January 31, 2015

Samurai Flamenco: "The Meaning of Justice"

It's been a while since I've reviewed an episode of Samurai Flamenco (this is the fifth), so it's probably worth a quick reminder of what this anime is and what it's about. Masayoshi Hazama is a young male model and aspiring actor whose love for tokusatsu TV shows (think Ultraman or Mighty Morphin Power Rangers) is so extreme that he's taken to putting on a costume and taking to the streets of Tokyo as the masked vigilante Samurai Flamenco. His low-rent exploits - basically returning lost purses and interrupting muggings - have attracted the attention of the public, the scorn of the local police, and the adoration of the novelty-obsessed news and entertainment media.

It has also earned him a sidekick, Flamenco Girl, actually a successful pop starlet named Mari Maya with a penchant for excessive physical violence. The contrast between the polite, awkward Samurai Flamenco and the brash, brutally violent Flamenco Girl forms the basis for this episode, "The Meaning of Justice".

Villain (2010)

Villain, a Japanese drama directed by Lee Sang-il, is a curious experience. It's about the murder of a young woman along a country road, although its focus is very much on those still-living who are affected by her death. At no point is the identity of the killer ever in doubt, indeed we spent the bulk of the film in his company. In the end it's essentially a tragedy in the classical sense: bad things happen to those who probably don't deserve it, but they happen nonetheless because of their own unchangeable behaviours.

Yoshino (Hikari Mitsushima) works for an insurance company in Fukuoka. She has her eye on the dashing university student Keigo (Masaki Okada), and has been bombarding him with e-mails and phone messages. At the same time she's taking another young man - the shy, withdrawn Yuichi (Satoshi Tsumabuki) - for a ride, only dating him in return for money. She pre-arranges to meet Yuichi, but walks into Keigo at the last moment and gets in his car instead. When the self-centred Keigo tires of her advances, he physically kicks her out of the car and onto a remote hillside road. Shortly afterwards Yuichi arrives, having followed them both. Minutes later Yoshino is dead: strangled and dumped by Yuichi.

January 30, 2015

The Lost Boys (1987)

As a director Joel Schumacher fascinates me. I'm not sure there's another director whose films straddle such a vast distance in quality, whether exceptional (Falling Down), really good (A Time to Kill) through to flawed (Flatliners), dull (Dying Young), flat-out awful (Batman Forever) or even wildly misunderstood (Batman and Robin, no really). It makes each of his films a real gamble to watch: are you going to get a Phone Booth (entertaining) or a Trespass (really not entertaining)?

On this broad scale, The Lost Boys sits somewhere in the upper middle. It's not a faultless film by any stretch, and its 1987 production has allowed it to date rather significantly, but its a very entertaining teen horror movie with a lot to recommend. I've always suspected the film is a lot like Richard Donner's The Goonies. If you saw it at the right age you will absolutely love it, but if you saw it too late then you'll probably wonder what all of the fuss was about.

The Emerson family - divorced mother Lucy and teenage sons Michael and Sam - move to the Californian seaside town of Santa Carla. It appears to be the murder capital of America with a growing number of disappearances. Michael falls in with the wrong crowd, and Sam learns the town's secret: a gang of vampires is preying on them all.

January 29, 2015

Gatchaman Crowds: "Abjection"

In episode #7 of Gatchaman Crowds, Rui decides to use the Crowds to destroy Berg Katse - with catastrophic results. Sugane and Joe rush to help, but even they may not be strong enough to defeat Katse. Will Paiman authorise the rest of the Gatchaman team to assist?

Thanks to the careful groundwork laid in earlier episodes, "Abjection" winds up the best installment of Gatchaman Crowds to date. It has plenty of action, great character work, a few surprises and some laugh-out-loud moments thrown in as well.

Rui's initial attempt to attack Katse is jaw-dropping to watch. It's not that the Crowds cannot match Katse's powers; dramatically speaking, that was to be expected. It's that the fight is so horrifyingly one-sided. Katse doesn't just drive back the Crowds. They're massacred. Katse then descends upon a defenceless Rui with an unexpected brutality. This is really quite confronting stuff given the tone of earlier episodes, and makes a huge impact as a result.

Journey Into Mystery: Stronger Than Monsters (2013)

Journey Into Mystery is one of Marvel's oldest titles, running off and on in one form or another since 1966. It started off as a horror anthology, and then featuring an ongoing story about the Norse God Thor. It soon got retitled The Mighty Thor and ran under that title for decades. A few years ago its original title was restored, and the story given over to Thor's brother Loki - then recently transformed into a 12 year-old boy during the events of the crossover miniseries Siege. When that storyline wound up, Journey to Mystery was briefly passed over to the Asgardian warrior Lady Sif. This run did not sell particularly well, wrapping up after just 10 issues, although Marvel did release it to trade paperback in two slim volumes. The book I've just read, Stranger Than Monsters, is the first of the two.

By the time the book begins, Asgardia - the home of the Norse Gods - has suffered multiple attacks and sieges. It is also hovering on a floating mountain above the small town of Broxton, Oklahoma. The warrior Sif, seeking an advantage against future attacks, visits a witch and gains the super powers of the ancient Asgardian berserkers. Then she gets ambushed and thrown into a dimension with ancient Asgardian berserkers. Then, as they say, hijinks ensue.

January 28, 2015

Broken Blade: "The Time of Awakening"

On the continent of Curzon, technology is based on operators using their mental energy to manipulate 'quartz', a sort of magically-imbued type of crystal. When one nation covets the quartz mines of its neighbour, both nations go to war using quartz-powered giant robots named golems. When the kingdom of Krishna looks set to fall to the Athens Commonwealth, a 'un-sorcerer' named Rygart - who cannot manipulate quartz like others - discovers he is the only person capable of piloting a recently uncovered golem that is hundreds of years old.

Broken Blade (also known as Break Blade) is a strange anime. Rather than be released as a television series it was produced as a rapid-fire series of six short feature films that each ran briefly in Japanese cinemas before getting a DVD release shortly afterwards. As a result episode lengths vary, but seem to be around the 45-50 minute mark each. This unusual release schedule seems to have afforded the series a higher animation budget, or maybe more time to produce them. Whatever the reason, the result is that it has a pretty high standard of animation. It blends traditional cel animation with a small amount of CGI to create a story that visually pops off the screen. The giant robot (or 'mecha') battles in this first episode look great, and are extremely well choreographed and animated. Unfortunately that seems to be where its selling points end.

The Pull List: 21 January 2015

Wild Blue Yonder #6 finally hit comic stores this past week, five months late. It's been a rough release schedule for this miniseries: funded via Kickstarter, distributed via IDW and then bogged down by delay after delay. It must have had a terrible affect on sales. Issue #1 was released in June 2013, after all. I'd be interested to know how many readers stuck around.

It's a shame that the delays occurred, because this has been an immensely entertaining book. It's a post-apocalyptic story, as airships battle for the remaining fuel resources high among the clouds. It boasted strong character work, some nice world-building and sensational action sequences. With all of the flying it reminded me a little of Hayao Miyazaki's animated films, albeit with a much grittier edge to it.

This final issue wraps things up in a satisfying way, but at the same time it feels just a little bit truncated. The miniseries was initially solicited for just five issues, suggesting that something went a little wrong with the original plotting process. Truth be told this book could still do with another 10 pages or so.

When it's collected into a trade paperback this year it would be well worth your time tracking this series down. Now that the delays are all over, and it can be read all at once, it's a very satisfying book. (4/5)

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

Under the cut: reviews of The Autumnlands: Tooth & Claw, Batman and Robin, Batman Eternal, Batwoman, Black Widow, Doctor Who, Lumberjanes and The Wicked + the Divine.

January 27, 2015

Highlander: The Final Dimension (1995)

On 27 January 1995 Highlander: The Final Dimension was released in American cinemas. It was the third film in a franchise that started back in 1986. Now the original Highlander was not a significant hit when it was released into cinemas. The fantasy adventure starred Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery as immortal swordsmen in 16th century Scotland and present-day New York. While the film only grossed $12 million dollars on its theatrical release, it became a cult hit on home video.
This led to a 1991 sequel, Highlander II: The Gathering. Lambert, Connery and director Russell Mulcahy were dragged back somewhat unwillingly via sequel clauses in their original contracts, and the sequel’s producers (who had no participation in the original film) diverted considerably from the established back story with a science fiction tale of global warming, time travel and alien planets. Mulcahy famously left the film’s premiere in disgust after 15 minutes, while Lambert unsuccessfully attempted to quit the film altogether while it was shooting. Highlander II made more money than Highlander, but it also cost more money: in the end both films sat as a curious movie franchise where neither instalment had actually turned a profit.

Frankenstein Unbound (1990)

21st century scientist Joe Buchanan (John Hurt) attempts to create the ultimate military weapon - an energy beam that can completely remove its target from existence. Its creation has unexpected and devastating side effects, and Buchanan is soon caught in a time-space rift. He wakes in early 19th century Geneva, where he encounters the future novelist Mary Godwin, later Shelley (Bridget Fonda), as well as the deranged scientist Victor Frankenstein (Raul Julia).

Frankenstein Unbound is a 1990 science fiction film directed by Roger Corman. Corman has a remarkable place in cinema history as a producer of low-budget genre pictures. He was notably generous in giving up-and-coming artists the opportunity to act and direct, helping to kick-start the careers of Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard and Peter Bogdonavich. This was his first film as director in 20 years, and his final directorial effort to date.

Frankenstein Unbound is a maddening film to watch. Every thing it does well is seemingly matched by something that it does badly. Some part are impressive, and some are tedious to sit through. It features some of the best actors of its time, and also some really tin-eared performances by less accomplished co-stars. It is also remarkably short, running a total of 82 minutes including the credits. In the end it feels rather like watching a rough cut of a longer, much better film that we're never given the opportunity to see.

January 26, 2015

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Prophet Motive"

It's 20 February 1995, and time for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Grand Nagus Zek (Wallace Shawn) returns to Deep Space Nine, moving into Quark's apartment and selling all of his furniture. He has had an unexplained change of heart, rewriting the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition and declaring a new age for his civilization: no more capitalism, in favour of complete altruism. While Quark (Armin Shimerman) struggles to understand what has gone wrong, Dr Bashir (Siddig el Fadil) finds himself nominated for a prestigious medical award.

It is time for one of Deep Space Nine's periodic Ferengi episodes, which also means that it's time for the series to attempt another comedy. Sometimes they work surprisingly well. Other times they can be a rather grating experience to sit through. Unfortunately "Prophet Motive" is firmly in the latter category. Its cast give it their all, and demonstrate superb comedic skills. It's all for nothing when the script doesn't work.

January 25, 2015

Immortals (2011)

Tarsem Singh is potentially cinema's greatest visual stylist of bad films. His debut feature, The Cell, was slenderly written but more than made up for it with some of the most stunning visuals ever committed to screen. More recently, Mirror Mirror had a dreadfully silly script and jokey performances, but even through all of its faults a beautiful aesthetic managed to shine through. In between there is 2011's Immortals, which has a script that is short of plot, depth and characterisation, but in many scenes looks like a moving Caravaggio painting. It's such a maddening career to watch: always one step short of greatness. I have been informed his middle film The Fall is his best work, but sadly I have yet to track it down and watch it.

So the story, in a nutshell: King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) wants to find a magical bow with which to free the Titans and rule the world. Through godly intervention and fate, the peasant spearman Theseus (Henry Cavill) rises up to challenge him. There are a lot of sword fights, mass battles, and gods in ridiculously silly hats.

The Client (1994)

For a while there John Grisham was the biggest thing in Hollywood, with Hollywood's studios paying millions of dollars apiece to have a chance of adapting one of his novels to the big screen. They attracted top-of-the-line talent as well, whether it be Alan J. Pakula directed Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts in The Pelican Brief, or Sydney Pollack directing Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman in The Firm. At the height of the Grisham craze, Warner Bros and Regency Films co-produced The Client, a legal drama directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon.

Oh Joel Schumacher. For a generation of comic book fans he will always be, first and foremost, the widely derided director whose two Batman movies in 1995 and 1997 brought a hugely successful movie franchise to its knees. To more widely viewed movie viewers he's a much more interesting director; capable of both good films and bad, somewhat unpredictable, and with an eye for fresh talent that remains unparalleled in Hollywood. At his best, he's capable of directing something like Falling Down. At his worst, something like Batman Forever. In between, there are films like The Client: efficient, slickly produced, very well cast, and almost entirely by the numbers.

January 24, 2015

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Destiny"

It's 13 February 1995, and time for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

With a peace treaty finally signed between Bajor and Cardassia, the two planets unite on their first joint scientific mission: establishing a permanent communications link through the Bajoran wormhole. When a Bajoran cleric arrives on the station warning of a 3,000 year old prophecy and demanding that the experiment be called off, Commander Sisko (Avery Brooks) is forced to take a stand on his position as the Emissary: is he a religious figure or a Starfleet officer?

You know that phrase "a curate's egg"? It refers to something that's overall pretty bad, but which contains some good things. That's pretty much "Destiny" in a nutshell - or an eggshell, I suppose. Overall it's that dreary old story about an ancient prophecy coming true, and how everything the characters do to avoid the prophecy just help to make it come to fruition. It lacks drama as well, because we know going in that the prophecy being touted - three Cardassian scientists will destroy the wormhole - can't possibly come true without destroying one of the key premises of the series. So rather than get emotionally engaged by the story, you just sort of sit there drumming your fingers until the characters realise they misinterpreted the prophecy.

January 23, 2015

Captain America and the Falcon: Secret Empire (1974)

In Secret Empire, Captain America finds himself framed from murder and shunned by mainstream America as a criminal organisation known as the Secret Empire seeks to destroy his reputation. His journey to redeem his good name sees him team up with the X-Men, and leads him to a very unexpected final battle in the White House.

This collection brings together issues #169 to #176 of Captain America and Falcon. In many ways it seems a rather appropriate storyline to read at the moment, since it's narrative - Captain America and the Falcon go on the run when it turns out a secret organisation has infiltrated the American government - is eerily similar to the plot of last year's movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

The "Secret Empire" arc was written by Steve Englehart, who managed to pick a fine time to start writing the adventures of patriotic Captain America. The Vietnam War had scarred American culture pretty horribly, and the Watergate scandal had taken out President Richard Nixon and made a lot of people very cynical about those in power in their country. In that kind of environment, what's a superhero wearing the American flag supposed to do?

The Pull List: 14 January 2015

I have been enjoying Silver Surfer enormously since its reboot. Dan Slott has run with his new concept of making Norrin Radd the 'Doctor Who of the Marvel Universe', and it's delivered wonderful creative dividends. It's been a warm, silly, very slightly strange sort of light-hearted intergalactic adventure book. Michael Allred's artwork seems perfectly suited to it as well: wonderfully simple, clean and amusing to read.

I was particularly impressed with last week's eighth issue, in which the Surfer and his human companion Dawn stumble upon a hidden planet - invisible even to the Surfer's enhanced senses. Its population stem from all manner of lost or destroyed planets, all huddled together as refugees from some enormous and devastating evil power. And what power is that? Why, the Silver Surfer, of course.

It's easy to forget that the Surfer's origins in the Marvel Universe are as the Herald of Galactus. He hand-picked planet after planet to be consumed, its populations destroyed, just to save his own world. He has the blood of billions on his hands, and it's a stroke of genius for Slott to give us seven issues of old-fashioned breezy before dropping a bombshell reminder on the readership of just who it is they're reading about. And of course it's all news to poor Dawn, who was never told.

This book has been fantastic since it began, but with issue #8 Slott and Allred have absolutely turned it up another notch. This is a fantastic comic and comes with my highest-possible recommendation. (5/5)

Under the cut: reviews of Alien vs Predator, Batgirl, Batman Eternal, Copperhead, Daredevil, FBP, Miles Morales, Rat Queens and Wild's End.

January 22, 2015

Hercules: The Legendary Journeys: "The Road to Calydon"

It's 6 February 1995, and time for Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.

Hercules stumbles upon a community of refugees who are attempting to live in a ghost town cursed by Hera. While he tries to escort them to the safety of the free city of Calydon, their leader continues to court disaster by spreading dissent and secretly carrying a sacred cup that Hera wants back.

It's been quite a while since I reviewed an episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. That episode, "Eye of the Beholder", was very much a mixed bag: high on charm but very low on script and production quality. If anything "The Road to Calydon" is a step in the wrong direction. It's also very cheap, rather shoddy to look at, and directed and performed with a very loose and lazy style. On the other hand the charm that made "Eye of the Beholder" at least partly watchable is entirely absent here. It feels roughly thrown together rather than crafted, as if its production team knew that a certain audience would watch the episode no matter how well or badly it was put together - and it's been put together very badly indeed.

Judging the New 52: December 2014

December sales figures are in, with Batman once again the most popular comic book in America. Basically so long as neither DC nor Marvel run a major new issue one, or Loot Crate don't make an order through Diamond Distribution, then Batman winds up on top. Of course next month it will blown out of the water with Marvel's Star Wars #1 printing at least a million copies, but for now Batman is king. Overall DC managed to outsell Marvel by a small margin last month; it's usually the other way around.

If I was DC Comics, I'd be having a very close look at Batman to break down precisely why it's currently selling as well as it is. It's not just the title character, although that's obviously a big reason behind its success. Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo and Danny Miki have been kicking out one great storyline after another, with each one being treated like a Hollywood blockbuster: high concept, high stakes, and great marketable story titles. They also seem to have by-and-large been left alone to develop the stories they want to tell. There's not reason DC couldn't be doing this with another three or four lead titles.

This is particularly true of DC's properties that are currently finding success on television. Arrow continues to be a big hit, and The Flash and Constantine have both premiered to great success, yet when we look to their comic book counterparts we find Green Arrow shipping just 20,904 units to the direct market, The Flash just 37,026 and Constantine a shocking 15,574. All three should be selling above 50,000 copies a month with the TV series on the air.

With Convergence giving DC a two-month break to prepare and release a whole slew of new titles and, I suspect, numerous relaunches, this is the perfect time for the company to wipe a few slates clean, sign up a few key creative teams, and give some of these books the marketing push they deserve.

January 21, 2015

Gatchaman Crowds: "Originality"

Time for the sixth episode of Gatchman Crowds. In the tunnel collapse, Utsutsu risks her life to heal the injured motorists, while Hajime reveals her identity to Rui - and, by accident, the entire city via news coverage of the disaster. It all leads up to two important questions: why should the Gatchaman continue to hide in secret, and with the advent of GALAX is there a need for Gatchaman at all?

A core conflict that was hinted at last episode comes to the forefront in episode 6. On the one hand, the world is defended from alien incursion by the elusive Gatchaman. At the same time Rui's volunteer army Crowds, developed with GALAX, appears to be doing as good as job with saving people from harm - if not even better. So why should the world bother with both of them?

January 20, 2015

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Heart of Stone"

It's 6 February 1995, and time for more Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

While returning in a Runabout from a Bajoran colony, Odo (Rene Auberjonois) and Kira (Nana Visitor) detect a Maquis attack. They pursue the Maquis ship down to an isolated moon, but lose the enemy pilot in a vast cave system. The two are separated, and when they are reunited it is because Kira's foot has become encased in a rapidly crowing crystalline structure. With the caves growing unstable, Odo races to free her before he is forced to abandon her to die.

"Heart of Stone" is an episode that, like "Life Support" before it, I remember really hating on its original broadcast, and, like "Life Support", I'm now finding my opinion has entirely reversed. This is not the most perfect episode of Deep Space Nine, but its good elements by far outweigh the bad. Overall I was rather impressed. As long as you can overlook the appallingly cheap props and CGI used to create the crystal structure that's trapping Kira, there's much here to recommend.

The Garden of Words (2013)

In 1999 a young animator named Makoto Shinkai single-handedly wrote, directed and illustrated a five-minute animated short titled She and her Cat. It was widely acclaimed, won a few awards, and led to Shinkai getting funding to write and direct a slightly longer piece. Voices of a Distant Star was a fantastic extended short film - it runs for 25 minutes - and saw Shinkai widely heralded as the next big creative force in the Japanese animation scene.

For a time it seemed like everyone wanted Makoto Shinkai to be the next Hayao Miyazaki, with an enormous amount of critical pressure placed on his full-length features The Place Promised in Our Early Days and Five Centimetres a Second. Now, thankfully, it seems like everyone is happy for him to instead become the original Makoto Shinkai. I think Shinkai's works, and the anime landscape in general, will be richer for it.

His most recent film is The Garden of Words, and it feels like a firm step back into the territory where he most excels. It is an odd length at 46 minutes; too long to give the quick, sharp hit of a short film, and too short to fully expand to the depth of a proper feature. One the other hand it seems the perfect length for Makoto Shinkai, and it showcases his particular, and particularly Japanese, artistic strengths.

January 19, 2015

Nostalgia Time: 19 January 2015: Tremors

It's Nostalgia Time, my semi-regular but pretty frequent celebration of the pop culture anniversaries you should be observing each day. For Australians today might be worth observing for the 40th anniversary of youth radio network Triple J (originally Double J), but for proper cult film geeks today is best spent celebrating the 25th anniversary of one of the best pulp sci-fi movies of the last few decades: Tremors.

I think Tremors is the perfect cult film, because it's the kind of movie that got largely overlooked and dismissed upon release, but which has developed a keen fan following via home video and late night broadcasts. Don't get me wrong: the film earned money, but most people watched it and forgot it, without realising how fun it actually was. The first time I saw it was on an in-house video channel in a hotel while on holiday. I certainly didn't forget it, and when I finally bought a bluray player it was one of the first films I purchased.

Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara (2007)

I am fascinated by documentaries about artists. It doesn't really matter what medium in which the artist works. It could be an author, a director, a panter or a sculptor - even a puppeteer. There is something I find very interesting about seeing how different artists work. I like seeing them create, and then talking about how they create.

Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara is a 2007 feature documentary that tracks the titular artist's development of a massive new exhibition in his home town of Hirosaki. While work proceeds on an entire village of hand-crafted houses, each populated by Nara's massive popular paintings of cynical, wide-eyed children, we follow him from country to country making public appearances, meeting his fans and exhibiting smaller works across Asia. The documentary is directed by Koji Sakabe, a noted director of television documentaries in Japan.

January 17, 2015

The Storm Riders (1998)

Andrew Lau’s The Storm Riders burst onto Hong Kong screens in 1998, riding an unparalleled wave of audience anticipation and studio hype. The film came from a popular director, thanks to his hugely successful Young & Dangerous films, and featured an all-star cast of Hong Kong’s most popular actors and pop singers. What’s more, it was adapted from the city’s most popular comic book (or ‘manhua’), Ma Wing-shing’s Fung Wan, and utilised computer-generated visual effects the likes of which had never been seen before in a Hong Kong production.

The film begins when the all-powerful Lord Conquerer (Sonny Chiba) receives a prophecy that he will have good fortune if he trains two children, Wind and Cloud, to be master martial artists and swordsmen like himself. When Wind and Cloud grow to adulthood (played by Ekin Cheng and Aaron Kwok respectively) a second prophecy reveals that they may become his downfall. That is about as simple as the storyline can be made, since in the execution it is a long and fairly muddled affair, hampered by too large a cast of characters and too great a reliance on the audience knowing who is who and what is actually going on. For the target crowd of excited Hong Kong teenagers, this strategy likely worked perfectly well. To the uninitiated, the film is often an exercise in head-scratching befuddlement. Most scenes appear to be a duel, or a lead-up to a duel, or an ominous conversation regarding the inevitability of a duel. It’s all taken remarkably seriously with little room for humour.

January 16, 2015

Nostalgia Time 16 January 2015: Star Trek: Voyager, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys

Welcome to Nostalgia Time, this blog's ongoing experiment in celebrating more pop culture anniversaries than any other website on the Internet. Today it's the 20th anniversary of two very well known TV shows: Star Trek: Voyager and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.

Star Trek: Voyager premiered on the all-new (now defunct) United Paramount Network on 16 January 1995. It was the flagship series for the new broadcaster, and while the syndicated series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was still on the air (and halfway through its third season) it was Voyager that Paramount treated as the proper successor to its monster hit Star Trek: The Next Generation. To be honest, it seemed a more appropriate successor than DS9 anyway: bright where DS9 was moody, and optimistic where DS9 was cynical. It even used The Next Generation's sets, subtly re-built to look a bit fresher and more contemporary.

In practice the series was pretty uneven, with characters and elements that worked well and others that did not. To my mind one of the series' greatest strengths was its captain, Kathryn Janeway - played exceptionally well by Kate Mulgrew. When you're the fourth star of a Star Trek series it's difficult to find a way to chart your own course, and I think both Mulgrew and the writers managed that and made Janeway a subtlely distinctive and appealing character. Some of the other regular cast did not fare so well. Personally I found myself struggling to warm to the likes of Tuvok or Neelix.

AKB0048: "Miracle of the Waves"

Well thanks to this pop starlet science fiction mash-up I have learned that the Japanese phrase for "sexy poses" is "sexy poses". A Japanese-accented pronunciation obviously, but nonetheless a borrowed bit of language - like "anime", come to think of it. It makes me wonder: what did the Japanese strike before they struck sexy poses? Was no one living before the Meiji Restoration sexy? I find it hard to believe that the Japanese independently invented every aspect of human sexuality and sexual practice, including some the rest of the world had to learn from them, but never got around to inventing the sexy photo shoot.

So there's this pop idol thing, a genre I suppose, called "gravure". It's basically provocative photo shoots of young woman in bikinis or lingerie, overtly sexualised but generally non-nude. It seems to be an industry requirement: if you're a teenage pop vocalist, no matter how great your talent, sooner or later you're going to have to strip down and get sexy for promotional calendars, DVDs and glossy collectors magazines and books. Gravure is also a borrowed word, in this case derived from the printing term 'rotogravure'.

Why all this talk of half-naked pop starlets? This, the 10th episode of AKB0048, is the episode where our heroes are sent to the planet Atamistar for their own gravure photo shoot.

January 15, 2015

Nostalgia Time 15 January 2015: Floating Clouds, Benny Hill, The Golem

Welcome to Nostalgia Time, a deliberately excessive observation of pop culture anniversaries. Today sees three anniversaries you might want to observe and share.

First up, today is the 60th anniversary of Mikio Naruse's Floating Clouds. It's probably the director's most widely acclaimed film; in 1995 a survey of Japanese film critics saw it named the third-best Japanese film of all time. It follows two lovers reunited after an affair in French Indochina, now unable to continue their romance because one of them is married. It's beautifully paced and shot, and stands up wonderfully well today. A lot of people experience classic Japanese film by watching Kurosawa, Ozu or Mizoguchi, but if you haven't seen any Naruse you're missing a trick.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Life Support"

It's 30 January 1995 and time for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

When Season 3 premiered with "The Search", it was the first time that Deep Space Nine had aired without a more prominent Star Trek series, The Next Generation, airing at the same time. With the initial broadcast of "Life Support" that brief period of dominance ended; between "Past Tense, part 2" and "Life Support" UPN premiered Star Trek: Voyager, and poor DS9 was back to being the under-appreciated sibling series again. It was always a shame how DS9 got overshadowed by the other series, because to my mind it's still the best version of the Star Trek franchise since the 1966 original.

Take "Life Support". I remember being quite underwhelmed by it back in 1995, mainly because it is focused on Vedek Bariel (Philip Anglim), a character to whom I never warmed and whose departure here actually gave me some relief. Coming back to it for the second time, almost exactly 20 years later, and I'm surprised at just how good it was.

January 14, 2015

Out of Inferno (2013)

I have long been quite a fan of the Pang brothers, Danny and Oxide, whose inventive low-budget films like Re-cycle, Bangkok Dangerous and The Eye have impressed me with their imagination, pacing and energy. In recent years their output has gradually becoming more expensive and commercial, including an American  remake of Bangkok Dangerous starring Nicolas Cage, and the high-profile wuxia sequel The Storm Warriors. This trend towards commercial populist cinema reaches its apogee with Out of Inferno, a fire-fighting disaster movie that's the closest thing in their catalogue yet to a stereotypical Hollywood blockbuster. On the one hand it's good to see the Pangs succeeding after almost 25 years of filmmaking. On the other, it's a shame to see so much talent and time spent on such an ordinary film.

A devastating fire breaks out in a Guangzhou office tower. Firefighter Tai-Kwan (Lau Ching-Wan, credited here as Sean Lau) arrives on the scene, only to discover his pregnant wife Si-Lok (Angelica Lee) is trapped on one floor, and his estranged brother Keung (Louis Koo) is trapped on another. Together they, and a mismatched band of survivors, must find a way to escape as the fire grows too devastating for the firefighters to handle.

The Glass Bottom Boat (1966)

For a while in the 1960s Doris Day was America's most popular movie star. She appeared in numerous hit films from the early 1950s and simultaneously managed a highly successful musical career. Despite this prolonged success I've seen comparatively few of her films. Popular films like Calamity Jane or The Man Who Knew Too Much? Sure. Later non-musical comedies? Not so much.

The Glass Bottom Boat is a 1966 romantic comedy in which Day plays Jennifer Nelson, a public relations officer at a NASA aerospace laboratory. She attracts the attention of leading engineer Bruce Templeton (Rod Taylor) and a romance soon blossoms - despite the laboratory's chief of security (Paul Lynde) suspecting that she is a Russian spy. The film's seemingly unrelated title comes from the tourist boat that Jennifer's father pilots in Catalina, for which Jennifer occasionally pretends to be a mermaid to entertain his customers.

January 13, 2015

Nostalgia Time 13 January 2015: Demon Knight

20 years ago today Universal Pictures attempted to expand a successful television anthology series into a motion picture franchise. Their attempt underperformed somewhat - it earned just $21 million from a budget of about $12 million.

It's a pity: Tales from the Crypt presents Demon Knight is a garish, pulpy horror film with great performances and a lot of well-played humour. There is a question of whether the Tales from the Crypt framing sequence harmed its chances. Would audiences go and see in the cinema something they'd previously been able to watch on television in the comfort of their own homes?

Tales from the Crypt had originated as a 1950s comic book, but in 1989 the television adaptation premiered on HBO. The series, a weekly anthology of pulp horror, was produced by a highly prestigious group of Hollywood producers and directors, including Richard Donner, David Giler, Walter Hill, Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis. Through their industry connections the production team gathered an immensely talented group of actors and directors to appear in and helm the series’ various episodes. Directors included Richard Donner, John Frankenheimer, Tobe Hooper, Russell Mulcahy, Tom Hanks and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Actors included Dan Ackroyd, Beau Bridges, Kirk Douglas, Malcolm McDowell, Joe Pesci and Demi Moore.

Kokoro Connect: "Jobber and Low Blow"

Five high schoolers continue to randomly swap bodies with one another, leading to growing concern about the long-term implications. Taichi learns that Yui suffers from a phobia of men, and after swapping bodies with her one night Taichi learns that Yui was almost raped in middle school - and her belief that she could not fight back against an attacker if it happened again is dominating her life.

What a strange roller coaster ride this anime is turning out to be. I hated the first episode intensely, as it succumbed to every obvious bad idea you could have about a show where the characters are swapping bodies with one another. Then I rather enjoyed the second episode, which took a step back and actually examined the ramifications that such body-swapping would bring. Now with episode 3 I'm finding myself caught somewhere in the middle. On the one hand there are some nice moments of humour and character. On the other hand there's this ham-fisted attempt to use sexual assault as a casual plot point.

The Pull List: 7 January 2015

Now that we're two issues in, I'm willing to call ODY-C as 2015's first must-read comic. It is Matt Fraction's gender-swapped science fiction retelling of Homer's Odyssey, illustrated by Christian Ward and published via Image Comics - pretty much the destination of choice for any comic book-reading science fiction enthusiast.

It's a challenging read. The artwork is vivid to the point of chaos. The story is almost entirely narrated in prose captions, and those captions have been written in a vague sort of free verse. I suspect there are a lot of readers who will simply find this book to hard with which to engage, too hard to get immersed in the story, and in many ways too hard to actually like. This is, for all of its sci-fi bells and whistles, a surprisingly accurate adaptation of Greek mythology. It's blunt, brutal and regularly cruel. Petty-minded gods play games with the lives of mortals, and those mortals do not hesitate to destroy what's between them and their goal.

There's some beautiful science fiction going on here, however, with this issue revealing precisely why there are no men in ODY-C's universe. It's wonderfully clever stuff, as are all the tiny details revealed in Odyssia's adventures in the home of the Lotus Eaters.

This is an important book; not simply because it's brilliantly written and illustrated, but because there is a boldness to what is being attempted here. Rather than simply tell a conventional comic book story Fraction and Ward seem to be willing to push some boundaries in terms of what a comic book can be like. It's early days, obviously, but after the first two issues ODY-C is shaping up to be a furiously inventive masterpiece. (5/5)

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Batman Eternal, Detective Comics, Justice League 3000, Uagi Yojimbo and The Woods.

January 12, 2015

Invitation to the Dance (1956)

This is a review of Gene Kelly's 1956 film Invitation to the Dance, the discussion of which requires a quick primer on vanity projects.

So here we go: there's this thing in Hollywood known as the 'vanity project'. It goes like this: an actor appears in a string of hit movies, so many that the studio that produced those movies comes to see the actor as a vital asset to their ongoing business. They want to hire the actor for as many of their projects as possible. Meanwhile the actor is getting more and more ambitious: he or she has ideas of their own, and artistic projects that they become passionate about. When the studio comes to the actor with an offer to appear in their next big motion picture, the actor comes back with a counter-offer: I'll make your film, so long as you bankroll mine.

So it is that, from time to time, a commercially savvy movie studio will sink a pile of money into project for no other reason than to please one of their leading actors. It might have little or no commercial prospects. It might be a poor fit for the over-ambitious actor. It gets referred to as a vanity project, since its only purpose appears to be in appeasing someone's over-reaching self-love.

January 11, 2015

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Past Tense"

It's 30 August 2024, and time for the Bell Riots.

The USS Defiant travels to Earth for important briefings at Starfleet Command. Sisko, Bashir and Dax all beam down to San Francisco - only they arrive not in the 24th century, but the 21st. While their crewmates on the Defiant work to uncover what has happened, Sisko and Bashir find themselves in the centre of one of the most critical events in USA history. One wrong move could change the course of human history, leaving Sisko and Bashir with no future to which they can return.

"Past Tense" is a two-part Deep Space Nine adventure. At the time of its original broadcast I thought it was one of the best Star Trek stories ever made. Time and maturity has diminished that opinion a little, but even with the passing of time "Past Tense" is a rather effective and thought-provoking drama. It gives great story and character opportunities for Sisko and Bashir - and to a lesser extent Dax - and it does what Star Trek was originally made to do: tell allegorical stories about contemporary issues through the comfortable veil of science fiction.

January 10, 2015

Sky of Love (2003)

Xiao Jia (Gigi Leung) is a Chinese university student living in 1981 Shanghai. Through a panicked moment of embarrassment she comes into possession of a broken CB radio unit. When she takes it home, however, it appears to work, and she begins a series of conversations with fellow student Jia Hui (Ken Chu). When an attempt to meet up in person fails, both discover the impossible truth: she is in 1981, and he in 2003, and they are somehow communicating through time.

Sky of Love is an unashamedly emotional Chinese melodrama, replete with all of the standards of that genre. So watching this film will provide impossibly pretty young protagonists, simplistic but heartfelt motivations, corny humour, and more than one sad montage of tearful youths standing in the rain backed by a mournful pop ballad. Criticising these aspects of the film are effectively pointless: if you don't like them, or can't tolerate their presence, then you're never going to like any film of this nationality and genre. It is, as they say, what it is.

January 9, 2015

Eye in the Sky (2007)

A crew of armed robbers undertake a series of meticulously planned jewel heists, led by the anonymous "Hollow Man" (Tony Leung Ka-Fai). At the same time an under-confident recruit, code-named Piggy (Kate Tsui), is inducted into one of Hong Kong's police surveillance units under the tutelage of team leader Dog Head (Simon Yam). As the surveillance team begins to track the robbers, Piggy's resolve and talent is sorely tested.

Eye in the Sky is a 2007 procedural thriller produced and set in Hong Kong. It is produced by Johnnie To's acclaimed Milkyway Image production company, which automatically brings with it a certain aesthetic and tone. This consistency is not a surprise, since Eye in the Sky marks the directorial debut of Yau Nai-Hoi - the screenwriter who wrote or co-wrote many of To's own films. The film features several regular Milkyway performers, including Simon Yam, Tony Leung, Lam Suet, Maggie Shiu and Cheung Siu-fai. It is an impressively packaged, tightly edited thriller that sits comfortably among Milkyway's stable of similarly entertaining thrillers. Despite echoing numerous other great films, however, Eye in the Sky doesn't quite manage to achieve the same level of quality. This leaves it as a minor work in the company's canon; entertaining enough for fans of Johnnie To to track down, but not so good as to demand a more large-scale audience.

January 8, 2015

Gatchaman Crowds: "Collaboration"

Hajime struggles to understand why the Gatchaman team have to operate in secret. At the same time Rui struggles to keep a control over the Hundred, with one of his appointed participants wanting to use their power to change the world in violent ways. Rui also struggles to keep his composure while being taunted by Berg Katse, the shapeshifting murderous alien that granted him the power to create Galax and the Hundred in the first place. At a tunnel collapse in rural Japan, the Gatchaman and the Hundred finally come face to face in the race to save the lives of those trapped beneath the rubble.

This is one of those critical episodes where the three seemingly disparate threads of the series finally come together and begin to make a lot more sense. For one thing it's been weird for the first four episodes to see Gatchaman doing their thing, and Rui doing his: with this episode it's become abundantly clear that they're linked, and it will be interesting to see how that connection develops over the next seven episodes.

The 14 best comic books of 2014

To my mind 2014 was a pretty good year for comic books. Both DC and Marvel started taking more creative risks with their superhero books, and while there was still plenty of disposal rubbish published by both companies, there were also a growing number of inventive new takes. In this regard Marvel definitely led the way, but it was great to see DC picking up the trend with its Batman spin-offs including Batgirl, Gotham Academy and Gotham by Midnight.

The really interesting stuff getting put out this year was over at the independents: Dark Horse, Boom Studios, Legendary Studios and particularly Image. It's a great time to be a science fiction fan and a comics reader, with numerous great SF books getting published now with a variety of settings and tones.

Today sees the release of 2015's first round of new comic books, so this seems the most appropriate time to take one last look at comic books from 2014. There were a lot of great books last year, so many in fact that a lot of worthy titles simply didn't make the final cut. These 'honourable mentions' include Batman and Robin, Dead Body Road, The Last Broadcast, Batgirl, Eye of Newt, Black Widow, Dark Ages, Multiversity, Umbral, Three and Usagi Yojimbo.

Here are my favourites from last year: all come with my strongest possible recommendation.

January 6, 2015

Nostalgia Time: 6 January 2015

Last year I highlighted a bunch of anniversaries for pop culture-related characters, films and TV programmes. I figured it was worth continuing it this year, only in a more standardised column - so please enjoy Nostalgia Time, your semi-regular guide to the geek-related anniversaries of 2015.

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Warner Bros cartoon character Pepé Le Pew, who made his film debut on this day back in 1945. In Odor-able Kitty, a ginger cat attempts to turn the tables on his tormentors by disguising himself as a skunk and thus frighten away all of the bullies who make his life a living hell. Unfortunately his disguise attracts the attention of a French-accented amorous skunk named  Pepé Le Pew, who spends the six-minute short making unwanted romantic overtures towards the panicked cat.

It's an odd cartoon in the context of  Pepé's canon of animated shorts, because it's the only time that his attentions are directed towards a male character instead of a female. The remainder of his career, another fifteen shorts between 1947 and 1962, was spent harassing female cats (and one female dog).

Tatsumi (2011)

Tatsumi is a wonderful oddity. It's an animated film, made in Singapore and Indonesia in 2011, although it's performed entirely in Japanese. Part of it is an animated documentary on the life of noted manga writer/artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi, narrated by the artist himself. That documentary, however, is regularly interrupted by a series of five animated short films based on his works. The result is a strange project that straddles a line between fiction and fact, or drama and documentary. It feels unique, and due to its unusual format it presents a more wholly rounded and insightful look at an artist's life and works than a more traditional documentary could ever achieve.

Yoshihiro Tatsumi is the noted creator of 'gekiga', a specific form of mature-readers manga that he developed in order to separate his works from the more popular, child-friendly stuff getting sold at newsstands around Japan. His gekiga became enormously successful, and he was instrumental in expanding the medium into new genres and readerships. His works have a specific melancholic and rather bleak tone, and that tone is all through Tatsumi, which is both a respectful documentary and faithful adaptation.

January 5, 2015

The Pull List: 24 December 2014

Quite a large number of years ago now, Grant Morrison wrote a Batman storyline in which Bruce Wayne discovered that his one-night stand with Talia al Ghul had resulted in a pregnancy, and that he had a 10 year-old son named Damian. Then for a beautiful time Damian assumed the mantle of Robin, and he and Batman fought crime in Gotham City: not just partners, but also master and apprentice, and father and son. Then Damian died, and Bruce was bereft. For the past 18 months or so Batman and Robin has been a book about Bruce Wayne dealing with his grief, and subsequently finding a means of bringing his son back from the dead.

That resurrection is here, in Robin Rises: Alpha, the final instalment of the storyline which sees Damian take on Kalibak of the New Gods in a Batcave fist-fight. It's perhaps a little disappointing, since it's a $4.99 book and we really do get one big fight with some character work around the margins. It's very beautifully illustrated by Andy Kubert though - he was Damian's original illustrator - and beyond anything else I'm just glad Damian is back.

This isn't just a great issue for Damian fans, though: Alfred in particular gets some great moments as he waits patiently for his family to return from Apokalips, but it's also a good issue for the Bat-pets Titus and Bat-Cow.

I used to think Tim Drake was my favourite Robin, but he's been supplanted. Damian is bold, smart, unbearably rude and cocky, and the perfect contrast to Batman's cold, measured self-control. And now - and I suspect temporarily - he has super powers, which means reining in his excessive behaviour all the more difficult. I can't wait to see how this goes, and for once I'm genuinely pleased to see the revolving door of death continues to swing at DC Comics. (4/5)

DC Comics. Written by Peter J. Tomasi. Art by Andy Kubert and Jonathan Glapion. Colours by Brad Anderson.

Under the cut are reviews of comics published on 24 December 2014: Aliens, Aquaman, Batman, Batman Eternal, Black Science, Daredevil, Doctor Who, Gotham by Midnight, He-Man, Infinity Man and the Forever People, The Massive, Revival and She-Hulk.

January 3, 2015

Kokoro Connect: "Some Fascinating Humans"

After further body-swaps occur, this time involving three of them at once, the members of the Cultural Research Club finally begin to realise the ramifications of what is happened. What's more, they are visited by one of their teachers, Mr Goto, who appears to have experienced a body swap of his own.

I gave Kokoro Connect a second change, and I am tentatively glad that I did. While the premise of this anime - five teenagers begin to randomly swap bodies - is open to all manner of sleazy and puerile abuse, this second episode actually takes a step back and revisits the concept from the ground up. They realise it would be easy to slip up and draw attention to themselves just by walking into the wrong toilet by mistake. How is a boy going to react to swapping into the body of a girl who is menstruating? How do you even go to the bathroom without violating the privacy of another person?

January 2, 2015

The 14 best films of 2014

Unless you're a professional film critic, and can dedicate much of your working year to seeing every major and independent film release, compiling a 'year's best' list is a problematic task. Inevitably there are going to be critically acclaimed films that you miss, turning any amateur list into essentially a 'year's best... except for all of those other movies'. I missed quite a lot of films in 2014 that I expect could have made my list, including Whiplash, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Wind Rises and The Raid 2. I'll catch up with them all in due course, but for now they're out of contention for the list.

Take the list below not as some attempt at an authoritative 'best', but simply 14 films released in Australia for the first time in 2014 that I think are well worth your time in tracking down and watching.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Fascination"

It's 28 November 1994, and time for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Betazoid ambassador Lwaxana Troi returns to Deep Space Nine for the Bajoran Gratitude Festival, and her arrival sparks off a complex string of unexpected romantic entanglements. Jake loves Kira, but Kira loves Bashir. Bariel loves Jadzia, but Jadzia loves Sisko. The only people who don't seem to be feeling the passion are Miles and Keiko O'Brien, who struggle to be intimate after their long-overdue reunion.

Here's the thing: Lwaxana Troi is a terrible character and she's played by a fairly poor actor. That's the hard, honest truth, and no attempts by the various writers, director and producers to make the character work have succeeded. This is her penultimate appearance in the franchise - she gets one more shot in Deep Space Nine's fourth season - and she isn't getting any better here. While this isn't the most actively painful Lwaxana episode ever produced, it is still a chore to sit through.

January 1, 2015

Kokoro Connect: "A Story That Had Already Begun Before Anyone Realised It"

Five high school students - two boys and three girls - mysteriously begin to swap bodies. When I heard that this was the premise of Kokoro Connect, I was fairly suspicious. Such a premise had a slim chance of being an interesting psychological thriller, but a much larger chance of being an unpleasant and sleazy excuse for adolescent misbehavior. While I'm a big fan of Japanese popular culture I'm also familiar enough with it to know that the latter was a lot more likely than the former.

Based on this first episode my concerns seem well founded; within minutes one of the boys is inside the body of one of the girls and trying to strike up a lesbian encounter. It's enough to make you throw your hands up in the air, muttering to yourself: oh Japan.