite a break to watch a 1931 German childrens film instead. A German boy named Emil Tischbein gets onto a train for Berlin with 140 marks in his pocket to give to his aunt. By the time he arrives, the 140 marks in missing - stolen by a creepy man in a bowler hat - and Emil must team up with a gang of Berliner child detectives to recover the money. It's all wonderfully cheerful fun, based on the 1929 novel by Erich Kästner. This is the first adaptation of the novel, but there have been at least five others since, including a 1935 English remake and a Walt Disney version in 1964.

Of the six films, this is the one with the greatest cultural cache. Its screenplay was written by Billy Wilder, later to become arguably the greatest-ever writer and director of American film comedy. That screenplay was then rewritten by Emeric Pressburger, who would subsequently move to England and write and produce a string of legendary films including The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus. It even received uncredited assistance from Fritz Lang (M, Metropolis, et al).

Of course looking into what the makers of Emil and the Detectives did next is a fairly depressing exercise. Within a decade its author had been banned from German bookstores, its Jewish screenwriters had fled the country, and much of the talented cast of youngsters had been killed in action in World War II.

April 9, 2014

Game of Thrones and its uncertain future

Overnight HBO confirmed that they had given the go-ahead to not one but two more seasons of Game of Thrones, guaranteeing that the sprawling fantasy epic would continue on television until at least 2016 - and presumably even further, if viewing figures are any indication. The Season 4 premiere, which aired on the weekend, broke all records for the series and suggests that this particular pop culture juggernaut is only getting more popular with time.

This does cause a problem, however, and it's one a lot of Thrones fans foresaw back when the series was initially put into production. Author George R.R. Martin, whose Song of Ice and Fire novels form the basis for the show, is a meticulous but comparatively slow author. There was five years between the third novel (currently being adapted as part of Season 4) and the fourth, and another six years between the fifth and the sixth - which was published back in 2011. There are two more novels planned in the saga with no release date scheduled for either book.

Now I absolutely think Martin should take as long as he needs to complete these books. They are, after all, his books, and the series as a whole constitutes his masterwork. It's unlikely he will ever produce something this popular, lengthy or significant again. On the other hand, HBO is a commercial business and aren't likely to suspend or slow down their ratings smash hit because the series is overtaking the books. What's a production to do?

April 8, 2014

Jackass presents Bad Grandpa (2013)

Jackass, which started as a stunt/prank comedy TV series before graduating to three highly successful motion pictures, is one of those franchises with an ardent, enthused fanbase and a surrounding chorus of naysayers - naysayers that, generally speaking, have never actually seen an episode or one of the films, but feels qualified to condemn it as tasteless, untalented trash anyway. It's kind of like Twilight in that respect; if everyone who says Twilight is a terrible film had actually seen the film, it would be the highest-grossing movie ever made.

I am, quite unashamedly, a fan of Jackass. It's scrappy as all hell, and for every sketch I find funny there's easily at least one that I find tedious or just plain stupid, but on a laugh-per-minute ratio it's constantly been satisfyingly high, and in among the dick and fart jokes there's even the occasional moment of savage cultural comment on contemporary American values. A case in point: early into Jackass presents Bad Grandpa, the fourth and most recent film in the series, an elderly man appears to have his genitals stuck in a vending machine. Passersby, entirely unaware they're viewing a secretly filmed prank, don't help the man at all. They don't even call the police. They do, however, laugh themselves stupid at his expense and all record him with their mobile telephones. God bless America. What lovely people.

April 7, 2014

The Pull List: 2 April 2014

DC have a genuinely impressive ability to launch comics with very little chance of prolonged success while leaving deat-cert hits languishing on the shelf. Example: Tim Drake's Robin remains one of the company's most beloved characters, and he still doesn't have his own title in the New 52. With the cancellation of Teen Titans he doesn't even get to share a book. Conversely we're now getting a team book featuring the Others, a group of grumpy characters who don't even seem to like each other who are united by their use of Altantean artefacts to get their powers.

Aquaman is currently selling around 35,000 copies per month. An Aquaman spin-off is likely to sell quite a bit less than that. If we look at the February 2014 sales figures, we can see that Green Lantern Corps sells about 60% the number of copies of lead title Green Lantern. This would put the sales of Aquaman and the Others at around 21,000. If that's the book's starting point, I give it eight issues before DC cut their losses and collect what's there as a trade paperback (or maybe not even that - Green Team: Teen Trillionaires launched with 27,000 units in the market, and final sales were so low it's not even getting a trade collection - the first New 52 monthly not to do so).

So to be blunt: this book isn't going to be around for very long. On the one hand that's a shame, because it actually features new characters - something DC's been fairly slack about generating in recent years. On the other hand, it's a very workmanlike and ordinary comic. There's nothing here that's particularly bad, but there's also nothing that's exceptionally memorable either. Dan Jurgens writes the sort of script he always writes, by which I mean it's solidly average, and the art by Lan Madina and Allen Martinez is competent without being notable. So altogether the book is good, but it's almost certainly not good enough. (2/5)

DC Comics. Written by Dan Jurgens. Art by Lan Madina and Allen Martinez.

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Batwing, Black Widow, Detective Comics, Revival, She-Hulk, Stormwatch, Trillium and Ultimate Comics Spider-Man.

Star Trek Enterprise: "Harbinger"

Oh I was so hopeful for Enterprise after the last episode ("Stratagem"), in which they finally seemed to get some narrative drive back. I should have known better: 'Harbinger" balances three storylines, one of which could have been great if written more effectively and the other two basically achieve nothing bar sabotage the first by leaching away its screen time. The end result is a chore to sit through; my eyes rolled with such frequency they could have been hooked up to a generator and powered half a suburb.

En route to the Xindi superweapon, the Enterprise encounters a dangerous pink area of space where several spatial anomalies have aligned. Inside they find a dying alien inside an escape pod, only rather than thank the crew for rescuing him he demands to be returned back where he was. Meanwhile Lt Reed and Major Hayes literally come to blows over how best to train the crew, and T'Pol gets jealous over the fact that Trip is spending time with another female officer.

April 6, 2014

I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK (2006)

Park Chan-wook remains a critical darling with international audiences, many of whom have experienced South Korean cinema either wholly or partially through his works. His third film, Joint Security Area, was one of the first films of the South Korean new wave to be widely seen outside of its home country. Further hits such as Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and Thirst have cemented Park’s position as the pre-eminent director of Korean film.

Wedged in the middle of this impressive resume is Park’s surreal 2006 comedy I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK. It was produced between Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and Thirst – both of those films gained a fairly wide international release. I’m a Cyborg mysteriously did not. It made me keen to track the film down and have a look.

Young-goon (Im Su-jeong) is a young woman who believes that she is a cyborg. After an attempt to ‘recharge’ that involves cutting her wrist, inserting some wires into her arm and electrocuting herself, she is committed to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. There she meets a succession of odd and delusional patients, and enters into a strange romance with Il-sun (Rain) – an anti-social kleptomaniac with a penchant for wearing hand-made rabbit masks.

You're Next (2011)

You're Next is a brutally violent home invasion thriller in which events are pushed to such bloody extremes that it winds up more like an exceptionally bleak comedy. A rich American family assemble at their vacation house, only to find old rivalries and tensions rising up between the siblings. Just when a particularly hostile dinner conversation reaches a climax, somebody outside the house starts shooting at the family with a crossbow. Things go horribly, gorily awry from there.

The film is directed by Adam Wingard, one of a current group of active, interesting American filmmakers who are giving us a lot of the better horror films of recent years. Wingard was primarily responsible for the portmanteau film V/H/S and its sequel, as well as the intriguing thriller A Horrible Way to Die. You're Next was produced in 2011, although it didn't get a mainstream release until last year. It treads that difficult line that all slasher films must follow: stray too far from the formula and you're not a slasher film any more. Hew too closely and you risk being derivative or even ridiculous. For the most part Wingard sticks pretty closely to formula, save for one crucial spanner in the works.

April 4, 2014

The Host (2006)

Let me tell you about The Host. If you’re a fan of monster movies or South Korean cinema, it’s very likely that not only have you heard of, you’ve almost certainly seen it. You probably even own the DVD. And so you should, because this South Korean monster movie is one of the best motion pictures you’re likely to find, both in its home country and its genre.

There’s a creature stalking the Han River. Some people it kills and eats. Others it captures, and drags back to its lair, so that it can kill and eat them later. It’s an absolutely nightmarish creature, all legs and teeth and tentacles, too odd to fully identify and too fast and violent to see properly. Making a decent movie monster is hard work. It’s easy to make it look ridiculous, or unintentionally funny. The monster of The Host isn’t funny or ridiculous. It’s one of the scariest-looking things ever committed to film.

Its entrance, slipping down from under a bridge before rampaging across a local park, is a masterwork of action and suspense. I don’t think there’s been a scene as good as this since Jurassic Park, and I don’t think there has been a scene to equal it since The Host. A lot of people like Jurassic Park, as well as Jaws, and The Host is as effective and entertaining a thrill ride as both of those films.

Sound of my Voice (2011)

Two aspiring filmmakers, Peter and Lorna, infiltrate a Los Angeles cult whose leader - a mysterious woman named Maggie - claims to be from the future. They enter Maggie's circle because they want to expose her as a fraud, but as the days roll on allegiances are tested and one or both of them may be starting to have doubts.

Sound of my Voice is the kind of film that I'm really getting into at the moment. There is a whole generation of low budget filmmakers in America at the moment, creating tense, creepy horror movies and thrillers. They're generally pretty short, pack a strong punch and show twice the inventiveness you'd see in the equivalent studio picture. After all, they've little money for spectacle; all the thrills they generate have to come from the actors and the script. Sound of my Voice is directed by Zal Batmanglij, who also co-wrote the screenplay with star Brit Manning.

It's a very creepy movie, but it's an insidious sort of creepy that starts picking away at the sides. I'm fascinated by cults, and how people are lured into joining them, and Sound of my Voice does a very good job of showing just how easily people can be sucked in - even if their original goal is to expose them.

April 3, 2014

Star Trek Enterprise: "Stratagem"

Three years after the destruction of the Earth, Degra - the designer of the Xindi superweapon - wakes on a battered shuttlecraft. His companion, former Enterprise captain Jonathan Archer, tells him that they've just escaped a Reptilian Xindi prison colony, and that Degra is suffering amnesia from the truth serums the Reptiles fed him. Together they go on the run to find Degra's allies and escape the Reptile menace.

Except, of course, it's all a ruse. Thankfully the episode doesn't stretch the lie out further than it has to: we only had a time-travelling 'Earth was destroyed' episode this season, and it would be ridiculous to have two in the one year. Instead Degra has been captured from the superweapon testing site and is being strung along in the hope that he can give Archer the location of the superweapon itself.

Get Jiro! (2012)

Anthony Bourdain is a pretty well known world-class chef, but I wasn't aware he was also the writer of crime novels. It's an interesting blend of careers. Two years ago he added comic book writer to his resume with Get Jiro!, an original 160-page graphic novel co-written with Joel Rose and art by Langdon Foss.

The book is set in a future Los Angeles where all forms of entertainment have collapsed, leaving food preparation as the one last surviving culture. Jiro is a strictly traditional sushi chef living outside the city walls whose culinary skills bring him to the attention of two powerful restaurant kingpins. Their attempts to curry favour with Jiro lead the restaurant community into an all-out gang war.

I do like the conceit of Get Jiro!, which is bonkers enough that it gives Bourdain and Rose plenty of room with which to develop a clever satire. The book is also soaked with references to various food preparations, techniques, recipes and ingredients - it's not so much that it gets in the way of the story, but it's great background detail and helps immerse the reader into this strange restaurant-obsessed world. The overall execution of the book, however, feels a little off.

April 2, 2014

Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon (1977)

Takao Saito’s Golgo 13 is one of Japan’s longest-running manga, having run pretty much continually since January 1969 and selling more than 200 million books in the process. It’s been adapted several times, often as an anime but also two times as a live-action thriller.

Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon, produced in 1977, is the second of those two movie adaptations. As a result of its age, its genre and the style of filmmaking at the time, Assignment Kowloon is often a film that you watch for its kitsch value. People have kung fu fights in which their bodies visibly fail to connect, and every punch sounds like the same inaccurate foley effect. Weirdly everybody – including those actually speaking Japanese – seem to be dubbed. The camera zooms where you’d expect it to cut to a close-up, or simply physically track in. That in mind, it still manages to surprise: now and again moments stand out and surpass the overall ‘kung fu flick’ vibe of the film as a whole.

Django Unchained (2012)

I find Quentin Tarantino to be a remarkably useful tool when working out how developed somebody's sense of cinema might be. If somebody is ranting away at you about their opinions of contemporary cinema, he's one of the most valuable names to throw into the conversation. There are hipsters and poseurs, for example. who will swear blind that he's the greatest director in the world. These people all betray themselves as inexperienced and poorly exposed to film. The truth is Tarantino's films deal in pastiche and homage. His films are cut entirely from the concepts, mise-en-scene and production styles of earlier, more original filmmakers.

There are others who will swear to you that Tarantino writes and directs over-hyped, hipster-bait garbage. He has no ideas, he just rips off other filmmakers and claims their work as his own. This too is inaccurate and in this case rather snobbish, since Tarantino never claims he's come up with these ideas on his own and it devalues the immense talent involved in what he does write and direct. He is a wonderful magpie of a director, collecting a bit of music here, a camera angle there, and bits and bobs of dialogue, narrative, costume, set design and editing from a raft of 1960s and 1970s directors. and films. He is the definitive product of the home video generation: remixing and remaking an earlier generation of cinema into new and stimulating forms.

So to my mind the correct analysis of Tarantino is somewhere in the middle, No, he's not the most original voice in contemporary cinema, but then he isn't trying to be. He's not the guy who adds new ideas to the conversation of film; he's the guy who reframes and re-establishes what has already been said. Without him - and directors like him - there's a risk we might forget, and that's when we wind up with filmmakers like Zack Snyder and Michael Bay.

This is all an unnecessarily pompous lead-up to discuss Tarantino's most recent film, the western Django Unchained. It stars Jamie Foxx, Christophe Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio, and while it's not Tarantino's finest work (that remains Pulp Fiction, as far as I'm concerned) it is a wonderfully fun, violent and deliberately provocative work.