December 31, 2014

The Pull List: 17 December 2014

Since DC relaunched their entire superhero line with the New 52, one of their consistent standouts has been Batman. Scott Snyder has been writing some outstanding storylines, most recently his epic "Zero Year", and Greg Capullo and Danny Miki have been doing career-best work with the art. Now they're three issues into "Endgame", which features the eagerly anticipated return of the Joker.

It's a great take on the character. In his last appearance, "Death of the Family", he was going out of his way to prove how important he was to Batman. Now he seems to be entirely out for revenge. It's a much darker, creepier version of the character than we usually get. In one scene he pays Jim Gordon a visit, and it's pretty much the most unsettling I think the character has ever been.

Capullo and Miki draw him brilliantly as well. His face, famously cut off in Detective Comics #1, is back - although quite how has not yet been explained. His old pre-New 52 look is gone, and he now looks a lot more realistic with a sort of vague 1920s kind of a haircut. The more realistic take is part of what's making him look so disturbing here.

Either in monthly instalments or collected into trades, Batman has been such a standout for the past three years. I really hope the creative stick around, and that "Endgame" doesn't refer to their tenure on this excellent comic. (5/5)

DC Comics. Written by Scott Snyder. Art by Greg Capullo and Danny Miki.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman and Robin, Batman Eternal, Batwoman, Black Widow, Catwoman, Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man, Ms Marvel, Multiversity, The Wicked + the Divine and Wytches.

December 30, 2014

Doctor Who: "Last Christmas"

In an isolated arctic research station, a team of scientists are under threat from a terrifying alien menace, and only one man can possibly save them - but is that man the Doctor or Father Christmas?

Since it's revival in 2005 Doctor Who has enjoyed an annual Christmas special: usually a little longer than the average episode, a little more light and festive, and more often than not - in fact almost unanimously - nowhere near as good as the regular episodes that come before and after them. I'm not quite sure what it is about these specials that make their writer - either Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat - throw quality to the wind and just chuck up any old silly tosh onto the screen. While some - "The Christmas Invasion", "A Christmas Carol" and "The Time of the Doctor" - were quite entertaining, others - "The Runaway Bride", "Voyage of the Damned", "The Next Doctor", "The End of Time", "The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe" and "The Snowmen" - ranged from the disappointing to the actively unlikeable.

So overall I have fairly low expectations for the Christmas special. It's usually got a relatively famous guest star (in this case Nick Frost) and often a slightly silly premise (in this case Nick Frost playing Santa Claus). It's played in broad strokes and offers a more simple, sentimental story than usual. As a result of these expectations, "Last Christmas" came as quite a surprise.

December 28, 2014

The Fourth Doctor: 40 years on

On 28 December 1974 BBC1 broadcast the first episode of the Doctor Who serial "Robot", heralding the beginning of a record-breaking seven-year run for Tom Baker in the title role. Today is the 40th anniversary of his tenure as the Doctor, and he remains pretty much the most popular and definitive lead actor in the series' 51-year history.

David Tennant might have given Baker a run for his money, and certainly remains the iconic face of new Doctor Who, but when it comes to representing the franchise as a whole it's never going to be anybody but Tom Baker. Audience reactions to his cameo in last year's 50th anniversary special confirmed that beyond a doubt.

Now "Robot" was actually a fairly ordinary Doctor Who story, and not really one of the classic. In honour of the Fourth Doctor's 40th anniversary I wanted to highlight other stories; seven in fact, one from each of Tom Baker's seven seasons. Are these categorically the best? Who can say? Opinions will differ. All I want to say is that these are seven entertaining, wonderfully indicative examples of his time on the series.

Big Hero 6 (2014)

In the city of San Fransokyo, teenage super-genius Hiro Hamada is invited to apply to an advanced school for robotics - but when tragedy strikes he turns to fighting crime instead, with the assistance of his fellow students and a white inflatable medical robot named Baymax.

The Walt Disney Animation Studio has been on a bit of a roll in recent years with a string of critical and commercial hits including Tangled, Wreck-it Ralph and Frozen. It's pretty easy to assume Big Hero 6 is going to join those films: it's beautifully animated, has immensely appealing characters, and tells a slick, well-paced three-act story in the most deft manner imaginable.

And yet it's very slightly disappointing. It's not the fault of Big Hero 6, its directors Chris Williams (Bolt) and Don Hall (Winnie the Pooh), or the multitude of Disney artists and technicians who made it. It's just that it's the 27th superhero movie of the past five years, and by this stage the tropes and archetypes of the genre are getting pretty god-damned stale.

December 23, 2014

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Defiant"

It's 21 November 1994, and time for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Commander William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) visits Deep Space Nine, and a somewhat smitten Major Kira offers to give him a tour of the station's facilities. When he stuns her with a phaser and steals the USS Defiant, it become apparent that it isn't Riker at all, but rather his duplicate clone Thomas. As Thomas directs the Defiant towards Cardassian space, Commander Sisko is forced to help Gul Dukat in stopping him.

There's one big hurdle to jump over with "Defiant", and that's Thomas Riker. If you missed that one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation two years earlier that introduced and explained him, then you're possibly going to be scratching your head here. Or rolling your eyes. It's a strange trick to pull: going to all the effort of signing up one of the Next Generation stars weeks before the first TNG movie debuts in theatres, then suddenly revealing that you've brought him back to play an almost identical character of whom you may or may not have heard instead.

Tsuritama: "Goodbye Fishing"

What the hell do you say about the finale of a serialised story? You can't criticise the structure, because all you're generally watching is a climax and a denouement. You can't talk at length about the characterisation, because if the characters aren't working at this stage in the game - episode 12 of 12 - then there's not really much that can be done.

What I can say about this final episode of Tsuritama is that it's a visually brilliant climax, and it's followed by an emotionally satisfying epilogue. There's even a little post-credits 'kicker' that I almost missed, that sits somewhere between being a sweet little hint that life goes on and a hopeful lead-in to a second season that never arrived. This series doesn't need a second season: I liked it a lot in the end, but 12 episodes of fishing for sea bass in Enoshima is probably enough for any series.

December 22, 2014

Rocky Balboa (2006)

18 years after his retirement from professional boxing, Rocky Balboa continues to live in Philadelphia. He owns a restaurant, Adrian's, named after his dead wife. He is partially estranged from his son Robert, a banker struggling to break out from his famous father's shadow. When a TV sports network presents a computer simulation that shows Rocky beating the current heavyweight champion Mason Dixon, Dixon's management approach Rocky with an offer for an exhibition match against the champion.

Let's not waste time beating around the bush: Rocky Balboa is a great movie sequel, picking up a long-retired franchise and giving it precisely the send-off it needs. It does precisely what good sequels should do. It gives audience more of what entertained them in the first place, but it also gives that audience something they haven't seen before. The latter is achieved almost entirely through the time it took for the film to come out. It was released in 2006, 30 years and one week after the release of the original Rocky. Its title character isn't a 30 year-old boxer any more: he's 60 years old. His wife has died of ovarian cancer, his son doesn't spend as much time with him as he should, and all he's really left with are his memories. He re-lives them every night, going from table to table in his restaurant and recounting his famous title fights against Apollo Creed. When he is offered one final chance to get into the ring, he takes it because he wants to re-live that past and prove to himself that it's still a part of him now. While Rocky was about a man getting a chance after almost allowing his life to slip by, Rocky Balboa is about a man who's had that life, and wants to recapture it one last time.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

In The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (released with the unnecessary subtitle Rise of Electro in Australia) Peter Parker continues to fight crime while vacillating over his relationship with Gwen Stacy and reuniting with his childhood friend Harry Osborn. When an industrial accident transforms the shy engineer Max Dillon into the super-powered villain Electro, Parker has to stop him before he destroys all of New York.

And so on and so forth. This is actually a difficult movie to describe in a sentence, because the majority of its 142 minutes are devoted to cross-film story arcs and subplots, without a lot of space left over from a strong narrative through-line. The film has a beginning, a middle and an end, but they're all just a little too unfocused and flabby. The story appears to straddle across the film rather than fill it: it picks up on a string of plot threads from 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man and finishes with a bunch of stuff left over for The Amazing Spider-Man 3 in... well, we'll get to that. In between there's a movie that's amiable, and often enjoyable, but far too weakly put together to fully recommend.

December 21, 2014

Tsuritama: "The Legend of the Big Fish"

As DUCK prepares to launch a devastating missile strike, Yuki, Natsuke and Akira join Haru to head out into Enoshima harbour and catch JFX once and for all.

It's often quite difficult to criticise the last few episodes of a serialised drama, because even if the creatives involved have done a shoddy job overall it's actually quite hard to stuff up a rousing climax. By the same token, so much of what goes on during a climax can be taken for granted - so when something genuinely impressive is done, it's often quite difficult to take a step back and appreciate just how well staged it is.

This episode is the latter kind of climax. Events and developments from the past 10 episodes all draw together seamlessly as the four fishing enthusiasts head out into the heart of a typhoon to catch a massive alien fish and save the planet Earth.

December 20, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

There is enormous potential for a Hollywood studio to develop a feature film about Queen Artemisia of Caria. Were Hollywood to make such a film it would be a perfectly good choice to cast Eva Green (Casino Royale) in the role. Sadly while 300: Rise of an Empire focuses on one version of Artemisia, and that version is played capably by Eva Green, it's not the adaptation the real Artemisia warrants nor the feature film that audiences deserve.

The original 300 opened in cinemas in 2007. It was a gaudy, over-stylised abomination, not only warping history but actively reversing it. It was a pretty dead-on adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name, but since that novel was a spiteful and racist diatribe by a writer and artist long past his sell-by date, that accuracy didn't work in its favour. I had hoped that, perhaps, Rise of an Empire might be different. It's not directed by Zack Snyder for one thing, since he had since moved on to direct Warner Bros' Superman movies. It seemed to be about more than Frank Miller's curiously twisted vision of what Sparta was like, as well. I figured I'd give it a chance: I've seen plenty of cases where the first film has been awful and its sequel has been reasonably enjoyable.

December 19, 2014

Tsuritama: "Our Tackle"

Yuki, Natsuke and Akira all return to Enoshima to reunite with Haru. With the help of their family and friends they develop a plan to fish JFX out of the ocean to stop it from controlling the minds of everyone in town - and potentially the whole planet. Time, however, is not on their side.

The dramatic race to Tsuritama's finale continues. This episode is 50 per cent set-up and 50 per cent back story, as we get a lot more information on JFX's history filled out, and the four lead characters are smoothly reunited and positioned for their final fishing expedition. As much as I really liked the last episode I think this one is better: it has a much stronger drive behind it, and it manages to be laugh-out-loud funny as well. It's a great combination.

December 18, 2014

Pompeii (2014)

Pompeii, from writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Event Horizon) is the sort of well-intended, amiable B-movie where criticising it too harshly would feel like kicking a puppy. It does what it does, it means well, and it doesn't actively trip over itself in the attempt. Is it historically accurate? Not really. Is it scientifically accurate? Well, no, but if it was then it would have made for one fabulously abrupt climax. It is what it is: a competently directed and immensely derivative riff on Ridley Scott's Gladiator using cheaper actors, significantly less pretense and a bucket-load of naive enthusiasm. Despite looking like a mid-budget Hollywood blockbuster it's actually a German-Canadian co-production. I'm not sure what that demonstrates: that everyone can make generic and dumb disaster movies?

Celtic slave Milo (Kit Harington from Game of Thrones) is transported from Londinium to Pompeii to be a gladiator in that growing city's games. He meets and falls in love with  Cassia (Emily Browning from Suckerpunch), the daughter of the city's ruler (a slumming Jared Harris) who is also the romantic target of the cruel Roman senator Corvus (Keifer Sutherland, also slumming it). As this romantic triangle threatens to reach a climax the nearby volcano Vesuvius erupts, putting everyone in danger.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Meridian"

It's 14 November 1994 and time for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

On the station, Quark tries to get a holographic picture of Major Kira so that he can include her in one of his clients' masturbatory holosuite fantasies. Meanwhile the Defiant is patrolling a star system where a planet suddenly materialises out of nowhere. The planet, named Meridian, only shifts into our dimension once every 60 years. When Lieutenant Dax falls in love with one of its residents, she has to make a choice whether to stay on Meridian with him or return to her friends on Deep Space Nine.

So basically this is Brigadoon in space. And it's awful. No, more than that. It's irredeemable, eye-gougingly, please-God-please-make-it-stop, ruinous, appalling shit; television so inexplicably incompetent and embarrassing to watch that if there was any justice in the world its writers and producers would be sent to their offices to tighten up their resumes. Even when the episode drags itself away from the tripe that is Jadzia Dax's Brigadoon fanfic booty call, it's just to return to a comedy bit about Quark trying to invade Kira's privacy and co-opt her image for a sex simulation. This is the worst episode of Deep Space Nine so far.

December 17, 2014

Tsuritama: "Striking Underwater"

What an astonishing difference one episode makes. After eight amiable episodes of teenage friendship and sea bass fishing, with a vague background about mind-controlling aliens in the ocean and secret government organisations, everything in the background suddenly explodes to the front. This is the series-changing episode I was expecting last time, building on the firm foundation of characters it's developed for the first two-thirds of the series and setting up a wonderfully dramatic climax.

I had this series pegged as a comedy in my head, because the science fiction elements seemed inconsequential and the character work didn't seem particularly dramatic. This episode isn't very funny at all, but is packed with little moments of drama, action and growing suspense. The government agency DUCK has taken over the town of Enoshima and forced its residents indoors. Coco and Haru head out into the open ocean to shut their fellow alien JFX down, with terrible consequences. Haru ultimately takes over Enoshima, using his mind-controlling water pistol to force all of the residents out of town.

Judging the New 52: November 2014

At the same time that sales figures for November 2014 were announced, DC Comics confirmed a whole raft of cancellations in March 2015. Prepare to say goodbye to Aquaman and the Others, Infinity Man and the Forever People, Klarion, Secret Origins, Star Spangled War Stories, Trinity of Sin, Worlds' Finest, Arkham Manor, Batwoman, Green Lantern Corps, Green Lantern: New Guardians, Red Lanterns and Swamp Thing. That's thirteen cancellations in one hit, suggesting that once DC's two-month Convergence event is over we're going to see a hell of a lot of issue ones come June 2015. (I told you DC would cancel the Lantern spin-offs in 2015.)

The cancellation of Arkham Manor is particularly odd, given that its first issue only came out in October. Its second issue, released in November, saw a 33% drop to 30,907 units - that's actually really respectable, and suggests a book that could run for at least 12-18 issues. Instead it's going to close at just six. It makes me wonder if it was intended as a six-part miniseries all along, but was simply promoted as an ongoing in order to boost its sales (miniseries do not sell well in this day and age). Either that or writer Gerry Duggan's exclusive contract with Marvel doesn't include exceptions for Arkham.

December 16, 2014

Non-Stop (2014)

Liam Neeson has become such an integral part of the American action movie landscape in recent years that it's almost worth considering him a cottage industry all on his own. Whether it's in his Taken movies, or The Grey, or Unknown, he has fashioned a lucrative brand for himself as a tall, gruff, brutally violent action star: the 21st century's Arnold Schwarzenegger. Non-Stop is the latest in this seemingly endless conveyor line of interchangeable action movies - and it does genuinely seem endless, with Taken 3 and Run All Night both due before the end of 2015.

Non-Stop sees Neeson play Bill Marks, a tall, gruff and brutally violent United States air marshal who finds himself at the centre of an apparent hostage situation over the mid-Atlantic. The extortionist is somewhere on the plane, threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes unless he or she is paid $150 million dollars. On the ground, the authorities mistakenly believe Bill himself is the hostage-taker. As the body count rises and the tension increases, Bill must blah, blah, and so on and so forth.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Civil Defense"

It's 7 November 1994 and time for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

While examining the station's old ore processing facility, Sisko, O'Brien and Jake accientally trigger a Cardassian security system. With the station in lockdown and hurtling towards self-destruct, the DS9 crew race against the clock to shut the system down before it kills them all.

"Civil Defense" (American spelling noted) is a neat little "bottle" episode, using only one extra set and two guest stars. Given those constraints it's a remarkably effective little thriller, as every attempt by Sisko and his officers to improve the situation sets off another layer of Cardassian security. The end is never in doubt, but it's an enjoyable sort of by-the-numbers ride as it goes. It would be almost entirely forgettable, in fact, were it not for its two guest stars: Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo) and Garak (Andrew Robinson), who pretty much steal the show.

December 15, 2014

The Pull List: 10 December 2014

So we're three issues into Marvel's relaunched Thor, which distinguishes itself from the previous (and rather excellent) volume by giving Mjolnir to a masked woman and leaving the original Thor Odinson comparatively powerless. It was a great concept in terms of generating publicity ("Thor's a woman!") but so far it's proving slightly less captivating in practice. We're three issues in, yet we know next to nothing about the new Thor. Obviously there's a big reveal to come, but given how little has happened in three issues it's becoming harder and harder to care.

It's annoying because things started off so well: Odin and Frigga are at odds over how to rule - and indeed who should rule - the realm of Asgard, Thor is a seemingly broken man following the events of the Original Sin miniseries, a masked woman is running around weilding Thor's hammer, Malekith is teaming up with the Frost Giants and the Roxxon Corporation continues to make trouble back on Earth. Now, more than 40 pages later, we haven't had any update on tensions in Asgard, the masked woman is still just an anonymous masked woman, the Frost Giant's attack on Roxxon has gone on for two issues without significant developments and Thor has only just turned up to find out who the hell took his hammer. It's the sort of decompressed storytelling that is absolutely murdering monthly comic books.

Despite the glacial pace, Jason Aaron is still writing strong dialogue and characterisation. New artist Russell Dauterman is doing a sensational job - if nothing else this is a very beautiful book to read. I just wish it would go somewhere a lot faster than it is. We're paying US$3.99 an issue for this stuff. We deserve a story. (2/5)

Marvel. Written by Jason Aaron. Art by Russell Dauterman.

Under the cut: reviews of Batgirl, Batman Eternal, Copperhead, FBP: Federal Bureay of Physics, The Fuse, Prometheus and Wild's End.

Noah (2014)

Darren Aronofsky is one of America's boldest and most interesting filmmakers. He impressed me straight out of the gate with his idiosyncratic thriller Pi, a black and white Jewish science fiction thriller about mathematics. His follow-up Requiem for a Dream was a perfectly constructed adaptation of a highly confronting novel. While a lot of people found his third film The Fountain a bit too weird and difficult with which to engage, I've found it a really bold experiment - albeit only partially successful. Aronofsky then bounced back into mainstream success with The Wrestler and Black Swan, both of which I rate very highly, each boasting superb performances by their respective lead actors and really sticking hard in the memory afterwards. Now in 2014 he's directed Noah, an epic adaptation of a few Bible verses from the Book of Genesis. If it was any other filmmaker I'd be scratching my head. Since it's Aronofsky I'm simply nodding my head and watching this immensely talented writer/director do his thing.

The plot of Noah for those who have somehow never encountered it: humans have become wicked. God tires of this wickedness and sends a flood to wipe them out. Before the flood hits he tells one man, Noah, to build an enormous wooden ship - the ark - to house and protect the world's animals until the flood abates.

December 14, 2014

Tsuritama: "Joyous Fighting"

Sakura has run away from home, sending her family and friends out to search for her. While the search continues Akira finally reveals his true identity and mission to Haru and his sister Coco.

So after a weird lapse in momentum last episode, Tsuritama finally progresses its main plot again. After lurking around for seven episodes Akira finally gets explained: he's a member of the anti-alien investigation force DUCK, send to Enoshima specifically to gauge whether Haru, Coco and the mysterious underwater alien JFX are a threat to humanity. At the same time we get some much-anticipated detail on JFX as well, and that ties in nicely to Haru's water pistol and whole pile of weird goings-on in the first seven episodes.

It really does feel like a bridge has been crossed here: there are four more episodes to go, and it's like the writers have seen the horizon coming and slammed their feet onto the accelerator. The episode's cliffhanger ending is very similar to last episode's, only on a much bigger scale and a whole additional level of ominous.

December 13, 2014

The Expendables 3 (2014)

I think there's a valid place in the landscape of filmmaking for movies like the Expendables franchise. They lack plot, subtlety or depth, but what they do have in spades is a rolling cavalcade of aging action stars railing against the dying of the light, shooting bad guys in waves and uttering ridiculously corny and obvious one-liners. It's like a victory lap: it's a veteran's parade for the soldiers of Hollywood escapism.

With that idea in mind, I rather enjoyed the original Expendables and I actively adored its ridiculous sequel, so deliberately obvious that it featured a villain named Vilain. I did intend to see the third film in cinemas, but then a rash of really negative reviews gave me pause. I've just caught up with it on home video, and have managed to form my own opinion.

In this case the critics are right: The Expendables 3 is a pretty bad film.

December 12, 2014

3 Seconds Before Explosion (1967)

Lately I've been watching quite a few 1960s action films produced by the Japanese film studio Nikkatsu. These violent action-thrillers were the studio's bread and butter in the 1960s: made cheaply, shot quickly, and packed with lurid visuals and edited at a breakneck pace. They were considered disposable entertainment at the time, but recent years have seen a whole new audience of movie geeks discover them and re-appraise them in a new light.

3 Seconds Before Explosion (1967) is a valuable film to watch in this light, but not necessarily for the reasons you would think. It's easy to watch the cream of the crop from Nikkatsu and assume their entire ouevre was packed with underrated action masterpieces. The truth is that making films on the cheap and in a production line fashion generally results in pretty crappy movies. This is what we've got with 3 Seconds Before Explosion: it's cheap, it's fast (less than 90 minutes), and to an extent it provides a bit of kitsch popcorn entertainment, but that's about the extent of it.

Assassins (1995)

Robert Rath (Sylvester Stallone) is a talented professional killer looking to make one last hit before retiring. When his chance is snatched away from him by the young and ambitious Miguel Bain (Antonio Banderas), he is offered yet another contract - only to find that once again Bain is hunting down the same target.

Assassins is notable for being the first produced film written by Andy and Lana Wachowski, although after a page one rewrite by Brian Helgeland they actually demanded that Warner Bros take their name off the credits (Warner Bros refused, and the WGA sided with the studio). Sadly that is most likely the most notable thing about the film, since for its entire duration it consistently fails to break out from genre conventions and make an impact in its own right. The director Howard Hawks once claimed a good movie featured 'three good scenes, no bad ones'. Assassins scrapes by with two good scenes but a misfire of a climax, rendering it a reasonably entertaining but ultimately forgettable experience.

December 11, 2014

Doctor Who: "The Warriors of Death"

It's 30 May 1964 and time for more Doctor Who.

Barbara retains a tenuous hold over the Aztec high priest Autloc, however it is clear that the priest of sacrifice Tlotoxl no longer believes her ruse. When Ian defeats Ixta in an unarmed challenge, Tlotoxl urges the 'perfect victim' to demand a rematch. The Doctor continues his attempt to track down the son of the tomb's designer - unaware that the son he is seeking is Ixta. Meanwhile Susan receives tutoring in how to be a dutiful Aztec wife.

Everyone circles everyone else in this 25-minute exercise in chicanery and intrigue. Barbara struggles to maintain authority over Tlotoxl. Tlotoxl also manipulates the perfect victim to get at Ian. The Doctor wants to find out about the door mechanism on the temple's tomb, while Ixta uses that desire to his own advantage and turns the Doctor into an unwitting accomplice against Ian. It's an enormously satisfying half hour of television that may run the risk of boring its key target audience (children) but manages to pull it all off through tight direction by John Crockett and sterling performances by both the regular and guest cast.

The Sun's Burial (1960)

In the post-war slums of Osaka, a disparate community of youthful gang members and hoodlums try to scratch out a living. Takeshi (Isao Sasaki) has just joined a gang, but immediately wants out. Gang leader Shin (Masahiko Tsugawa) refuses to let him escape. Meanwhile the calculating Hanako (Kayoko Honoo) will stop at nothing to get on top: swapping sides, seducing fools, and enlisting gullible patsies in her money-making schemes.

The Sun's Burial isn't merely bleak: it's a work of full-blown nihilism, so wilfully dark that the film's climax literally burns buildings to the ground. It's a 1960 drama from writer/director Nagisa Oshima, the leading light of the Japanese New Wave. Lots of directors in the 1960s were making noir-infused crime movies; I think the difference with Oshima is that here he actually makes his film about something. Here he presents two distinctive categories of people: listless youths without dreams for their future, and broken middle-aged homeless men who remember when Japan was a proud and militaristic empire. The latter have nothing left; the former never had anything at all.

December 10, 2014

Doctor Who: "The Temple of Evil"

It's 23 May 1964 and time for Doctor Who - and not just any Doctor Who. I'm going to go on the record from the get-go and admit that this is one of my favourite serials ever. Last year, when I ran through a count-down of my favourite Doctor Who stories for the 50th anniversary, I ranked "The Aztecs" fourth. It's honestly that good.

The TARDIS materialises inside an Aztec tomb. When Susan discovers a secret door - and Barbara walks through it - Barbara is discovered by the high priest Autloc (Keith Pyott). He assumes she is the reincarnated spirit of the dead priest Yetaxa, having ascended to godhood. When the secret door seals shut, trapping the Doctor and his companions outside, the Doctor orders Barbara to continue her ruse of being a god while he and Ian investigate how to get back into the tomb and reach the TARDIS. Barbara, however, has plans of her own.

John Lucarotti returns to write his second serial for Doctor Who. His first, "Marco Polo", was the best of the first five serials, and "The Aztecs" exceeds it in pretty much every respect. This is a well-written and unexpectedly mature drama. It boasts strong direction, fantastic design work and an immensely strong cast of actors.

Rocky V (1990)

Following his brutal fight with Ivan Drago, Rocky Balboa is diagnosed with life-threatening brain damage that could kill him if he fights again. At the same time, his brother-in-law's financial mismanagement sees Rocky's entire fortune evaporate, forcing him to return with his family to the Philadelphia neighbourhood where his career first started. When he meets up-and-coming boxer Tommy Gunn, Rocky sees a chance to re-connect with the boxing world, not as a boxer himself but as a trainer and manager to the next generation.

Rocky V is a self-conscious attempt to drag the Rocky franchise back from the over-the-top mythic blockbusters of Rocky III and IV and back to the personal drama of the first two films. It brings back original director John G. Avildsen, and tries to restore a bit of the realism that got jettisoned in the 1980s. It's partially successful in this regard. Audiences of the time hated Rocky V, which is fair enough - it's a big departure from Rocky IV. Critics of the time hated it as well, which is perhaps a little less forgivable. It's a very flawed film, but not the total disaster they made it out to be.

December 9, 2014

Tsuritama: "Painful Countdown"

After the sudden alien-centric climax to episode 6, Tsuritama appears to jump straight back down to Earth in episode 7. Yuki finally spends his earnings on his own fishing rod and tackle, and starts working on catching sea bass from the shore. Natsuke's birthday is fast approaching, with his sister Sakura making her own special preparations. Haru gives up fishing entirely, declaring it dangerous, and takes up soccer and a ball-and-cup instead.

It all seems as if we're back to where we started with this amiable but relatively slow-moving comedy anime. The last episode promised so much with its sudden revelation of triangular alien entities above the ocean off Japan. This episode picks up with Yuki learning to fish for sea bass and Natsuke brooding over his impending unwanted birthday celebrations. It's only Haru who seems to keep any sort of momentum going at all, refusing to go back out to sea and taking up new hobbies to accentuate his point.

Rocky IV (1985)

After a long negotiation the Soviet Union is permitted to send its champion amateur boxer, Captain Ivan Drago, to the USA to challenge for the world heavyweight championship. When a friendly match between Drago and former world champion Apollo Creed goes horribly awry, current champion Rocky Balboa gives up his title and travels to Russia in order to take Drago down.

With Rocky IV, Sylvester Stallone completes the franchise's transition from personal drama to fully-fledged Hollywood blockbuster. The subtlety that waned throughout Rocky II and III is completely gone. The title character has been transformed from a fallible underdog into a mythic titan. At 88 minutes it's by far the shortest Rocky film, with its content stripped back so closely to the bone that there's barely a story there to be told.

In many respects it is the ultimate Hollywood movie for the 1980s: extremely glossy, ridiculously over-the-top, stupid to the point of insanity and packed with more montages per hour than pretty much any film in history. It was the most commercially successful Rocky of them all, taking in US$300 million dollars. In the USA at least, the only films to gross more money in 1985 were Back to the Future and Rambo: First Blood Part II - which also starred Sylvester Stallone. That's a hell of a year for an actor - no wonder crew members on Cobra (1986) complained of Stallone's ego at the time.

December 8, 2014

The Pull List: 3 December 2014

Last month Image published the first issue of Tooth & Claw, an outstanding fantasy comic by Kurt Busiek and Benjamin Dewey. It's back for a second issue this month, one trademark dispute later, under the revised title of The Autumnlands: Tooth & Claw.

The first issue introduced a world of anthropomorphic animals living in a two-tier society of powerful, upper-class magicians and enslaved miners and workers. This second issue introduces an entirely unexpected twist to the world Busiek and Dewey have created; one that will probably dictate the course of the series going forward. This impressed me, since it's rare that issue #2 of a comic book would have such a surprising change to the status quo. It has me even keener to read issue #3.

Dewey's artwork is stunning, depicting the various animal protagonists in a very realistic, non-cartoony fashion. It creates a much more mature, intricate world as a result. Kurt Busiek's script is similarly strong, boasting rich characterisation and well-considered fantasy world-building. There's such an enormous world implied in the book's dialogue and design, and hopefully future issues will begin to expand and explore that world in depth. Readers seeking a strong new fantasy comic need look no further: The Autumnlands: Tooth & Claw is the real deal. (5/5)

Image. Written by Kurt Busiek. Art by Benjamin Dewey. Colours by Jordie Bellaire.

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Alien vs Predator, Batman Eternal, Cloaks, Detective Comics, Doctor Who, and The Woods.

Rocky III (1982)

Three years after his historic second bout against Apollo Creed, Rocky Balboa remains world heavyweight boxing champion. Just when he is ready to retire, however, Rocky is challenged by the aggressive up-and-coming boxer Clubber Lang. When tragedy strikes, and Rocky is both defeated and humiliated by Lang, he teams up with an old friend to make one more strike at the title.

Rocky III marks a fairly significant shift for the Rocky franchise from personal drama to Hollywood blockbuster. The characters may have returned, and the story may continue, but the subtleties and human moments that made the original film so good - and which partially redeemed the second - are almost entirely gone. Save for a few key sequences this almost feels like it's about a different character. Audiences at the time didn't seem to mind: Rocky III was the fourth-biggest film of the year, grossing more than US$270 million in cinemas - that's more than either of its predecessors earned.

December 6, 2014

Doctor Who: "The Keys of Marinus"

It's 16 May 1964, and time for the final instalment of Doctor Who's "The Keys of Marinus" in an episode also titled "The Keys of Marinus".

With Susan held hostage, the Doctor and Barbara's investigations into the murder for which Ian stand accused is in mortal jeopardy - and even if they can prove Ian's innocence, there's still the matter of getting the four keys back to Arbitan before the Voord take over the Conscience.

My this is an oddly structured episode. I mentioned this problem in regards to the previous episode, "Sentence of Death", which seems to roll along as an unexpected courtroom drama until it simply ran out of time. That theory seems borne out here, since "The Keys of Marinus" (the episode, that is, not the serial) wraps up the murder trial for about 12 minutes before jumping back to the island from "The Sea of Death" to finish the entire quest narrative in the remaining 10 minutes.

Rocky II (1979)

Following his gruelling match against world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, Rocky Balboa attempts to move on with his life. When at first it seems as if his life has changed for the better, with fame and money rolling in, reality soon sets in and the troubled Rocky - who has promised Adrian he will quit boxing for good - struggles to make ends meet. When Creed challenges Rocky to a rematch, Rocky finds himself torn between the promise he made to Adrian and the one thing in life at which he excels.

When the original Rocky was released in 1976 it was an enormously commercial hit as well as a critically acclaimed award-winner. It took home Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, it transformed Sylvester Stallone into a major film star overnight, and it became a touchstone for American popular culture. All that in mind, and it seems a sequel was inevitable. The problem is: what possible sequel to Rocky can you make? It remains a perfectly self-contained masterpiece, and one that knew when and how to finish. As viewers we don't need to know what happens next. United Artists believed differently, so three years later Rocky was back in the ring in this slightly uneven and redundant sequel.

December 5, 2014

Mean Girls (2004)

Hollywood makes an enormous quantity of films, and all things being equal most of those films are pretty ordinary. Some genres attract more ordinary films than others, and I think one of the biggest culprits is the high school comedy. They come in waves, and many of them are pretty risible - so much so that it's easy to just avoid the genre entirely and spare oneself from the disappointment. I think this can sometimes be a mistake, however, because it means overlooking some genuinely brilliant movie comedies. Mean Girls, directed by Mark Waters in 2004, is one of those films.

Formerly home-schooled 16 year-old Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) enrols for the first time in an American high school. She immediately falls in with new friends Janis and Damian, who warn her to avoid "the Plastics": an exclusive clique of three rich, stylish girls led by the "queen bee" Regina (Rachel McAdams). When Cady is invited to join the Plastics, however, she is convinced by Janis and Damian to dive into their superficial world of shopping, fashion and jealousy in order to destroy them from the inside.

December 4, 2014

Doctor Who: "Sentence of Death"

It's 9 May 1964, and time for more Doctor Who.

Ian has been clubbed unconscious from behind, and when he wakes there's already an interrogator sitting beside him questioning him about the murdered man next to him. In the city of Millennius those accused of crimes are considered guilty until proven innocent, leaving it up to the Doctor, Susan and Barbara to prove Ian's innocence before he is executed.

Now this is something different: after several episodes of 1950s style serial adventure "The Keys of Marinus" takes an unexpected right turn into the courtroom drama genre. Ian is accused of murder, the Doctor has volunteered to represent him, and Susan and Barbara are out on the streets gathering evidence and interviewing potential witnesses and suspects. It's all a bit odd, to be honest, and doesn't tie into the rest of the serial at all well. It is much more enjoyable than the last two episodes, but doesn't gel together with them. This leads to a weird case of "solid episode, terrible serial".

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "The Abandoned"

It's 31 October 1994, and time for more Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Quark purchases the wreckage of a starship found in the Gamma Quadrant for scrap parts, only to find an alien infant left onboard. The child matures at an alarming rate, until it becomes apparent that he is a Jem'Hadar. While Starfleet demands that Sisko send the child to a Federation laboratory for observation and research, Odo objects - and takes the rapidly growing youth into his own care.

"The Abandoned" presents a fairly complex moral dilemma, and if it isn't entirely resolved in a satisfactory manner it's simply because it's too big an issue to tease out over the course of one 42-minute episode. It also continues the series' developing Dominion story arc, as we learn more about the Jem'Hadar than we have in all three of their previous appearances combined. All up, it's an impressively written and performed episode put together with intelligence and sensitivity.

December 3, 2014

Dreams for Sale (2012)

In an outer suburb of Tokyo, Kanya Ichizawa (Sadawo Abe) and his wife Satoko (Takako Matsu) own and operate a popular local restaurant. When a freak accident sees their restaurant burn down, they are inconsolable. Satoko does her best to make ends meet by working in a nearby ramen shop, but Kanya slips further and further into depression. When Kanya winds up sleeping with one of their former customers - who then gives him a large sum of money with which to fund rebuilding his own restaurant - Satoko sees an opportunity to reclaim their lost investment by setting him up with other, more unsuspecting, women.

I came to Dreams for Sale because I'm currently researching book on Japanese cinema. As I was developing a list of 36 films to discuss I noticed fairly quickly that none of them were directed by women. This led me to realise that to my knowledge I had never seen a Japanese film directed by a woman. Keen to remedy this oversight I went actively looking for a subtitled DVD or bluray; in the end it's taken me about a year to track a suitable film down.

It was worth the search: Dreams for Sale is a beautifully shot, morally ambiguous drama that is centred on two excellent performances. It is a remarkably bleak film, offering no easy answers and slowly sliding into a sort of distasteful miasma of poor life choices and cruel deception.

December 2, 2014

Doctor Who: "The Snows of Terror"

It's 2 May 1964, and time for Doctor Who.

Ian and Barbara are rescued from the mountainside by a grizzled trapper named Vasor. While at first he seems hospitable, it soon transpires that he wants Ian dead and Barbara for himself - and he may have already done away with Susan, Altos and Sabetha. Then there's the matter of the next key, hidden somewhere within the nearby caves and defended by ice soldiers.

By breaking this serial down into a series of essentially self-contained 25-minute adventures Terry Nation has turned the series into something much more akin to the children's serials of the 1950s. That's not a particularly good thing: one of the strengths of Doctor Who, even in this debut season, is that it's a family programme. While children may watch and enjoy it, teenagers and parents are going to like it as well. Earlier serials, particularly "Marco Polo", have managed to balance the needs of both child and adult audiences, whereas "The Keys of Marinus" is really only pitching for the younger demographic.

December 1, 2014

Sega Saturn: 20 years on

Last week the Sega Saturn videogame console turned 20. The anniversary came and went without too much fanfare, and certainly the majority of videogaming websites seemed to fail to notice. That's not too great a surprise: I forgot the anniversary myself. I had dedicated a 20-post countdown of my favourite PlayStation games and neglected Sega's black plastic beast entirely.

Truth be told, it was hard being a Saturn owner in Australia. The most popular games were easy enough to find and purchase at the time, but the more obscure titles proved maddeningly difficult to track down. On top of that the console's best regarded titles were released at a point when the market had all-but abandoned the platform entirely. Attempts to track down Dragon Force or Panzer Dragoon Saga at the time proved fruitless, and while an after-market exists for these titles you can expect to pay as much as $800 for an English language copy of either title today.

Doctor Who: "The Screaming Jungle"

It's 25 April 1964, and time for more Doctor Who. This week, it's part three of "The Keys of Marinus": "The Screaming Jungle".

With the Doctor having travelled ahead, Ian, Barbara and Susan - along with their new companions Sabetha and Altos - explore a dangerous jungle in the hunt for the next key. When Barbara falls victim to a mechanised trap, Susan and her new friends go on ahead while Ian attempts to rescue her.

This is the 23rd episode of Doctor Who in a row, produced on a gruelling weekly schedule, so for this episode William Hartnell was given a much-needed week off from work. Given his increasingly bored performances in the last few episodes it can only have been for the best. I look forward to seeing if his Doctor is re-energised in the next episode. While Hartnell relaxed for a few days the rest of the cast made this. Move over "Blink": this is the first "Doctor-light" episode ever made.