October 31, 2014

The Pull List: 22 October 2014

I always get mildly annoyed when one of the big two publishers - and it's usually Marvel - relaunches and renumbers a comic book every time it has a significant change in creative team or direction. In some cases, as with Daredevil, they don't even need those excuses: they just relaunch and renumber anyway. There used to be something nice about reading issue eight hundred and something of Detective Comics. It demonstrated a legacy and a rich history that Detective Comics issue twelve doesn't really express.

As a result I'm always happy when a book gets a fresh look, team and direction, yet keeps the current numbering. Next month DC do it with Wonder Woman #36, but this month they're doing it with Batgirl and now Catwoman #35. New creative team, a new narrative direction, but still the same comic and lead characters.

Catwoman #35 by writer Genevieve Valentine, artist Garry Brown (The Massive) and colourist Lee Loughridge, sees Selina Kyle assume control of one of Gotham City's most powerful crime syndicates and start to rebuild the city - both its physical infrastructure and criminal underworld - in the wake of Batman Eternal. Basically it's The Godfather, with Catwoman instead of Al Pacino and with both Batman and Black Mask lurking around in the background.

It's a very smooth transition to the new status quo, told with clarity and maturity, and thankfully without the fairly overt skeezy sexuality that has plagued this book since it relaunched in 2011. Garry Brown is a great artist; I've loved his work on The Massive and I'm very happy to see him applying his extensive talent here. Altogether it's an impressive package and, alongside Gotham Academy and the reworked Batgirl, is doing a great job of diversifying and energising DC's massive line of Batman-centric comics. (4/5)

DC Comics. Written by Genevieve Valentine. Art by Garry Brown.

Under the cut: reviews of Aquaman, Batman Eternal, Deathstroke, The Flash, He-Man, Infinity Man and the Forever People, The Multiversity, Predator, Revival, She-Hulk and The Wicked + the Divine.

October 30, 2014

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

At her 25th anniversary high school reunion separated mother-of-two Peggy Sue Bodell is momentarily overwhelmed and passes out on the stage. When she wakes, she finds herself transported to the Spring of 1960 and her final year of high school. Given the opportunity to re-live her adolescence, will Peggy Sue make all new choices or simply make the same mistakes again?

Peggy Sue Got Married is an odd fish of a movie. It came out a year after Back to the Future, a film with a fairly similar premise that was tighter, better paced and much, much funnier. At the same time, Peggy Sue is a distinctive enough film to really avoid comparisons upon a closer inspection. It travels a similar path, sure, but it stops at different points along the road and reaches a vastly different conclusion.

Most striking of all is the film's tone, which isn't really out-and-out comedic, but instead works as a sort of strange elevated fantasy with regular comedic moments. In some places it almost felt vaguely like a David Lynch film, and certainly not the work of its actual director Francis Ford Coppola. Certainly this is the creepiest comedy I've seen in a long time, and that creepiness does feel relatively intentional.

October 29, 2014

The Pull List: 15 October 2014

I'm in love with Wild's End, Dan Abnett and I.N.J Culbard's six-part miniseries from Boom Studios. It's basically The Wind in the Willows crossed with The War of the Worlds, as a small 1920s village of charming anthropomorphic animals are besieged by alien killing machines. As far as pitches go, that wins the year for me: I don't think I've heard anything funnier or more immediately attractive. It has me scratching my head. Why has nobody thought of this before?

What is impressing me the most, now that we're up to the 2nd issue, is that Abnett isn't just writing a superficial pastiche. These are interesting and well-rounded characters. They're based in archetype and tradition sure, but they've got agency and distinctive personalities. I already have my favourite characters, and I'm already invested enough in their lives that it's dramatic seeing any of them die. I'm only two issues into the series but I already want to read more adventures about the inhabitants of Crowchurch.

Culbard, who is also collaborating with Abnett on Dark Horse's Dark Ages, provides very attractive and clean artwork. It's elegant and simple, and matches the tone of the piece and the period setting extremely well. Culbard and Abnett make a great team. Hopefully there's more from them to come. (5/5)

Boom Studios. Written by Dan Abnett. Art by I.N.J Culbard.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman and Robin, Batman Eternal, Batwoman, Daredevil, Doctor Who, The Last Broadcast, Lumberjanes, Ms Marvel and Prometheus.

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

The things we'll watch when they're free on an aeroplane. Michael Bay's Transformers: Age of Extinction is a bizarre and bloated monstrosity of a film, confusing to sit through and vaguely repellent at the same time. This hasn't stopped it from grossing more than a billion dollars worldwide in cinemas, which means that either I don't know what I'm talking about or audiences really like watching giant robots punch each other regardless of the film's actual quality.

I suppose I have to admit I'm in that latter category as well. I watched Bay's original Transformers with enthusiasm, and thought it was a big, brash and relatively enjoyable exercise in sci-fi mayhem and 1980s cartoon nostalgia. Its sequel Revenge of the Fallen was an unexpectedly awful film, not only incompetently told and staged but actively racist and leeringly sexist. I went and saw the third film, Dark of the Moon, hoping that I'd get something more like the first and less like the second. What I got was something a little less racist and a little more sexist, with a weirdly unbalanced narrative that back-ended most of the action into the film's final hour. With a track record of one out of three I certainly wasn't going to risk spending money on a fourth Transformers film, but when presented with the opportunity to watch it halfway through a night flight from Singapore to Melbourne? I guess I'm ultimately as addicted to giant robot fights as everybody else.

October 28, 2014

Stargate: 20 years on

20 years ago today Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin's glossy sci-fi epic Stargate opened in US cinemas. It was a pretty solid hit at the time, earning almost $200 million dollars against a comparatively modest $50 million dollar budget, and it established its creatives as a prominent force in Hollywood.

It's also got a pretty weird trajectory as a franchise, since MGM never managed to release a sequel into cinemas but did somehow manage to spin it off into four television shows. One of them, Stargate SG-1, even managed to outpace The X Files to become America's longest-running science fiction TV series.

It's a weird fate for a movie, since by now it's possibly the least well-known part of the whole enterprise. Well, okay, the cartoon Stargate Infinity is probably less well-known, but you get what I mean. This movie might have come first, but it's the TV franchise that's overwhelmingly the largest part of Stargate's pop culture footprint.

The Pull List: 8 October 2014, part II

Before I had even had the chance to read issue #1 of Wytches, the new monthly comic from Scott Snyder and Jock, it had already been optioned for a feature film adaptation. Now that I have read it, I'm not surprised: this is a dark and effective new horror comic that hooks the reader in from the get-go and presents an intriguing set-up.

What this book most reminded me of was The Blair Witch Project, in that it heads out into the woods and makes them scary. It takes the idea of witches and appears to transform them into something new. It makes you afraid of trees. It's a great opening chapter, one made even better by its extra length.

I've raved at length about Scott Snyder in the past: his work on Batman in particular has been some of the best writing that character has received in years. He's telling something more adult and darker here, and it's perfectly complemented by Jock's artwork. I love Jock's stuff, and he brings his A-game to the book and gives it a nice dark, creepy, almost savage style. I'm really keen to see where this goes. (5/5)

Image. Written by Scott Snyder. Art by Jock.

Under the cut: more reviews from last week, including Annihilator, Batman, Batman Eternal, Dark Ages, Doctor Who: The 10th Doctor and FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics. Reviews of other comics published on 8 October can be found here.

October 27, 2014

Doctor Who: "The Sea of Death"

It's tea time on 11 April 1964, and that means more Doctor Who.

The TARDIS arrives on a deserted island made of glass. Susan almost paddles in a rock pool of acid; it turns out the entire surrounding ocean is highly acidic. At the centre of the island they find a mysterious pyramid. Inside a man named Arbitan defends the mind-influencing Conscience of Marinus from the invading Voord. With no one else to call upon, Arbitan blackmails the Doctor and his companions into a mission to recover the four missing keys that will operate the Conscience and defeat the Voord.

Wait a moment: the TARDIS arriving on a seemingly dead planet? An vividly transformed landscape? A mysterious building in the distance? Deadly aliens lurking around the scene? We already watched this episode a few weeks ago. It was titled "The Dead Planet" and was written by Terry Nation. He should have sued whoever wrote this plagiari- oh wait, this is by Terry Nation as well, clearly expressing a focused style of creativity where he's now essentially sold the same episode to the production team twice.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

We've reached the stage where I find it very hard to comprehend the X-Men movies any more. The first two films, directed by Bryan Singer, I enjoyed perfectly well. Then Singer jumped ship toWarner Bros' Superman Returns, and rather than wait six months for him to return Fox forged ahead with Brett Ratner's rather muddled X-Men: The Last Stand. Then Fox produced X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a prequel that appeared to contradict half of the back story of the previous three films. Then there was a reboot of sorts, with X-Men: First Class introducing younger versions of some of the characters in a film set during the 1960s. That seemed an okay idea until we suddenly got The Wolverine, set after The Last Stand and ending with a Marvel Studios-style cliffhanger ending.

X-Men: Days of Future Past doesn't actually follow on from that ending at all. We're somewhere in the future, where giant robots called Sentinels have been systematically murdering all of the world's mutants. In a last-ditch attempt to save the future, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has his mind is sent back in time to inhabit his body in the early 1970s so he can track down rogue mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and stop her from murdering Sentinel creator Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage).

October 26, 2014

Doctor Who: "Flatline"

The TARDIS arrives in Bristol, where a mysterious force is taking the lives of random people around the town. When the TARDIS' dimensions begin to collapse in on themselves - trapping the Doctor inside - it is up to Clara to take up the responsibility of saving the Earth from the terrifying "Boneless".

After a fairly shaky first few weeks, Doctor Who's eighth season appears to have found its stride and is barreling along marvelously. Once again we've got an episode that pretty much does everything right. In many ways that makes it a hell of a thing to review, since the most obvious course is to simply give "Flatline" a hearty recommendation and move on. Let's try and dig a little deeper, since we're all already here.

October 24, 2014

Maleficent (2014)

Walt Disney Pictures is one of those companies that knows when it's onto a good thing. When the Marvel movies hit big they swamped the market with two of them a year - soon, according to rumour, to become three. When Pixar's films became the most acclaimed animated films out there, they not only bought the company they styled their own feature films to emulate the Pixar storytelling style. When Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland became a monster hit a few years ago it obviously hit a similar nerve, since Disney have a live-action Cinderella out early next year, a live-action Beauty and the Beast in development and before both of them a live-action Sleeping Beauty - or, in this case, Maleficent. It just came out on home video worldwide, so I took the opportunity to catch up with it.

This film is basically the live-action adaptation of Disney's iconic 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty. They've re-jigged the plot considerably, adding an entirely new first act, and they've based it around the original film's villain - the evil fairy Maleficent. This was a good move, pretty much for two reasons: firstly, fairy tales are generally quite simplistic when it comes to characters and the easiest way to find one with a hint of depth is to zero in on the villain. Secondly, there's the design.

October 18, 2014

Symbol (2009)

A middle-aged Mexican wrestler prepares for his most challenging match ever. Meanwhile a Japanese man in polka dot pyjamas wakes up in a room with no doors. The next 90 minutes either make no sense, or a lot of sense, depending on how you want to view the film. Either way this is one of the strangest films I have seen this year. I'd claim it was the strangest, but I'm not quite sure it surpasses the supreme oddness of Sergio Caballero's The Distance (reviewed here). It's a great match for it though, and they would make one hell of a double bill.

Symbol is the work of writer/director Hitoshi Matsumoto, who also plays the unnamed man in the white room. He is a comedian turned filmmaker, whose comedies have slowly been developing a strong cult following in the English-speaking world. His 2007 film Big Man Japan got a pretty widespread release on DVD, while his most recent film R100 was a well-regarded hit at this year's Melbourne International Film Festival. In between sits Symbol, which wasn't nearly as well received and to my knowledge still hasn't received a commercial release outside of Japan.

A lot of viewers will hate this film. I suspect a small niche audience will adore it. I certainly do.

Freddy vs Jason (2004)

Two lumbering, past their prime hangovers from the 1980s make a final heaving stagger into cinemas for one last cynical attempt to squeeze money from the hands of nostalgic twentysomethings around the world. Or so it would seem.

In truth, Freddy vs Jason hits the perfect note: it's a nostalgia trip to be sure, but one produced with a love and care that not only effectively reminds us of why we watched these characters in the first place. It makes us keen to see them return as well. In the red corner stands Freddy Kruger, seven-times star of the Nightmare On Elm Street saga. Played with delicious malice and deliberately tacky humour by Robert Englund, he's a perpetual guilty pleasure to behold. In the blue corner stands Jason Voorhees, ten-times star of the progressively silly Friday the 13th franchise. (How silly? His last installment was set in space.) Previously played by Kane Hodder, tonight he's being played by stuntman Ken Kirzinger. Not that this matters: as a character whose appeal lies in his personality, Freddy Kruger needs Englund to work. Jason is a silent, lumbering psychopath in a mask. Arnold Schwarzenegger could be under there and you wouldn't know the difference.

October 17, 2014

Doctor Who: "Assassin at Peking"

It's 4 April 1964, and time for more Doctor Who.

Kublai Khan has relocated to his palace in Peking. Ian and Ping Cho uncover Tegana's treachery, but still no one will believe them. The Doctor almost wins back the TARDIS and backgammon - only to lose it all in the final game. With he and his companions trapped in China, seemingly for good, and with Tegana's allies massing on Peking, things certainly look grim.

"Assassin at Peking" is, broadly speaking, a bit of a disappointment. It does what it needs to do in order to wrap up this epic seven-part serial, but for the most part it does it in a perfunctory and unsatisfying manner. With a few exceptions it's all rather forgettable. This is a shame, because much of the serial leading up to this climax has been great television drama, and it feels as if Lucarotti's script slips just at the moment when it should all pull together.

Brother Bear (2004)

Brother Bear, from directors Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker, is the tale of a native American hunter who is magically transformed into a Walt Disney cartoon.

Okay, so he's actually transformed into a bear, but the transformation in both look and direction for the film when does become the animal is both unexpected and highly inventive. The film begins with a distinctive, oddly non-Disney visual look. The colour palette is muted and dark, and the character designs - particularly the first bear we encounter - are quite realistic compared to traditionally animated American films. For the first fifteen minutes of the film there is an adult tone that seems quite out of place for an already declared "Walt Disney Classic". I would certainly think twice before introducing younger children to this movie.

Then our protagonist turns into a bear, knocked unconscious and when he wakes, a quite startling change has taken place. All of the animals, previously naturalistic in design, are suddenly classic Disney caricatures. The colour palette, previously dark and muted, is suddenly very colourful and vibrant. Most unexpectedly of all, the aspect ratio of the film itself has changed from Disney's usual 1.85:1 to an immense 2.35:1. It gives the remainder of the film a vast, glorious appeal that is very easy on the eye - not to mention reflective of the story's broad, rugged landscape.

October 16, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Tin Man"

A unique biological starship has been detected in orbit around a dying star. With the mysterious ship - dubbed "Tin Man" by Starfleet analysts - in contested territory, it's up to the Enterprise to beat the Romulans to the system and make first contact. To assist in the mission Starfleet dispatches Tam Elbrun, an immensely powerful Betazoid telepath wracked by mental illness.

I was pretty disparaging in my opinion of The Next Generation's first two seasons. It turns out I was not alone. Dismayed by the poor quality of the episodes, three authors - Dennis Russell Bailey, David Bischoff, and Lisa Putman White - pooled their talents, adapted an old short story of Bischoff's, and submitted it to the Next Generation production office. It obviously impressed the producers, because here it is onscreen. It's clearly a vast improvement over Season 2's average episodes, but is still somewhat uneven. Interesting what frustrated me was not what was in the episode, but rather what seemed to be left out. It's a slightly maddening thing: good enough to show potential but not good enough to fulfil it.

Othello (1995)

I remember Oliver Parker's Othello being a slightly controversial film when it was originally released. It was an adaptation of William Shakespeare's The Tragedy Of Othello, The Moor Of Venice that dared to gut roughly two-thirds of Shakespeare's dialogue from the text. Such radicalism isn't easily tolerated by the Shakespearean elite, and Parker's film stumbled beneath an earthshaking wave of criticism. Film critics, rather than literary critics, were a little more forgiving, but this movie still got pretty harshly condemned as a dumbed-down, populist re-telling of the classic tragedy.

They were wrong. Othello succeeds where many other Shakespearean adaptations fail by realising that what works in the theatre in the 16th century does not necessarily work in the cinema 400 years later. It uses Shakespeare's text economically, ensuring that while being a faithful version of the play it is also a thrilling motion picture in its own right.

October 15, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Captain's Holiday"

The great Next Generation quality yo-yo continues to bounce. At Dr Crusher’s insistence, a begrudging Picard travels to the holiday planet Risa for a week’s vacation. His holiday does not last long, however, as he gets tied up into an adventure involving a rogue archaeologist, a Ferengi with a gun, and a pair of mysterious aliens from the far future.

“Captain’s Holiday” has the sort of premise with ‘train wreck’ written all over it, and yet through a combination of canny writing and spirited performances it somehow manages to be one of the funniest episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation so far. There’s a lightness of touch and a willingness to engage in archetype that simply makes it a lot of fun. It’s not going to go down as a series classic, but it does make for an entertaining 42 minutes.

Van Helsing (2004)

I'm away for a week and a half, so in my absence I figured I would dig out some older Angriest reviews from earlier versions of this blog - so if you feel you've read this before you have, about a decade ago. Let's have a look back at Stephen Sommers' much-hyped fantasy film Van Helsing, which I reviewed back in mid-2004.

Stephen Sommers is a director with a strange transitional state to his film-making style. It's like there are two lines, one heading diagonally down as time goes on, and one headed diagonally up. As his skills in one area improve film by film, the other gets worse and worse, until he has almost become the exact opposite director that he started out as. He started out in Hollywood with The Adventures Of Huck Finn and The Jungle Book in 1993 and 1994 respectively. Both were fairly simple, unambitious films, but they were tightly made and fairly well written. Four years later Sommers returned with Deep Rising, a rollicking monster b-movie. It's a vastly underrated gem of a movie, and possibly Sommers' best work. It combines the tight writing and direction of his earlier films with some great Hollywood action set pieces and visual effects. Sure, it was a lot messier than his earlier movies, but it was certainly a hell of a lot more fun. This was the movie that set the trend, as far as I'm concerned.

October 14, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Allegiance"

Captain Picard is abducted from the Enteprise, and wakes in a locked room with three alien companions. Meanwhile a duplicate of the captain remains on-board, and his erratic behaviour begins to raise the suspicions of the crew.

In the most basic terms, “Allegiance” is the episode you need to make if you want to also make “Yesterday’s Enterprise”. That episode was a remarkably expensive one, with plenty of visual effects sequences, set rebuilds and supporting actors. This episode looks Picard into a room with three people for a Sartre-esque character study. It’s a wonderful opportunity for Patrick Stewart, who gets to play two different characters at the same time, and it’s testament to his skills as a performer that he manages to make each Picard seem so different to one another without making the duplicate seem completely out of character.

October 13, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Sins of the Father"

In response to Commander Riker’s short-term exchange on a Klingon bird-of-prey, the Enterprise plays host to a new temporary first officer: the Klingon Commander Kurn. What seems to be a simple culture clash turns out to be a much more complicated affair when Kurn reveals himself to be Worf’s younger brother, and that their late father has been accused of being a Romulan collaborator.

In many ways “Sins of the Father” is a pretty reasonable template for where The Next Generation went as the series went on. It’s based firmly around one of the lead characters, it follows on from the events of previous episodes and it leaves plenty of dramatic opportunities open for future episodes and writers to pick up and continue.

October 12, 2014

Doctor Who: "Mummy on the Orient Express"

The Doctor and Clara are parting ways, with just one final journey to make: a holiday on the space-faring Orient Express. A murderer is stalking the carriages, however, and its victims have just 66 seconds from when they see the deadly mummy and when they die.

"Mummy on the Orient Express" is basically the exact sort of story I like in Doctor Who. It takes a vaguely bonkers premise (the Orient Express in space), makes it all rather creepy and frightening (people being murdered by a rotting cadaver in bandages), and then gives it all a fairly logical and unexpected science fiction explanation. It's a formula that's served the series for decades, whether its gas riggers being murdered by intelligent seaweed, or robot mummies in a 1920s country estate, or a seed pod transforming its victim into a plant monster the size of a football stadium. Here it's all done in fine shape, carefully squeezed into 45 minutes and still leaving room for the emotional repercussions of last week's confrontation between Clara and the Doctor. That's rather impressive.

2LDK (2003)

Two aspiring actresses share a Tokyo apartment. Nozomi is meek, earnest and overwhelmed by life in the big city. Rana is brash, worldly and over-confident. When they both find themselves auditioning for the same movie role, petty bickering breaks out into fully-fledged homicidal violence.

2LDK was written and directed by Yukihiko Tsutsumi as part of a special 'duel' project. Producer Shinya Kawai presented a challenge to Tsutsumi and fellow director Ryuhei Kitamura to make a feature-length movie using two actors in one setting, with production to last only one week. Kitamura's film was the samurai fantasy Aragami. Tsutsumi's attempt was this incredibly bleak black comedy.

It starts off slowly, picks up steadily, and by its climax is a no-holds-barred, highly confrontational thriller. I started smiling, spent a great deal of the middle act chuckling, and much of the third in a state of slack-jawed horror.

October 11, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Offspring"

Commander Data surprises his fellow officers with the revelation that he has constructed a new sentient android: his child Lal. While Data attempts to learn how to be a good father, a Starfleet admiral comes to the Enterprise intent on taking Lal away for study.

"The Offspring" is an episode produced with the best of intentions, and with a really solid concept at its core, but it falls apart for a variety of reasons. In the end it's an episode that I want to enjoy, rather than one that I actually do enjoy.

That's a pity, because quality aside this is a pretty significant episode of The Next Generation. It marks the debut of writer Rene Echevarria: he would go on to write another 17 episodes of The Next Generation, 23 episodes of Deep Space Nine, and would act as story editor and executive story editor of The Next Generation's final two seasons. It also marks the directorial debut of Jonathan Frakes. Not content with playing Commander Riker, he begged executive producer Rick Berman to give him a chance behind the camera. He subsequently directed another seven episodes of The Next Generation, three each of Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and the feature films Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Insurrection, Thunderbirds and Clockstoppers.

October 10, 2014

The Pull List: 8 October 2014

This week saw DC release the first issue of a revamped and re-envisaged Batgirl. It's a surprise it didn't receive a whole new volume with a fresh issue #1, because the changes here are much more significant than most cases where a book is relaunched. It has new writers - Cameron Stewart and Brendan Fletcher - and a new artists - Babs Tarr. And it's not simply a matter of changing Batgirl's costume, setting or supporting cast, all of which they do, but it's a matter of telling a completely different kind of story.

This issue sees DC Comics make a play for the independent, light-hearted market. It's the same market that's supported several recent Marvel titles like Hawkeye and She-Hulk, not to mention a raft of genuinely independent books. This is a Batgirl who dresses more sensibly, and who has real-world and relatively banal issues to face: studying at university, dating boys, paying her rent, and so on. Even the plot of this first issue is comparatively mundane, after the city-wide mayhem that marked many of Gail Simone's earlier issues.

As a book in its own right, it's fantastic and gets top marks. Within the context of the New 52 it feels a little roughly shoe-horned in: this Barbara Gordon shows little or no resemblance to the driven, guilt-wracked Barbara of the last three years. It's not bad - in fact I like this Batgirl a hell of a lot more - but it's interesting that DC have taken such a clear different tack with the book. Hopefully it will be a tremendous success. (5/5)

DC Comics. Written by Cameron Stuard and Brendan Fletcher. Art by Babs Tarr.

Under the cut: I'm in Brisbane this week, so just a few reviews of stuff that wasn't ordered for me back in Melbourne: Alien vs Predator, Copperhead, Doctor Who, and Klarion.

October 9, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Yesterday's Enterprise"

The Enterprise encounters a rift in time, through which emerges another Enterprise - the USS Enterprise NCC-1701C, presumed destroyed 22 years earlier. With its arrival in the present, however, history has been completely changed: the Federation is losing a war with the Klingon Empire, Lieutenant Worf is no longer the security chief and in his place is the two years' dead Lieutenant Tasha Yar.

"Yesterday's Enterprise" is widely considered to be one of the best episodes of The Next Generation ever made, and it's a belief that's actually very well founded. It works equally well along three tracks: It's very well performed and scripted, it's packed with treats for long-term enthusiasts, and it bases itself around a genuinely provocative ethical dilemma.

October 8, 2014

The Insider (1999)

Sorry if I ever sound like a broken record on this, but 1999 was the single-greatest year for American cinema of my lifetime. It was possibly the single-greatest year ever; I can't back that up though, because I really haven't seen enough movies from earlier decades. I honestly don't remember another year when so many exceptional films came out of Hollywood or the American independent cinema scene. Not just good movies either, but hugely influential ones too: it was the year of The Matrix and The Blair Witch Project, for example.

One of my favourite films from 1999 is The Insider, Michael Mann's drama - based on a true story - about a journalist who teams up with an industry whistleblower, only for both of them to get screwed over by the system they're fighting. It's got stunning performances, a tightly written and direct screenplay, and Mann shoots it all with the same flair and precision you'd give to a big budget action blockbuster: only it's not a blockbuster. This is a film that is, in essence, about men in suits shouting at each other in rooms. It's just picked great men in great rooms, and played out enormously impressive arguments.

October 7, 2014

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

Commander Riker stands accused of murder, and to determine his guilt or innocence the events of the past day are played out on the Enterprise holodeck - according to the testimony of each witness. Is it possibly that Riker is the kill-

No of course it isn't, and that's one of the core problems with this kind of episode. We know going in that Riker's no murderer, so there's suspense to be had here. There's just a tedious 45 minutes of drumming one's fingers waiting for the inevitable truth to be revealed. This is why Star Trek can't do this kind of murder mystery. It can't be one of the regular cast who did it, so instead you've got to pick which of the poorly motivated and weakly written guest characters did the deed. And boy are they poorly motivated, and by golly are they weakly written. They're also pretty badly acted, but I can't work out if the guest cast are actually untalented or if they simply took one look at the script and figured if the writer's didn't care then why should they?

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

Here's a genuine question: why isn't Frank Oz thought of as one of America's great comedy directors. He's well regarded, sure, but most people know him as a guy who performs puppets rather than as a director. Yet take a glance over his filmography and there's a string of fantastic movies: Little Shop of Horrors. What About Bob. Bowfinger. Death at a Funeral. Then there are the films that sit outside the comedy genre: The Score, The Dark Crystal and The Indian in the Cupboard. He's a massively talented guy, and I feel like he's been somewhat overlooked.

Take Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, his 1988 comedy about con artists on the French Riviera. It captures Michael Caine and Steve Martin somewhere at their creative best, and they bounce off each other marvellously throughout. It's got a well-plotted storyline, and great comic moments. It's got a great supporting cast including Glenne Headly, Iain McDiarmid and Anton Rodgers. The whole film works like a charm in the tradition of great classical Hollywood movies.

October 6, 2014

The Pull List: 1 October 2014

This past week saw DC release another Batman-related monthly comic book, bringing the current total up to 10. This seems like a lot; thankfully this latest variation on the theme is rather distinctive, since it's less about Batman and more about riffing on Harry Potter.

This is Gotham Academy, a monthly comic book set inside a prestigious boarding school for Gotham City's youths. It has a run-down gothic architecture. It boasts a disparate cast of teenagers. It may very well be haunted by something supernatural. It's all highly derivative stuff, but it's put together in a wonderfully engaging fashion by writers Brendan Fletcher and Becky Cloonan. Karl Kerschl's appealing cartoon-like artwork suits it very well. The whole piece feels like a delightful bit of whimsy that's suitable for all ages.

It also adds a badly needed extra element to DC's regular suite of titles. The publisher has plenty of grim, ultra-gritty comic books for thirtysomething male nerds, and certainly it wins the bodily dismemberment market hands-down, but it severely lacks bright, fun all-ages titles like this. If there's a risk with this book it's that its target audience have become so disinterested in DC's books that they won't even see this one is there. I hope not: it's nice to have the contrast, and it's a really entertaining comic. (4/5)

DC Comics. Written by Brendan Fletcher and Becky Cloonan. Art by Karl Kerschl.

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Batman Eternal, Black Widow, Cloaks, Detective Comics, Gotham Academy, Lobo, Rat Queens, Silver Surfer, Thor, Usagi Yojimbo: Senso and The Woods.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Deja Q"

Q is back on the Enterprise, abandoned by his own people and stripped of his god-like powers. While he struggles to adjust to his new-found mortal status, a vengeful alien force attacks the Enterprise in the hopes of getting revenge for Q's past antics.

So, series premiere aside, it's time for the third of Q's annual guest appearances. They just keep getting better and better. I wasn't really sold on his Season 1 episode, "Hide and Q", but did really like his Season 2 episode, "Q Who" - although that was mainly because it introduced the Borg. This third episode is a fully-fledged comedy, to which everyone involved brings along their A-game. It works particularly well because of Q's three earlier appearances - he's got a rapport going with the regular cast now, and the episode riffs on those relationships marvellously.

October 5, 2014

Doctor Who: "Kill the Moon"

The Doctor, Clara and Courtney arrive on the moon in the mid-21st century. Their arrival coincides with that of a last-ditch human mission to detonate a pile of nuclear weapons on the moon's surface and destroy it completely. When the crisis develops and the stakes rise, Clara turns to the Doctor for the help he's always provided - only this time that help isn't there.

The yoyo-like trajectory of Doctor Who's eighth season continues. Just to get up to speed the first six weeks of this season have basically been thus: mediocre, good, awful, great, good, mediocre. It's like a strange quality roller coaster. The ride's not over yet either because after the last episode made me feel as if the season was going to be a bit of a write-off overall, along comes "Kill the Moon" with arguably the best episode of Doctor Who in about three years.

Of course that's my take on it. Opinions differ and the bottom line is that once you move past the objective qualities - did they point the camera in the right direction, can you hear the dialogue - it's really up to the individual as to whether an individual episode is good or bad. For this individual, "Kill the Moon" wasn't simply good; it was remarkable.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)

I think one of the most overlooked movie franchises ever would have to be American Zoetrope's range of classical horror adaptations. The company kicked the series off with Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1992, followed it up with Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in 1994 and concluded with Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow in 1999. I really like all three films. I'm not sure why they stopped at three, but they still stand up today as really distinctive and entertaining movies.

Of the three, however, it is probably Branagh's Frankenstein that's the least successful. I don't think it's necessarily Branagh's fault, and certainly I do still enjoy it overall. It's visibly the work of a younger director. Dracula was Coppola's 20th feature film as director, and Sleepy Hollow was Burton's eighth. Frankenstein was Branagh's fifth, but critically it was his first time with a large budget on a large-scale studio film. There is an over-eagerness to impress, and that does occasionally make the film trip over itself.

October 4, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The High Ground"

The Enterprise is dispatched to the non-aligned world of Rutia IV, which is wracked by ongoing attacks by a rogue terrorist faction. When Dr Crusher is kidnapped by the terrorist's leader, Kyril Finn, Captain Picard is unwillingly drawn into the planet's domestic politics.

While "The Hunted" gave us The Next Generation's take on Vietnam War veterans, rammed into a science fiction setting with all the subtlety of a screaming man with a two-by-four, so "The High Ground" gives us The Next Generation's take on terrorism. Its inspiration appears to be Northern Ireland and the IRA, and indeed Data references Ireland unifying in the year 2024 - that line alone got this episode banned in the UK and Ireland on the season's original broadcast run. It's abundantly clear that this episode pre-dates the World Trade Center attacks of 11 September 2001 - Data's explanation to Picard that terrorism clearly works in some instances would never make it past a TV network in today's cultural environment. To be honest even I found his bright-faced explanation of the merits of terrorist bombings to be a little inappropriate. The best argument Picard can up with to rebut him is that terrorism simply isn't very nice. I'm sure with some further thought the Captain could have come up with something better. He probably had an 'l'esprit d'escalier' moment in the middle of the night, waking up at three in the morning and summoning Data to his quarters to lecture him in the failings of the terrorist mind-set.

PSX20 #4: Vib Ribbon

In 2014 Sony's PlayStation turns 20 years old. It was a revolutionary console, exploding the Nintendo vs. Sega paradigm that had dominated videogaming for a decade and its effects can still be felt today. 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. Today I take a look at #4: the 1999 rhythm-action game Vib Ribbon.

Much of what I wrote about PaRappa the Rapper - rhythm-action gameplay, distinctive design aesthetic, a game quite unlike others on the shelf - also applies to Vib Ribbon. Not surprisingly, it even shares a designer: Masaya Matsuura. The biggest differences are that Vib Ribbon is even more abstract and distinctive, and I like it even more. This isn't just one of my favourite PlayStation games - it's one of my favourite games on any platform.

You play as a skipping rabbit, rendered in deliberately crude wire-frame graphics. It's a black screen, and the rabbit is designed with a bunch of white lines. She skips along another line, and occasionally a weird bump or shape will scroll up along the line, and you'll have to press the right button at the right time to successfully skip over it. As the music continues, the shapes get more complex and approach faster. The better you perform, the more advanced your character becomes. Eventually, if you play well enough, she transforms from a rabbit into a fairy. Perform poorly and you'll devolve into a crudely animated frog, and then a tadpole. Then you die and have to begin the level again.

October 3, 2014

SimCity and Prince of Persia: 25 years on

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the renowned videogame SimCity, which was first released for Amiga and Apple computers on 3 October 1989. The game was initially developed by designer Will Wright in 1985, when he realised that he was enjoyed playing with the level generator of his current game, Raid on Bungeling Bay, that he was the game itself. This led him to explore the possibility of a game that simulated building an environment. It was a groundbreaking idea for a game: there was no enemy to defeat, and no real way to win or lose the game in conventional terms. Wright's original publisher, Brøderbund, refused to produce the game, leading Wright to sign up with the new company Maxis instead. The game's proposed title was Micropolis until it was renamed SimCity at the last minute.

Don't feel too sorry for Brøderbund over their missing out on SimCity. Also celebrating its 25th anniversary today is Jordan Mechner's Prince of Persia, released for the Apple II on the same day as SimCity. It was a side-scrolling action-adventure game that boasted incredibly fluid graphics, rotoscoped frame-by-frame from video footage of Mechner's younger brother. Like SimCity it was a huge hit and created an entire franchise that continues to today. Its reach into popular culture is arguably a little bigger than SimCity, which never had the benefit of an expensive Walt Disney movie adaptation. On the other hand, Prince of Persia didn't kick off an entire genre of videogame, which SimCity kind of did.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Hunted"

The Enterprise has travelled to the planet Angosia III, whose inhabitants are petitioning for Federation membership. When he is asked to help recapture a multiple-murderer who has shot his way out of a nearby penal colony, Captain Picard learns a lot more about the Angosians than they were previously willing to tell him.

Star Trek has always gained a lot of mileage from allegory: take a contemporary social issue, dress it up in bumpy heads and silly costumes, and aggressively interrogate the problem in prime-time in a comparatively safe fashion. "The Hunted" is one such allegory, only in this case it feels not so much shoe-horned into the story and forcibly kicked with a boot. This is the "Vietnam veterans abandoned by their government" episode. While it lacks subtlety it does benefit from some quality dialogue and a few genuinely entertaining scenes.

October 2, 2014

The Woodsman and the Rain (2011)

In a small town in northern Japan lives Katsu, a 60 year-old lumberjack. He's still grieving for his wife, who died two years earlier. He's fighting with his son, who seems to spend all day sitting on the couch watching television. When a film crew arrives from Tokyo to shoot a zombie movie, Katsu gets unwillingly dragged in to help them source locations. Then he meets the film's withdrawn and bullied director Koichi - and the most unexpected friendship develops between them.

I went into The Woodsman and the Rain completely cold, having never heard of it or knowing anything about its plot, characters or even genre. Perhaps this is part of what made the film such an absolute delight. This 2011 Japanese comedy-drama is simply wonderful. It has a relaxed pace, appealing characters, great actors and an enormous amount of understated depth and soul. It's Japanese to the core, not just from its story but from the way it's shot - full of static and medium long shots and deliberately long takes. I haven't seen anything else by its director, Shuichi Okita, but based on this I want to track his other films down.

Doctor Who: "Mighty Kublai Khan"

It's 28 March 1964, and time for Doctor Who. Once again the Doctor's attempts to escape from 12th century China have failed. Back in the custody of Marco Polo, the Doctor and his companions are taken to the summer court of Kublai Khan - with surprising results. Meanwhile Ian persuades Marco to let him leave the caravan trail in pursuit of Ping Cho, who has fled the camp for fear of Marco's recriminations.

After a disappointing fifth episode, "Marco Polo" picks up considerably in the sixth. We've heard Kublai Khan's name every episode this serial as Marco's caravan has progressed closer and closer to him. Now that we meet him, he's something of a surprise. Everything to this point has suggested a powerful, sword-wielding warrior king, and instead the Doctor is confronted with a small, elderly figure wracked with the pains of old age. Much to everyone's surprise, he and the Doctor hit it off immediately.

October 1, 2014

PSX20 #5: PaRappa the Rapper

In 2014 Sony's PlayStation turns 20 years old. It was a revolutionary console, exploding the Nintendo vs. Sega paradigm that had dominated videogaming for a decade and its effects can still be felt today. 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. Today I'm highlighting #5: the 1996 game PaRappa the Rapper.

PaRappa the Rapper really stood out among its fellow PlayStation games. It wasn't a third-person action game for one thing, nor a car driving game, or a platformer. It was a rhythm-action game, in which the player had a press a combination of buttons in time with some music. The genre really peaked in the last generation of videogame consoles with titles like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. PaRappa may have lacked the guitar peripherals, but I actually enjoyed it a lot more.

R.I.P.D. (2013)

When corrupt Boston police detective Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds) is murdered by his partner Bobby Hayes (Kevin Bacon), he finds himself with one chance to escape judgement in the afterlife: join the Rest in Peace Department (RIPD), a supernatural police force purging the world of the living from the evil spirits of the dead. He is partnered with a veteran from the Wild West, Roy Pulsifer (Jeff Bridges), and sent back to Boston on a 100-year tour of duty.

R.I.P.D. was released in 2013 and sank like a very loud, embarrassing stone. This action comedy cost Universal Pictures an estimated $130 million dollars to produce, failed to find its audience, got fairly awful reviews, and lost its studio something in the region of $100 million. The critics aren't always right about these things though, and more often audiences aren't either, so I figured it was worth giving the film the benefit of the doubt and watching it for myself.

Is it an unacknowledged gem? Is it a piece of crap? Well...