May 31, 2014

Bodacious Space Pirates: "The Princess and the Pirate"

The identity of the Bentenmaru's stowaway is revealed: Princess Gruier Serenity, who is looking for Marika's father. Once that confusion is resolved, Gruier tasks Marika with locating a lost starship. When newscasts reveal that Gruier has been reported as missing by her government - despite the princess assuring everybody that her government knew where she was going, Marika places Gruier undercover at her own high school while she and the Bentenmaru crew work out what to do next.

Why is this series worth your time? For one thing, it's the sort of series that will name a character Gruier Serenity. Seriously: that's her actual name. Gruier Serenity. Is she a hippie princess or a French cheese? There's no need to decide: this is anime, which is allowed to be weird, so she gets to be both. Beyond that, this is a broadly entertaining episode that sets up a fresh storyline for the series: the hunt for a the golden ghost ship.

May 30, 2014

Gatchaman Crowds: "Kitsch"

As a cable car looks set to collapse, killing the passengers inside, Rui activates the Crowds: strange, alien creatures seemingly controlled by GALAX users, who save the day and keep things together until help arrives. Meanwhile Joe has a violent encounter with Berg Katse, a smiling alien with the ability to kiss a human, assume its identity and go on a violent rampage.

One of the weirder things about Gatchaman Crowds has been how tenuously it has been connected to the original Science Ninja Team Gatchaman with which it shares a title. This episode drops another connection into the frame with the addition of Berg Katse, a new alien villain who shares a name with the original Gatchaman's antagonist (viewers of Battle of the Planets will know the character as Zoltar). Beyond the name and the androgyny there doesn't seem to be anything connecting the two characters, but it ties in with the other soft connections that the series has been gradually forming.

Daily Links: 30 May 2014

  • Director talks Jurassic Park sequel. Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow talks to Slashfilm about his forthcoming sequel, including its basic premise and the thinking that got him there. This interview does spoil the basic ideas behind the new film, but it also gave me a lot more reassurance that it might be pretty awesome. (link)
  • Penny Dreadful. I haven't seen anything from the new TV series Penny Dreadful, but British critic Mark Lawson has, and he writes interestingly about it at the New Statesman. (link)
  • Best Musicals. Buzzfeed runs through the 43 best Broadway musicals that have premiered since 2000. I'm not familiar with half of these, and now want to see quite a few of them one day. (link)
  • Evil Gummies. This is kind of gross, but just made me laugh. (link)
  • Sting by Leibovitz. Great photo of Sting by the faultless photographer Annie Leibovitz. It's attached to an article about the forthcoming musical The Last Ship, but the interview is behind a paywall. So really this link is purely for the nice photo. (link)

The Pull List: 28 May 2014

The Massive #23 was released this week, and that's as good an opportunity to talk about this post-apocalyptic ongoing comic by Brian Wood. Wood already has form with this sort of title, having created and written DC Vertigo's successful DMZ a few years back. The Massive is, I think, an even better comic, and certainly operates on a much larger scale than DMZ did. The book is set after a global series of ecological disasters - maybe natural, maybe not - that has left the world's populated decimated and scattered into a bunch of different, all equally desperate, communities. The survivors of an ecological terrorist group called Ninth Wave are travelled the world on their converted trawler ship the Kapital, while searching for the elusive sister ship the Massive - which went missing several years ago.

One of the things I really like about this title is the tight three-issue story arcs. Every three issues we move to a different part of the world, so as the series as gone on we've gained a better and better picture of what's happening. In recent months the book has taken a very unexpected turn, with hints that the amount of science fiction in the book is about to get much, much higher. The current arc is focused on Mary, one-time member of the Kapital crew who has jumped ship and now escorts an expedition to drive millions of litres of fresh water across the Sahara desert. There's also a very odd prologue scene in which Mary may be several centuries old - this comes after several earlier hints that she had a lot more to do with the Crash than she's let on.

Strong writing, gritty artwork, and a pile of great ideas. This is a brilliant SF comic, and - after struggling to grab my attention for its first year or so - it's become one of my absolute favourites. (5/5)

Dark Horse. Written by Brian Wood. Art by Danijel Zezelj.

Under the cut: reviews of All-Star Western, Aquaman, Batman, Batman Eternal, Chew/Revival, Dead Body Road, The Flash, The Fuse, Ms Marvel and Star Wars Rebel Heist.

May 28, 2014

The Bride with White Hair (1993)

Cho Yi-Hang (Leslie Cheung) waits on a mountain peak for a majestic flower to bloom. It does so once every decade, and its petals can cure any illness. Through flashbacks we learn why he’s waiting there, who the cure is for, and what led his life along the course it took. It is a course populated with bloodshed, conflict, love and sex, witchcraft and sorcery.

The Bride with White Hair was one of my formative viewing experiences, viewed late at night on Australian TV channel SBS and met by my slack-jawed amazement and immense admiration. The film was produced in 1993, and presented a massive and overwhelming contrast to the sorts of action films that I (and, I suspect, other English-speaking viewers) was watching at the time.

The film was my first encounter with ‘wuxia’, a particularly Chinese genre of novel, comic book, television drama and film. The term literally means ‘martial hero’, and denotes a particular brand of martial arts-based period adventure. Wuxia stories present intensely noble and honour-bound martial artists and swordspeople fighting evil and injustice as they travel the land. They exist in a mythologised ideal vision of medieval China – the level of mythology varies from text to text – roughly analogous to European tales of chivalry, Japanese samurai drama or even the American western.

Godzilla (2014)

Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures seem to have a thing for giant monsters - or maybe it's just me. Certainly they made a big deal last year out of Guillermo Del Toro's interminable Pacific Rim, and next year they're releasing Seventh Son - an epic fantasy filled with dragons and other medieval-era monsters. In between they're relaunched the most famous giant monster of all: Toho's Godzilla, refreshed and re-envisaged for a new decade.

This is the fourth time the Americans have tackled Japan's biggest pop culture character. The first two times they simply filmed some scenes of Raymond Burr reacting to the carnage. In 1998 Sony spent a huge amount of money on Roland Emmerich's ode to the last 15 minutes of The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Now director Gareth Edwards (Monsters) has stepped up to the plate with a thoughtfully constructed and visually stunning epic that is easily the best American Godzilla film ever made.

Yeah, that's actually a really low bar, and if I'm honest I vastly preferred Emmerich's over-the-top popcorn flick for sheer entertainment value. Gareth Edwards' Godzilla is an interminable bore, clearly respectful of the Toho legacy while simultaneously making one of the most maddening summer blockbusters of recent years.

May 27, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Time Squared"

The Enterprise finds a Starfleet shuttle drifting in space. It turns out to be the Enterprise's shuttle, even though said shuttle in still in its launch bay. Inside they find Captain Picard in a coma, even though Captain Picard is still on the bridge. When La Forge and Data work out that the shuttle is from six hours into Enterprise's future, it gives the crew a very short deadline to prevent whatever destroys the ship in the future from destroying it again - or the first time - in the present - or is that the future?

"Time Squared" is a nonsensical time travel puzzle. It's an episode that demonstrably makes no sense. This would be fine, except it's constructed as a bit of a mystery. The viewer is invited to speculate on what will happen, and how the Enterprise will change the course of history. By the time the climax is finished, the same viewer will be none the wiser over what actually happened or how the Enterprise escaped. To quote Douglas Adam's immortal creation Zaphod Beeblebrox, this episode gets 'ten out of ten for style, minus several million for good thinking'.

May 26, 2014

PSX20: Tony Hawk Pro-Skater 2

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.

I'm not really into skateboarding. I never owned a skateboard and am generally too risk-averse to try balancing on one now. I am, however, really into videogames, and that - it turns out - allowed me to enjoy Tony Hawk Pro-Skater 2 immensely.

This wasn't an exclusive PlayStation title by any means, but certainly I played it on the PSX. I played it a lot. This is one of those cases where the initial game out and was broadly enjoyable, but whose sequel made just enough minor tweaks and changes that it creates a vastly more enjoyable experience. It was addictive and entertaining and, as a result, one of my favourite PSX titles.

AKB0048: "Kirara of Succession"

With rising demand for AKB concerts the decision is made to re-instate an understudy program, launching Chieri forward and far beyond her comfort zone. When her fellow trainees discover that she is actually the daughter of the man whose corporate build anti-AKB munitions for the DES, she feels compelled to abandon her dream and leave. Meanwhile, Minami and Yuko secretly follow Tsubasa to a meeting with Sensei Sensei - with unexpected and, for Minami, unwanted results.

This episode spends much of its running coasting along on another story of a trainee (in this case Chieri) suffering a crisis of confidence, and her friends stepping in to reassure her and build her self-esteem up again. It's enjoyable enough stuff, although after a near-identical episode with Orine going through the same emotional process it does feel a little formulaic. Then we suddenly get to the secret magical garden underneath the concert stadium where glowing Pokemon-like creatures project psychic visions of which trainees deserve promotions. After that, the episode returns to the sort of weird every-anime-at-once mashup that attracted me to AKB0048 in the first place.

May 25, 2014

Star Trek Enterprise: "Hatchery"

The Enterprise's journey to Azati Prime is interrupted by the discovery of a crashed Xindi spacecraft on a nearby planet. When the away team discovers a hatchery of unborn insectoid Xindi, Captain Archer orders for the eggs to be saved at all costs - even at the expense of the Enterprise's mission. When Archer's order become too much, the crew break against his orders and start a mutiny.

Oh for goodness sake get to Azati Prime already. This is the third full episode since the Enterprise's crew learned of the location of the Xindi weapon and we still haven't reached it yet. It all feels like a delaying tactic and it's getting tiresome. This episode also feels quite tedious to watch because the suspense is a false suspense. We know that Captain Archer is acting irrationally, so we know there has to be a reason for it. The result is an episode that's less about trying to work out what's going on so much as it's about wanting it all to end.

May 24, 2014

Overheard (2009)

Ever made the wrong choice, or a bad decision? You create a problem, and then you have to fix it. You have to fix it fast, because you’ve caused damage, and you’re in danger of getting into a lot of trouble. Only fixing the problem just makes a worse problem, and fixing that one creates a third problem, and the more you frantically dig, the deeper that hole’s going to be?

That’s Overheard in a nutshell. It's a 2009 police thriller written and directed by Hong Kong's super-team Felix Chong and Alan Mak. They scored a phenomenal hit some years ago writing Infernal Affairs for director Andrew Lau, and that film was remade in the USA as Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning The Departed. Other Chong/Mak films have included Confession of Pain, The Lost Bladesman and The Silent War. They made great films, and I think Overheard is one of their best.

Overheard thrills, surprises and entertains in equal measure. The story focuses on a police surveillance unit who are monitoring a suspected insider trading scam. When two members of the team – one financially crippled by gambling debts and the other critically ill – decide to use the information they’ve learned to undertake some secret insider trading of their own, first careers and ultimately lives are put dangerously at risk. They try to put things right, but manage to make the situation a little worse. They try again, and it gets worse again. The tension is incrementally ratcheted up as the film goes on.

May 23, 2014

The Pull List: 21 May 2014

Boom Studios have certainly got my attention with their current spate of new miniseries, each of which is cleverly re-positioning the publisher as a minor competitor to Image. Their latest effort is The Last Broadcast, a seven issue miniseries about urban exploration and 1930s stage magicians.

It's an intriguing first issue, but also a slightly confusing one. The book jumps forward and back between three different time periods: an aspiring magician named Ivan wakes up in a hospital and learns that his friends are dead; we jump back to see Ivan and his friends explore a hidden room in the city's sewer system; we jump back to see Ivan's keen interest in 1930s magician Blackhall the Incredible - whose secret room Ivan and his friends may have found. Thankfully it's the good kind of confusing: while this first issue is a little disorientating the first time around, it hooked me in and has left me very keen to find out how the story develops.

Gabriel Lumazark's artwork is stunning, and reminds me of some of the more adventurous books with which IDW first gained popular attention. It has a very distinctive look, that really set this book out from the other comics I purchased this week. The overall presentation is top-notch, with some intriguing additional material at the issue's end and a really nicely printed cover on a thick cardstock and a silk finish. First Lumberjanes, then Translucid, now this: Boom really know how to get a reader's attention. (4/5)

Boom Studios/Archaia. Written by André Sirangelo. Art by Gabriel Lumazark.

Under the cut: a really strong week with reviews of Batman and Frankenstein, Batman Eternal, Daredevil, Forever Evil, Saga, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: New Animated Adventures, Thor: God of Thunder, and Wonder Woman.

20th Century Fox's big X-Men gamble

Yesterday I wrote about the extraordinary risk that DreamWorks Animation seemed to be taking by swapping their animated films around in the schedule. Today I wanted to look at a movie opening right now around the world: 20th Century Fox's big-budget superhero sequel X-Men: Days of Future Past. It's a high profile release, widely hyped and pretty much the biggest movie Fox are releasing in 2014. It's also an enormous financial risk. Here's why.

Studio estimates put Days of Future Past's production budget at $225m, and since then there have been additional reshoots and overruns, so let's be relatively charitable at round things up to the nearest $50: that's an estimated budget of $250m. Add to it at least $100m in promotion and advertising (P&A), and you're looking at $350m. So as the rule of thumb goes: the studio will be satisfied if the film grosses double it's cost. This means Fox are looking for a $700m payday for their film. Fair enough, you might think. Superhero movies are huge. Why last year Iron Man 3 earned more than one billion dollars.

May 22, 2014

Chronicle (2012)

Three Seattle high schoolers stumble upon a massive glowing crystal in a cave. Shortly afterwards they start developing telekinetic powers - powers that seem to be growing stronger and stronger over time. At first it seems like the most amazing gift in the world, but as one of the three - the bullied and insular Andrew - begins to exhibit even more pronounced powers than the others, how long will it be before something snaps and all hell breaks loose?

'How long will it be' is pretty much the core question of Chronicle, an impressively staged found footage thriller by first-time director Josh Trank. The film opens with Andrew deciding to document his life with a video camera. Through that camera we see a relatively unpleasant life: bullied at school and on the street, abused by his drunk father, and generally ignored or ridiculed by his peers, Andrew is a tightly-wound spring ready to launch. That launch is going to come with his growing psychic powers: at first he can levitate pebbles. Before too long he can crush cars. The result is a film that is from it's first 10 minutes a question of 'when' rather than 'if': essentially Carrie by way of Akira, only shot from videocameras and smartphones like Cloverfield.

May 21, 2014

Will Penguins save DreamWorks Animation's bank balance?

The entertainment news story that grabbed my attention today was the announcement by DreamWorks Animation that their high-profile Madagascar spin-off, The Penguins of Madagascar, is having its release date brought forward from 27 March 2015 (in the USA, at any rate) to 26 November 2014. That's what the polite call 'bold' and the honest call 'desperate'.

The truth is that DWA are in a spot of trouble at the moment. Their last four animated films have under-performed, particularly this year's damp Peabody and Mr Sherman, and shifting Penguins is a clear attempt to shore up some box office before the year ends and save a few people their jobs. Home, an original animated film about aliens hiding among humans, is swapping places and now bows in the March slot.

Daily Links: 21 May 2014

  • Kung-fu Colin Firth. I am intrigued by Matthew Vaughn's next picture, Kingsman: The Secret Service, which adapts the Mark Millar comic book (much like Vaughn already did with Kick Ass) and re-casts Colin Firth as a martial artist super-spy. Colin Firth is interviewed about the film over at Entertainment Weekly. (link)
  • Ninjago movie. Not only is The Lego Movie getting a sequel, it's also sort of getting a spin-off: Warner Bros have announced a movie devoted to the martial arts-themed Lego line Ninjago for September 2016. Charlie Bean makes his directorial debut with the film. (link)
  • Pokemon Red figure. I link to cool action figures when I see them, and I really like this upcoming Nenderoid toy based on Pokemon Red. Nintendo fans take note. (link)
  • Muscular Matt Smith. Lost River, Ryan Gosling's directorial debut that features Doctor Who's Matt Smith as the villain, gets reviewed over at Twitchfilm. Who fans take note. (link)

The Warrior and the Wolf (2009)

The Warrior and the Wolf is without question a very beautiful film. Shot on location in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region, it showcases that region’s stark, mountainous terrain to remarkable effect. Sadly the lush visuals and the talented cast are unable to rescue a film that suffers from a confused and unlikeable screenplay. Worse than that, The Warrior and the Wolf is dull. If you find yourself checking your watch throughout the film to see how much longer it has to go, you know you’re not watching a masterpiece of modern cinema.

The film is set in ancient China. Joe Odagiri plays Lu, a cowardly shepherd dragged into the Chinese army by General Zhang (Tou Chung-hua). Despite attempting to flee the army several times, Lu ultimately saves Zhang’s life after a battle goes awry. When the wounded Zhang is taken home to recover from his wounds, Lu is placed in charge of his unit and camps out in a deserted village. There he encounters and begins a passionate love affair with an unnamed tribeswoman (Maggie Q), who holds an unsettling connection with the wolves that roam the surrounding forests.

This film may be upsetting for some, as it begins with representations of sexual assault.

May 20, 2014

Star Trek Enterprise: "Doctor's Orders"

The Enterprise's course to Azati Prime is blocked by another growing energy field that will take weeks to circumnavigate. Phlox presents an alternative: he can put the entire crew into a comatose state, stick the ship on autopilot and fly straight through it - his Denobulan brain is immune to the effects of the field, and he can watch over and care for the crew while they're under. Once their journey begins, however, he and Commander T'Pol begin to suspect that they are not alone onboard the Enterprise.

"Doctor's Orders" is an admirable attempt to create a haunted house thriller out of an episode of Star Trek. It does this by putting Phlox and T'Pol on their own in an effectively empty Enterprise, and then making things go bump in the night. I call it an admirable attempt because I'm not sure it works in execution. It has some nice startling moments to make the viewer jump in her or his seat, but the ultimate reveal is a little underwhelming and far too obviously telegraphed in advance.

Dead Europe (2012)

Dead Europe is an Australian drama by way of "Orpheus in the Underworld": a dark, oppressive, ruthlessly unpleasant odyssey for an Australian photographer travelling to Athens to scatter his father's ashes. It is a relentlessly grim and cruel vision of back streets and run-down apartment blocks, where criminals lurk around every corner and the entire continent seemed positively dripping with superstition and anti-Semitism.

The film is directed by Tony Krawitz, whose 2005 short feature Jewboy was pretty much that year's best Australian movie. It is adapted from the novel by Cristos Tsiolkas, whose works have already been adapted for the screen several times - most recently in the acclaimed TV drama The Slap. The film reunites Krawitz with his Jewboy star Ewen Leslie, an exceptional actor who really deserves to be a lot better known than he is. I adored Leslie's performance in Jewboy, and he was one of the few highlights of the Sydney Theatre Company's interminable The War of the Roses a few years back. Here he plays Isaac, a gay Greek-Australian photographer whose attempt to put his father to rest opens up some gaping wounds in his family history. Terrible things happen, and to an extent they only happen because Isaac keeps asking the questions no one wants him to ask.

Daily Links: 20 May 2014

  • Godzilla 2 in the works. Based on a $93m opening weekend in the USA and more than $100m internationally, it's little surprise that Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures have started work on a second Godzilla movie. (link)
  • DC Comics massacre. There's a bit of a title cull going on at DC Comics, with All-Star Western, Batwing, Birds of Prey, Superboy, Phantom Stranger and Pandora all getting cancelled as of August. (link)
  • Original Star Wars blu-rays? It's hard to decide how believable I think it is, but a rumour is doing the rounds online that Walt Disney Pictures are planning a DVD and blu-ray release of the original and unaltered Star Wars trilogy. Of course asking "which original version of A New Hope" is opening a can of nerdy worms, but as far as rumours go it's a likeable one. (link)

May 19, 2014

Ginger Snaps (2000)

One of the things that fans of Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer point to as proof of that show's genius is how it took everyday adolescent concerns and dilemmas and presented them allegorically on screen. The idea that a teenage girl who loses her virginity to a boy, for example, only to discover he promptly rejects her and is suddenly rather cruel: Buffy played it out with the boyfriend's monstrous behaviour being the result of actually being a monster. If there's a downside to this approach, however, it's that none of the teenagers in Joss Whedon's series ever actually spoke like teenagers. There was a slightly over-educated sense of intelligence snark about it all. The character may have acted like teenagers, but they spoke like a television script writer.

Here, then, is a teenage allegory that takes that extra step: Ginger Snaps is a low-budget Canadian horror film from 2000. It does the same thing, in this case using lycanthropy as an intentionally dark and funny allegory for female puberty, only its characters act like real teenagers and speak like them as well. It was a big hit in Canada back when it was made, and has since gained something of a cult following internationally.

May 17, 2014

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Today Studio Ghibli and its co-founder Hayao Miyazaki are both synonymous with quality animated film. Miyazaki is regularly hailed as the greatest director of animation of all time, a claim that is surprisingly difficult to dispute. His films effortlessly blend character, tone, aesthetic and imagination, creating movie experiences that are unparalleled in world cinema. He is also unusually effective and creating and animating female protagonists, which is far too rare in the motion pictures of any country.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which was released in Japan in 1984, is his first original feature and a forerunner to Studio Ghibli, the animation company that Miyazaki set up with fellow director and producer Isao Takahata. It is visibly an early work: elements that would later feel standard for Ghibli films are only just being formed, and the visual aesthetic has not fully settled down to the signature Miyazaki “look” audiences will later grow to adore. The film is also a far more mature and adult work than his later family friendly films such as Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away.

A thousand years after an apocalyptic war devastated the Earth, the planet is dominated by an enormous poisonous jungle that is populated by giant insects and which is lethal to human life. In the nearby Valley of the Wind, a small kingdom lives out a peaceful existence – ever-watchful for the dangerous spores that may float from the jungle and infect their own forests and meadows. When an aircraft from the warlike Kingdom of Tolmekia crash-lands nearby, it results in a military invasion by Tolmekian forces – and leads the young Princess Nausicaä on a quest to finally learn the secrets of the poisonous jungle.

May 16, 2014

Ping Pong (2002)

Ping Pong is an oddity. It is a teen comedy about a table tennis championship, based on the popular manga by Taiyo Matsumoto. It has a strange, off-kilter tone. Its table tennis matches are shot like The Matrix. It is without question unlike any sports-based movie I have ever seen, and it is all the better for it. I’m not sure how many table tennis movies are out there, but I’m reasonable comfortable in asserting Ping Pong is one the best that’s been made.

Best friends Pico (Kubozuka) and Smile (Arata) are both members of a high school table tennis club, whose lives get thrown into disarray by the arrival of a new player at the school – one who is vastly more talented at the game than Pico, and whose presence challenges Smile to stop coasting through life and to start making a difference.

The first thing to commend is just how freakishly accurate the film’s cast are to their manga counterparts. Ping Pong is perfectly cast, with each character visually corresponding precisely to how they look on the page. I don’t think there’s ever been a comic-to-film adaptation with such fidelity.

Daily Links: 16 May 2014

By "Daily Links", I don't mean this will be a daily post. Some days I simply won't have the time. These are, however, interesting links that I found today.
  • Mortensen laments Jackson's career. Viggo Mortensen says some pretty smart things about Peter Jackson's career post-Fellowship of the Ring, including the director's over-reliance on CGI. (link)
  • Rachel Talalay joins Doctor Who. I am very excited to see that Rachel Talalay, producer of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise and director of Tank Girl, will be directing an episode of Doctor Who this year. She's the first female director since 2010. (link)
  • Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella gets teaser. Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella forms part of Disney's growing range of live-action remakes of their animated back catalogue. The teaser (and it really is just a teaser, no actual footage) has been released. The film is out in 2015; I'm looking forward to Cate Blanchett's wicked stepmother. (link)

The Pull List: 14 May 2014

Six issues in, and I'm developing a pretty good sense of what Batman Eternal is all about, and I like what I see. It's ostensibly about a big story arc that's slowly being revealed involving a gang war, nanotechnology and some mysterious background villain working behind the scenes. What it's actually about is being a sort of anthology book in disguise. Let me explain.

Batman has one of the largest supporting casts in comics, particularly for an apparently solo hero. He has a broad range of villains, a large number of sidekicks and associates, and no small quantity of police officers and politicians. Batman Eternal is mixing them all together, and giving each character an issue or two to shine and stand out. The first issue was very much about Jim Gordon. Issue #4 (which I reviewed last week) was based around Batgirl. I'm now caught up with the series, having read issues #5 and #6 last night - #5 is a Red Robin/Harper Row team-up, and #6 matches Batwing with the Spectre.

I love it. One of the things I felt has been missing from the New 52 has been that sense of interconnectivity. Sure there have been crossovers and the odd events, but it all feels so weirdly disconnected from one another. Batman Eternal is making me feel like Gotham is a big connected series of superhero adventures, and that's something I really like. Of the two issues, I vastly preferred #5's Red Robin adventure: Tim Drake is a brilliant, criminally underused character, and he's a great match with Harper. I wouldn't be surprised or disappointed to see them get a team-up book within the next 12 months. Certainly it's something I'd buy in a shot: Red Robin and Bluebird sounds like a hit in the making to me.

Batman Eternal #5. Written by James Tynion IV, story by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV with story consultancy by Ray Fawkes, Tim Seeley and John Layman. Art by Andy Clarke. (4/5)
Batman Eternal #6. Written by Ray Fakwes, story by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV with story consultancy by Tim Seeley and John Layman. Art by Trevor McCarthy. (3/5)

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Batgirl, FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics, Lumberjanes, Star Wars and Worlds' Finest.

May 15, 2014

Long Dream (2000)

A young man is admitted into psychiatric care. He claims he's having long dreams. He goes to sleep, and in the space of a few hours experiences six months in his dream world. Soon he's dreaming for a year, then ten years. How far will his 'long dreams' go, and what will happen to him in the meantime?

I am a huge fan of Uzumaki, a weird Japanese horror movie directed by Higuchinsky and based on the manga by Junji Ito. I was excited a few weeks back to learn that in the same year that they collaborated on that movie they also made this 60-minute made-for-television film. It's a much, much cheaper production, shot on videotape with little in the way of mise-en-scene or production values. Like Uzumaki it faithfully adapts one of Ito's horror manga. It's scrappy as hell, with cheap make-up effects and slightly dodgy performances. It's also brilliant. Let me explain why.

MW (2009)

Osamu Tezuka is known around the world as the creator of Astroboy and Kimba the White Lion. His iconic, Disney-inspired artistry not only captured the imagination of generations of readers and viewers, he also single-handedly dictated the visual aesthetic for post-war manga and anime. Something international readers don’t often realise is the sheer depth and length of Tezuka’s manga work. In a career that lasted more than 40 years he wrote and drew more than 150,000 pages, spread across a wide variety of genres.

MW, which was until recently a relatively obscure work outside of Japan, is a surprisingly adult work that follows a guilt-ridden priest, his adoptive serial killer brother, and the ramifications of chemical weapons testing on an isolated Pacific Island.

In 2009 the manga was adapted into a live-action feature film, forming part of a broader celebration of what would have been Tezuka’s 80th birthday. Sadly the end result is a strangely messy film.

May 14, 2014

Daily Links: 14 May 2014

I read a lot of geek-related news on the Internet each day, and so I figured it was probably about time to start throwing together links to the most interesting things I see each day. I used to do this occasionally as "Odds'n'Sods", but just flat-out calling it "Daily Links" makes it a lot clearer what these posts will be about.
  • Snyder debuts new Batman. Director Zack Snyder has posted the first official photograph of Ben Affleck as Batman, along with his Batmobile, from the forthcoming Batman vs Superman movie. The cowl is visibly inspired by Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, which matches the older, more grizzled Batman that Snyder has been hinting at for some time. (link)

Lost in Time (2003)

Lost in Time is a Hong Kong romantic melodrama. Whether or not you enjoy the film will likely depend on whether or not you enjoy melodramas –it is somewhat like watching a soap opera, albeit one with a proper beginning, middle and end, nice photography and excellent performances. Whether or not you enjoy the film will also depend on how you cope with some fairly unfortunate assumptions that permeate the story.

Cecilia Cheung plays Siu Wai, a young woman engaged to minibus driver Ah Man (Louis Koo). When Man is killed in an accident, she takes over his bus route in an attempt to support his five year-old son. She soon befriends Dai Fai (Lau Ching Wan), a veteran minibus operator who helps to show her the ropes of a difficult and cut-throat industry.

Minibuses are such a wonderfully Hong Kong-centric thing that they give Lost in Time a very unique setting and flavour. The film works this to its advantage, creating a film that you really couldn’t easily adapt or remake in many other places. I think you’d lose something if you tried. This is the kind of Asian film I enjoy – not simply a well-crafted movie but one that is culture and site-specific. You’re simply not going to get this story out of Hollywood. Cecilia Cheung and Lau Ching Wan are both excellent – Cheung actually won the 2004 Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actress for this performance, and it was well deserved.

May 13, 2014

Haze (2005)

A man wakes up in a dark, coffin-like space. He can barely move, but move he must if he wants to survive, because he's bleeding from an abdominal wound. He wakes up again pressed between two walls, his open mouth straining against a long metal pole. He has to stand on tip-toes to avoid getting stabbed in the feet by razor-sharp metal spikes. As he slowly works his way through this cramped, claustrophobic labyrinth, he encounters a mysterious woman and struggles to piece together the fragments of his own memory.

This is Haze, a 49-minute long short feature written and directed by Shinya Tsukamoto - who also stars as the film's hapless protagonist. I'm a big fan of Tsukamoto's strange, low-budget breed of Japanese thriller. He first wowed audiences with his frantic 1989 film Tetsuo: The Iron Man but has since impressed with a number of idosyncratic, disturbing and fetishistic thrillers including Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, Tokyo Fist, Nightmare Detective and A Snake of June. Haze is one of his best works: provocative, nightmarish and daring.

Bodacious Space Pirates: "The Peace Does Not Last"

Now that she's a professional space pirate, Marika is finding it difficult balancing her time spent commanding the Bentenmaru with her high school studies. Like a classic overachiever, however, she insists on continuing to dedicate herself to both.

Now that we're seven episodes into the series I am beginning to appreciate what they're doing here a little more. I do think they spent too long getting Marika onto the bridge of the Bentenmaru, but we're now talking about whether it should have taken three episodes or five - not the biggest jump, and I'm happy to meet the series in the middle. One benefit of the slow set-up is that the series can jump around pretty effortlessly, so an early scene of Mami gushing to Chiaki about how wonderful she thinks Marika is doesn't feel out of place or a waste of time. The cast is still worryingly huge of course, but I do feel like I'm slowly getting to know each character - even if I'm still referring to Wikipedia to remember their names.

May 12, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Royale"

The Enterprise investigates reports of wreckage from an Earth-based starship orbiting an uninhabited world. They find remains of a 21st century NASA starship, inexplicably beyond where such a vessel could ever have reached on its own. On the surface Riker's away team finds a simulated 20th century casino, filled with pulp characters and cliche-ridden storylines - and once inside, they are unable to escape.

The first thing I want to raise in relation to "The Royale" is how ludicrous it is that so many 21st century space missions launched by the human race wind up dislocated to the other side of the galaxy in the 23rd or 24th centuries. We're only 12 episodes or so past "The Neutral Zone", where the Enterprise crew discovered a similar dislocated vessel. Similar stories crop up in the original series, The Motion Picture, Enterprise and Voyager. As far as I can make out, pretty much every early attempt by humans to explore beyond their own solar system ended in catastrophic failure and mysterious disappearances. It's a wonder they ever launched Jonathan Archer's Enterprise in the first place.

The Pull List: 7 May 2014

The second of DC's three simultaneous weekly titles debuted this week: The New 52: Futures End (note the lack of apostrophe, this is apparently significant) is a time travelling cyborg apocalypse from writers Brian Azzarello, Dan Jurgens, Jeff Lemire and Keith Giffen. The first issue's capable artwork is by Patrick Zircher. From the get-go there are some immediate observations.

One: good god this comic is convoluted. 35 years into the future the DC Universe is overrun by homicidal super-powered cyborgs controlled by the artificial intelligence Brother Eye, so Batman - now Terry McGinnis from the Batman Beyond TV series from more than a decade ago - travels back in time to five years into the future to stop events from destroying the future 30 years later. Characters coming from the future to the present I can understand, but coming from the future to slightly less ahead in the future? That's just an extra level of nonsense this comic probably doesn't need.

Two: this all feels like a badly reheated meal that we all ate some time before. Brother Eye taking over is straight out of Infinite Crisis. Superheroes turning into mindless automata controlled by a superior power is straight out of Final Crisis. A hero travelling back in time to save the future is from pretty much everything. I didn't get any sense of any originality from this issue, which given the presence of Azzarello and Lemire genuinely surprised me.

Three: this appears to be the comic where all the characters nobody loves come to die. The entire cast of Stormwatch crop up within the first few pages. Grifter gets a lengthy sequence reminding the reader of who he is and of his alien-hunting schtick (and the cover - way to sell your weekly epic DC, with a character everybody by demonstration didn't care about). Mister Terrific gets name-checked and, I presume, will be returning shortly. I assume as the next few weeks unfold we'll also be seeing OMAC, Vibe, Katana and the Green Team.

A weekly comic book is a big commitment for a reader, but when it works - as it did in spades with 52 - it's worth it. When the results are more like Countdown to Infinite Crisis or Trinity, it's an absolute chore to support. I certainly won't be buying issue #2. (1/5)

DC Comics. Written by Brian Azzarello, Dan Jurgens, Jeff Lemire and Keith Giffen. Art by Patrick Zircher.

Under the cut: reviews of Aquaman and the Others, Batwing, Black Widow, Detective Comics, Justice League 3000, Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man, Revival, She-Hulk, The Wake and The Woods. Additionally, there are late reviews for Batman Eternal #4 and Justice League 3000 #5.

May 10, 2014

Weekly comics, and the worst idea of the New 52

I was originally going to post this as a part of my Pull List weekly comics review, but then it got a little long and I figured it could become a post of its own. DC Comics are taking what could be seen as an extraordinary risk this year with the release of not one but three weekly comic book serials. We're already a month into Batman Eternal, and this week sees the debut of The New 52: Futures End, and there's still an Earth 2-related weekly to go (Worlds End).

Now you might think the risk comes in asking comic book readers to commit US$2.99 a week for each book. Buy any three monthlies from DC and you'll be paying between US$8.97 and US$11.97 per month. Buy Futures End, Batman Eternal and Worlds End and you'll be paying DC US$35.88 per month. That's a big financial commitment to just three stories, but that's still not the biggest problem. The problem comes at the store level.

May 9, 2014

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010)

In the 1972 film Fist of Fury Bruce Lee introduced the world to Chen Zhen, a skilled martial artist from Shanghai who avenges his master’s death against a villainous Japanese dojo master. While Lee died the following year, the character of Chen Zhen has remained a popular one, inspiring numerous films (including 1995’s Fist of Legend, starring Jet Li) and television dramas. The fictional adventures of Chen Zhen continued in 2010 with the release of Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, a new martial arts adventure directed by Andrew Lau and starring Donnie Yen.

After serving with his fellow Chinese labourers on the battlefields of World War I, legendary martial artist Chen Zhen assumes the identity of a fallen comrade and returns to China. There he launches a secret offensive against the Japanese army in occupied Shanghai, and comes face-to-face with the son of the Japanese man he killed several years ago.

Legend of the Fist is actually a sequel to a 1995 television series, which greatly expanded on the original Fist of Fury and ran for 30 episodes. Donnie Yen played the role of Chen in that series, and he repeats it here. While the film starts in World War I France, it rapidly moves to 1925 Shanghai, where the Japanese have occupied the city and are going about preparations for a full-scale invasion of China. Chen Zhen, under his assumed guise of Qi Tianyuan, quickly becomes co-owner of a popular nightclub while simultaneously putting on a black suit and mask to fight the Japanese and defend Chinese rebels on the streets of Shanghai.

May 8, 2014

Kabei: Our Mother (2008)

What could easily have been a maudlin and tedious melodrama becomes a sensitive, heartfelt and engaging drama at the hands of writer/director Yoji Yamada. Kabei: Our Mother is a film adaptation of the Teruyo Nogami book Chichi eno requiem, presenting a fascinating glimpse into early 1940s Japan – a time when the nation was engaged in a brutal military occupation of China, and making overtures towards war with the USA and all of mainland Asia.

It makes for very interesting viewing. In an English-speaking culture we’re used to stories of World War II from the point of view of Australia, the USA or Great Britain. We occasionally get to see films from a German point of view. It seems very rare to see them from a Japanese one – particular, as is the case here, from a domestic perspective. The war is going on off-screen, and we are instead immersed in a world of rationed food, military service drafts and rigorous pro-war propaganda.

Sayuri Yoshinaga plays Kayo Nogami (nicknamed Kabei – everyone in the family uses nicknames), a loyal wife and mother whose scholar husband Tobei (Mitsugoro Bando) is arrested in the middle of the night under the Peace Preservation Laws because the authorities believe he has communist sympathies (for example, he describes Japan’s brutal invasion of China as a war and not a “crusade”). As Tobei’s incarceration stretches from weeks to months, still without charges or a conviction, Kabei continues to press for his release while caring for their two daughters, Hatsuko and Teruyo (who would ultimately write the biography that forms the basis for this film).

May 7, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the second part of Peter Jackson's three-film epic adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien novel. I generally hated the first instalment, with a few exceptions, but I had just enough affection left for Jackson's earlier Lord of the Rings trilogy to persevere with the second - albeit four months late on home video instead of in a cinema. It has many of the same problems, but for various reasons it seems to overcome them a little better. The result is a film that's watchable, indeed regularly very enjoyable, but still has enough niggling annoyances to prevent it from holding a candle to Jackson's earlier, vastly superior films.

We pick up where An Unexpected Journey left off, with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and the company of dwarves midway through their quest to the Lonely Mountain and the dragon Smaug who lives there. It's a relief that in this part they do actually reach the mountain, and we do actually get some scenes with Smaug. One of my largest criticisms of the previous film was that so little happened. It doesn't matter which way you slice it, there isn't enough material in Tolkien's novel to justify three full-length feature films. This was always going to hamper the Hobbit movies, and while it absolutely crippled An Unexpected Journey it merely forces The Desolation of Smaug to struggle a little.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Contagion"

The Enterprise breaches the Neutral Zone that divides the United Federation of Planets from the Romulan Empire in order to rescue its sister ship, the Yamato. Since its crew investigated an ancient civilization known as the Iconians, the Yamato has started to suffer catastrophic malfunctions - malfunctions that result in the ship's self-destruction. Now the Enterprise and a Romulan vessel are both struggling to work out the source of the computer malfunctions before their own ships suffer the same fate.

I did a double take during the opening credits to "Contagion", when one of the writers listed was Steve Gerber. I looked it up and can confirm that it is the same Steve Gerber who created the cult comic book Howard the Duck. It seems an odd thing for Gerber to be writing, but he - and his co-writers - do a great job. We got a brief look at the Romulans in "The Neutral Zone", but this is their first fully-fledged appearance in The Next Generation.

May 6, 2014

Books of May: The Fifth Miracle, by Paul Davies (1998)

The Fifth Miracle is a wonderfully engaging popular science book by Paul Davies, that runs through the theory, evidence and arguments for how life on Earth actually began. It's one of the best science books that I've read because it's very readable, and Davies has a very concise and entertaining manner of writing. It's also more than 15 years old, which led me to ponder the fate of old science books.

Science is constantly changing. New theories are developed and hypotheses tested. Information gets superceded, or contradicted, or replaced.

There is a half-life to scientific writing that simply doesn't exist for fiction. A work of art remains valid no matter how old it becomes, or how many other works of fiction are printed or performed after it's released. This simply isn't true for scientific writing - once the science is out of date the book is arguably worthless.

Gatchaman Crowds: "Futurism"

After a prolonged break (I honestly don't intentionally watch anime episodes months apart from one another) I returned to watch the third episode of Gatchaman Crowds. This is a maddeningly strange anime to get a handle on: the first episode was all about transformation sequences and fights against aliens, the second was all about domestic comedy and collage clubs, and now the third is largely dedicated to crowd-sourcing as an alternative to superheroes.

The bulk of the episode is focused on Rui Ninomiya, a quiet and elusive young transsexual who invented the GALAX social network that has taken Japan by storm. The episode doesn't make it entirely clear whether Rui is a transvestite man or if she is identifying as female. I'm leaning towards the latter, but to be honest it's only the Wikipedia entry on the series that made it clear that she was transsexual at all. This actually resonates a little with the original Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, since that series' villain Berg (Zoltar in the American Battle of the Planets dub) was a hermaphrodite. Non-binary gender identity is clearly a running theme for the franchise.

May 5, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Dauphin"

The Enterprise is assigned to transport Salia, the heir to the warring planet of Daled IV, to her homeworld in order to assume her throne. She is accompanied by her childhood governess Anya, who seems particularly protective of the young princess. When Wesley Crusher strikes up a romance with Salia, Anya reveals some unexpected and highly dangerous abilities.

Boy, talk about putting your episode behind an eight-ball. The very premise of "The Dauphin" - Wesley's first love - is enough to send an audience running out of the building, shrieking in terror at the potential loss of sanity. It's not Wil Wheaton wasn't capable of handling a romantic storyline - of course he was, he was an accomplished professional actor - it's that while Star Trek is good at a great many things romance is typically not one of them. Couple with that a regular inability to write Wesley as any kind of recognisable teenager and you've got a pretty firm recipe for disaster.

The Pull List: 30 April 2014

One of DC's more egregious cock-ups of recent times has been the way they mishandled their relationship with Batwoman's creative team, forcing them to acrimoniously quit the book with one issue to go in a 25-issue epic story arc. Williams and Blackman were willing to create that last issue, indeed I believe they were contracted to do so, but DC editorial in their infinite wisdom turfed the team and left new writer Marc Andreyko to pick up the pieces with an all-new story arc. What happened at the end of Batwoman's fight against Director Bones and the DEO? Did she unmask Batman? Was her sister rescued? We'd never know.

Now months after the fact (six, to be precise) DC is wrapping up the Batwoman vs Batman storyline with this extra-length annual written by Andreyko and featuring art by Trevor McCarthy and All-Star Western's Moritat. God knows where this issue will be collected - DC have already published the fourth and final volume of the Williams/Blackman run, which now ends on a cliffhanger.

This conclusion is an odd read, because we already know who makes it out and who doesn't, because we read the next issue (chronologically speaking) half a year ago. The script is serviceable in terms of providing an ending, but it's certainly not a very good one. A few weird curveballs run perilously close to making a mockery of the entire arc. The whole book feels rushed: the panel-per-page count is remarkably low, and its taken two artists to get the job done. It may give readers an ending, but it sure as hell doesn't provide value for money (it comes with a $4.99 price tag, making it the most expensive issue of Batwoman ever by a full two dollars).

I appreciate that DC's come back and actually provided an ending, but I can't shake the feeling that they couldn't have mishandled the ending more if they tried. (2/5)

DC Comics. Written by Marc Andreyko. Art by Trevor McCarthy and Moritat.

Under the cut: reviews of Batgirl, Black Science, The Flash, Silver Surfer, Star Wars: Rebel Heist and Umbral. I somehow failed to grab Batman Eternal so hopefully will pick up a copy in the next week.

May 4, 2014

Bodacious Space Pirates: "Marika's First Day at Work"

Resolved to follow in her father's footsteps, and with her government-sanctioned letter of marque in hand, Marika Kato takes her first step on the road to pirate legend with a raid on the cruise liner Princess Apricot. It might have taken six episodes, but Marika is finally captain of the Bentenmaru, and undertakes her first raid as a privateer.

I do still think that the production team could have squeezed the first five episodes into maybe three, but at this point that's by-the-by: Bodacious Space Pirates finally kicks into some form of high gear with a raid, a sword fight and a lot of well-judged humour. I may be taking my sweet time watching this anime, but I'm really enjoying each episode I see.

May 3, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Measure of a Man"

"A Matter of Honor" marked when Star Trek: The Next Generation crossed from being a bad television series with the occasional good episode to being a good television series with the occasional bad episode. As if to mark the occasion, it's follow-up is this: "The Measure of a Man", what I'd comfortably describe as the series' first bona-fide classic.

The Enteprise docks at Starbase 173 for routine maintenance. While there Starfleet's leading cyberneticist Dr Bruce Maddox arrives on the ship to meet with Commander Data. He seems keen to learn how Data's creator, Dr Noonien Soong, overcome the numerous challenges in developing a working artificial intelligence. When Data refuses to participate in Maddox's experiments - which would involve dismantling him and temporarily erasing his memory - Maddox has him transferred to from the Enterprise. When Data quits Starfleet service, Maddox goes a step further and tries to have Data legally defined as Starfleet's property.

Hercules: The Legendary Journeys: "Eye of the Beholder"

Hercules is on the run from the fifty daughters of King Thespeus when he hears about a cyclops terrorising a nearby village. Not only is the cyclops diverting water from the river to a nearby temple, he appears to be working for the Goddess Hera - Hercules' arch-nemesis.

This episode is, from beginning to end, ridiculously silly. The cyclops looks silly. The horde of amorous women hunting down Hercules are silly. The villain, a weird sort of Greek legendary punk named Castor, is particularly silly. Everybody overacts and mugs for the camera. Everything is foolish and over-the-top. Mind you, that's kind of the point.

May 2, 2014

Books of May: Salamander, by Thomas Wharton (2001)

An 18th century London book printer, Nicholas Flood, is drawn to a castle on the Transylvanian-Hungarian border. There he is tasked with creating an eternal book for the grief-stricken Count Ostrov. As the story unfolds, Flood's adventure incorporates clockwork automata, imprisonment, escape, and an epic journey around the world in search of the finest components with which to manufacture the perfect book.

The whole adventure is told in lyrical, dream-like fashion by its author, Canadian Thomas Wharton. I'm not certain what drew me to pick this book up about a decade ago. I suppose the blurb on the inside of the dust jacket sounded interesting. What I do know is that Salamander knocked me sideways: it's a stunning work of fantasy, and one that the traditional fantasy crowd seemed to ignore entirely because of how it was packaged and marketed.

It's genre fiction by stealth: in books they call it 'literature', and in cinema it's called 'arthouse', but in both cases it's the same thing.

Odds'n'Sods: 2 May 2014

Welcome to your Friday night geek/nerd link frenzy.
  • Japan's S.H. Figuarts are giving the market very advanced notice of a new Kikaider figure coming out in 2015. I don't actually have a clue who Kikaider is, but the figure looks very funky. On aesthetics alone it might be worth purchasing. (link)
  • An interesting piece by Comics Alliance's Rachel Edidin about how Game of Thrones adaptations - both the TV series and the comic book - are using rape as a narrative tool when they very probably shouldn't be. (link)
  • Don Hertzfeldt - who's one of my absolute favourite animation directors in the whole world - now has a graphic novel out. It looks odd, and fab. Probably also oddly fab. (link)
  • Two new script writers for Doctor Who were announced this week. While I'm happy for them, and it sounds like they're great people for the job, I do wish the BBC would occasionally hire some women to write for the series. (link)
  • Ever wonder what the script looks like for an episode of WWE Raw? Now you can find out by following this link. (link)

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "A Matter of Honor"

Commander Riker undertakes a temporary exchange to become first officer of a Klingon Bird of Prey. When its captain believes that the Enterprise somehow infected his ship with a metal-eating substance, he orders an attack - and Riker must choose how to negotiate his duties as first officer and those as a Starfleet commander.

Something odd happens to Star Trek: The Next Generation around this stage. It becomes good. I'm not entirely sure why or how it does. It's not that there haven't been good episodes already. According to my count there have been 11 of them. The thing is, while there have been good episodes (or at least broadly enjoyable ones) the series has been pretty awful. No one seems quite comfortable in the roles. The scripts feel lost somewhere between the original Star Trek and 1980s television. It's all been so damned wooden. Now the veil has lifted, and this really is the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where I can actually recognise the series' tone and quality.

May 1, 2014

Books of May: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, by Alan Garner (1960)

Books of May highlights books - both fiction and non-fiction - that have engaged, entertained or otherwise made a significant impact on me over the years. I aimed to review 31 books in May 2013, and managed to get through nine. Hopefully we'll go better this year. Today, book #10: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, by British author Alan Garner.
Is it just me, or has the science fiction and fantasy establishment completely forgotten about Alan Garner. To my mind he's one of the giants of children's fantasy. While I'm highlighting his 1960 debut novel here, I could just have easily picked its sequel The Moon of Gomrath, or Elidor, or The Owl Service, or even Red Shift. He tells such beautifully constructed stories that are generally immersed in the folklore and culture of his native Cheshire. He's been writing them for more than 50 years: eight novels, a bunch of short story collections, all demonstrating the same strength of narrative and a beautiful turn of phrase.

Go to the average science fiction convention, however, and it's like you can hear crickets. People still go on and on ad nauseum about J.R.R. Tolkien, and the likes of Ursula LeGuin and Diana Wynne Jones both get a healthy amount of discussion. Garner, however, seems like a shadow: a major figure in British fantasy who's all but ignored by the fans. More educated fans can probably say better than I can, but I'm pretty sure he's never been a Guest of Honour at a Worldcon or a World Fantasy Convention, or even a British natcon (Eastercon). He's already 79 years old - if fans plan to give Garner the respect he's due, they're probably running out of time.

Five Films: Bob Hoskins

This week the outstanding English actor Bob Hoskins died, aged 71. He had retired from acting two years ago after being diagnosed with Parkinsons Disease, but his death is still a rather upsetting one. He's an enormously familiar face to generations of filmgoers through he starring or co-starring in the likes of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Hook, not to mention a wealth of other roles in smaller British films.

Sadly his 2012 retirement meant that his final role was as one of the dwarves in the underwhelming Snow White and the Huntsman. I'm relieved no one seems to be mentioning that one in his obituaries. Here are the five performances for which we should remember him (in chronological order).

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Unnatural Selection"

It's funny how time changes your opinions. Back in the late 1980s I was a big fan of Dr Katherine Pulaski (Diana Muldaur). I had not warmed to her predecessor, Dr Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), and she seemed to bring with her a nice sort of cranky wrinkle to Star Trek: The Next Generation. She brought a bit of spikiness to the generally anodyne personalities of the Enterprise command crew.

What a difference 25 years makes. The character that impressed me as a child irritates me as a man in his late 30s. I find her actively unlikeable, and am counting the episodes until she leaves and Dr Crusher returns. Since "Unnatural Selection" is based largely around Pulaski, it's not surprising that I didn't find it a particularly enjoyable episode.

The episode begins with Picard asking Counselor Troi for her opinions on Pulaski's performance. Troi gives a fairly positive response, which is more than I'd have given her. 'She's an anti-android bigot with no respect for your second officer' would have been my response.