March 31, 2015

Star Trek: Enterprise: "Awakening"

It's 26 November 2004, and time for more Star Trek: Enterprise.

The 'katra' of the legendary Vulcan leader Surak, who died 1,800 years ago, has been inserted into the mind of Captain Archer (Scott Bakula). The Vulcan Suranite leader T'Pau wants it out at all costs - even if it means taking Archer's life. Meanwhile the Vulcan high command prepares to bomb the Suranites and kill them - unless Commander Tucker (Connor Trinneer) and the Enterprise can get word to Archer in time.

"Awakening" continues Enterprise's Vulcan trilogy, and while there's clearly been a lot of work put into making the episodes my objections to them remain the same. This is a weird parallel version of the Vulcans where they are petty warmongerers. They seem very far removed from the Vulcans with whom regular Star Trek viewers are familiar. While it's arguable that they might have significantly changed in the generations from Enterprise to the original Star Trek on a gut level it feels tremendously unlikely. If I'm not convinced by the basic concept of your story, I'm probably not going to enjoy your story.

Blind Detective (2013)

Johnnie To has been pretty much the most talented and effective film director in Hong Kong since the handover. His combination of stylish gangster films and idiosyncratic comedies has made him one of the most interesting directors in the world today. While his fame hasn't really extended far beyond Hong Kong and China he does have a growing number of ardent fans in English speaking markets. I'm certainly one of those.

Blind Detective is one of his most recent films. It is a romantic comedy crossed with a mystery, released in Hong Kong and China in 2013. It re-teams actors Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng, who had previous co-starred in To's 2001 hit Love on a Diet.

Former Hong Kong police detective Johnston (Lau), rendered blind during his final assignment, now works as a private detective. When he encounters female police officer Ho (Cheng), she recognises his talents immediately and forces him to help her solve a decades-old mystery over a missing girl.

March 30, 2015

Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

Another five years forward, and we're up to Tom Cruise's fourth outing as IMF super-agent Ethan Hunt.

In Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, a mission into the Kremlin goes disastrously awry and the entire IMF organisation is disavowed by the US government. Without any support, Hunt and his team must track down a Swedish nuclear strategist before he steals a set of Russian nuclear launch codes and sets off World War III.

While this film sees yet another change of director - this time to animation veteran Brad Bird - it retains much of the tone and feel of J.J. Abrams' M:I3. While the first three films all felt like very different takes on the format, Ghost Protocol is the first that actually feels like an honest-to-god sequel. At the same time it also feels remarkably refreshing: believe it or not, this is the first Mission: Impossible film that didn't feature a corrupt IMF agent at the centre of the narrative.

NES30 #30: DuckTales

In 2015, Nintendo's hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turns 30 years old. The NES, an adaptation of Nintendo's already successful Famicom console, re-invigorated console gaming internationally after the collapse of Atari and went on to sell 43 million units worldwide. NES30 celebrates this anniversary by counting down my favourite 30 games for the system.

For a while there, the platform game and Walt Disney animation seemed to go hand-in-hand. There were so many great platformers based on Disney productions, particularly during the SNES/Megadrive years where games like Aladdin and The Lion King really managed to rival the games being designed for those consoles with wholly original IP.

That stream of quality Disney games arguably began back in 1989 with games like DuckTales, developed by Capcom for the NES.

March 29, 2015

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Six years after Mission: Impossible II and a whole decade after the original, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) returned to the screens in a somewhat unexpected sequel. It was widely known that Paramount had been trying to produce a third film, but it also seemed to be burning through directors at a pretty aggressive pace (both Joe Carnahan and David Fincher were hired, worked on the film, and then departed the project having failed to develop a viable project under Paramount's conditions).

In the end it was TV writer/producer J.J. Abrams, then best known for Felicity and Alias, who assumed control of this third film and successfully brought it to the screen. It was his spy series Alias that proved excellent training for directing his first feature film, and indeed M:I3 resembles that series rather closely. It begins in media res, pushes the action very rapidly to an emotional crisis, and then jumps back several days to reveal the events that led there. In between there's plenty of running around, shooting at people, racing in cars and all of the other action ones expects from a solid espionage thriller.

It also features Philip Seymour Hoffman as the villain, and therein lies its masterstroke.

March 28, 2015

Star Trek: Enterprise: "The Forge"

It's 19 November 2004, and time for more Star Trek: Enterprise.

An explosion rips through the Earth embassy on Vulcan, killing dozens of people including Archer's close friend Admiral Forrest. While Trip and Phlox lead the investigation on the Enterprise, Archer (Scott Bakula) and T'Pol (Jolene Blalock) head out into the Vulcan desert to apprehend the religious cult suspected of undertaking the attack.

This season seems to be all about answering questions the audience probably was never asking. The season premiere was an answer to 'can we see more of that interminable temporal cold war?'. The subsequent three-parter was an answer to 'what was Noonien Soong like, and can we see more of Khan's people?'. This episode, which kicks off a second three-part story, appears to be answering the question 'why are the Vulcans in Enterprise such assholes?'. I assumed the answer was 'bad writing', but apparently it's something more than that.

March 27, 2015

The Pull List: 25 March 2015, Part II

Batman and Robin has been one of the New 52's constants: high quality, well characterised, beautifully illustrated, and presented pretty much interrupted for almost four years by the same creative team: writer Peter J. Tomasi, penciller Patrick Gleason and inker Mick Gray. It's never quite hit the heights that some other DC titles have - Batman and Batwoman both spring to mind - but it's never been less than excellent. As a result it's been one of the books I've reached for first whenever it's popped up in my order at the comic shop.

Issue #40 concludes the "Super" storyline, in which a resurrected Damian Wayne has come back to life with the powers of flight and superhuman strength. It also concludes this volume: this is the final issue of Batman and Robin. In June, Damian Wayne returns in Robin: Son of Batman #1 with Patrick Gleason both writing and illustrating the book. I'll be picking that book up like a shot, but I'm actually rather sad. This book has sort of crept up on me. I talk a lot about how great Snyder and Capullo's Batman is, or how entertaining Batgirl has become, and in the background Batman and Robin has kept ticking away, providing month after month of near-flawless superhero adventure on an uninterrupted monthly schedule.

As a final issue this is great: it wraps up the "Super" arc neatly and effectively, and presents a really strong, warm bond between Bruce and Damian. I mentioned this while reviewing the last issue, but I really hope somebody at DC picks up on the amazing chemistry between Damian Wayne and Shazam: it has the makings of an all-new "world's finest" pairing and it'd be a shame not to exploit that with a miniseries or story arc somewhere.

So thanks to Tomasi, Gleason and Gray for an outstanding three-and-a-half years of superhero action, father-and-son bonding and wonderfully heartfelt emotion. It's been great reading it. (5/5)

DC Comics. Written by Peter J. Tomasi. Art by Patrick Gleason and Mick Gray. Colours by John Kalisz.

Under the cut: more comic reviews from this week including The Autumnlands, Batman Eternal, Daredevil, The Fuse, Gotham Academy, He-Man, The Multiversity and The Wicked + the Divine.

March 25, 2015

The Pull List: 25 March 2015, Part I

I am a child of the 1980s, which is to say I was born in the late 1970s and grew up watching 1980s cartoons. It explains my regular purchase of DC's He-Man, and it also explains my irrational and ever-so-slightly embarrassing excitement that IDW have launched a new Jem and the Holograms comic.

I have to be honest: I haven't watched a single episode of Jem since the 1980s. As a child I remember it being one of the better cartoons on the TV, and it strikes me as a particularly cool concept to revisit as a comic book. What could be cooler than action-adventure starring a pop group?

The key here is reinvention. Writer Kelly Thompson and artist Sophie Campbell haven't simply reproduced the design and style of the cartoon on the page. They've taken the basic concept and the characters and developed them for a contemporary audience. The story is reasonably good, although not a great deal happens in this first issue. The art and design work, however, is fantastic. There's diversity in race and body shape, cool costuming and outrageous hair. It's hard to say whether or not this book will have narrative legs, but visually it's a brilliant start. If, like me, you have fond memories of the original cartoon, or if you're looking for an entertaining comic starring a group of women, this could be the new comic for you. (4/5)

IDW. Written by Kelly Thompson. Story by Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell. Art by Sophie Campbell. Colours by M. Victoria Robado.

With many thanks to IDW Publishing, I'm now receiving review copies of their titles each week. As a result I'm breaking The Pull List into multiple posts for the future. This is for two reasons: firstly, I now have access to a lot more books that I can review each week and I don't want to stack them all into one massively long post. Secondly, it means I can get the IDW reviews out on their day of release, along with anything I manage to read on the day I buy it, and you can read some of these short reviews a bit more promptly.

Under the cut: reviews of (deep breath) Aquaman, Darth Vader, Doctor Who, Miami Vice Remix and Transformers.

Mission: Impossible II (2000)

Four years after his first cinematic outing, IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) returned in a long-awaited sequel. In this second film, directed by noted action director John Woo, Hunt enlists the help of an international jewel thief (Thandie Newton) to track down and stop a rogue IMF agent (Dougray Scott) who plans to sell a deadly engineered virus to the highest bidder.

It all sounds tremendously promising when written down like that. The truth is that Mission: Impossible II is a terrible film. No, more than terrible: it's an actively offensive film. Hollywood regularly makes films that are sexist, and that sideline or objectify its female characters - or in some cases exclude women from their narratives altogether. M:I2 goes one step further than that. Based purely on on-screen evidence, I'm pretty sure those in control of this film actively hate women.

March 24, 2015

Star Trek: Enterprise: "The Augments"

It's 12 November 2004, and time for more Star Trek: Enterprise.

After saving Cold Station 12 from a massive pathogen leak, Captain Archer (Scott Bakula) is back on the trail of the augments and their stolen Bird of Prey. Dr Soong (Brent Spiner) has finally realised how uncontrollable his 'children' are once Malik (Alec Newman) decides to seed the atmosphere of a Klingon colony with stolen pathogens in order to spark a Klingon-Earth war.

This is the episode where the stretched narrative of the first two parts strikes home, since there's precious little here for anybody to do. Sure the Enterprise pursues the Bird of Prey, and there's a bit of a fight, but there's nothing to the episode that couldn't have been compacted into the earlier episodes. This episode is, all things considered, remarkably dull.

Blake's 7: "Duel"

It's 20 February 1978, and time for the eighth episode of Blake's 7.

The Liberator arrives at a distant, long-dead planet, whose populations appears to be have been wiped out in a terrible war. The ship's power reserves are exhausted from constantly fleeing Space Commander Travis and his squadron of pursuit fighters. When Travis launches a fresh ambush, the situation looks grim - until the powerful survivors of the planet below intervene. Now Blake (Gareth Thomas) and Travis (Stephen Greif) find themselves in a dense forest, where they must kill each other in hand-to-hand combat - or learn not to fight at all.

"Duel" is the strongest episode of Blake's 7 so far. It succeeds because Terry Nation has managed to write a well-structured, strongly characterised script, but more so it succeeds because of its director, Douglas Camfield. Doctor Who fans know Camfield well as one that series' finest directors. He had an inventive eye for shot composition and timing, and pushed the technical limitations of the BBC to their limits. His Doctor Who serials included "The Crusade", "The Daleks' Masterplan", "The Invasion", "Inferno", and "The Seeds of Doom". Sadly this was the only episode of Blake's 7 Camfield directed, but at least in his one attempt he pulls off something really special.

March 23, 2015

Mission: Impossible (1996)

Mission: Impossible strikes me as one of Hollywood's slower movie franchises. I recently rewatched the first film in the series, released in 1996 and directed by Brian De Palma. A fifth film, Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation is due in cinemas in a few months' time. That's a 19 year gap from first film to fifth, or almost five years between each sequel. James Bond, by comparison, has averaged just over two years between each film. The Fast and the Furious movies average about two years as well.

It all makes Tom Cruise's ongoing performance as super-spy Ethan Hunt rather surprising. If we ignore the nostalgic "many years later" sequels like Never Say Never Again or Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, then we can see that Harrison Ford played Indiana Jones for eight years, and Sean Connery played James Bond for nine. Tom Cruise has played Hunt for nineteen years. To start beating that kind of franchise longevity you have to start looking at Japanese franchises like Tora-San (still the world record-holder with 48 films in 26 years, all starring Kiyoshi Atsumi as Torajiro Kuruma), although I note that next year's X-Men: Apocalypse will bring Hugh Jackman into his 16th year as Wolverine. It's actually quite a shock to re-watch Mission: Impossible after a break of some years. Tom Cruise seems so young.

Star Trek: Enterprise: "Cold Station 12"

It's 5 November 2004, and time for more Star Trek: Enterprise.

Dr Arik Soong (Brent Spiner) leads the augments to Cold Station 12, the highly secure asteroid facility where Earth and Denobula keep their most dangerous pathogens. It also contains 1,800 augment embryos that have been kept on ice since the Eugenics Wars. Captain Archer (Scott Bakula) and the Enterprise remain in hot pursuit.

"Cold Station 12" feels like a much more focused episode than "Borderland". The latter seemed to get a little derailed halfway through with an Orion slave traders storyline. The focus of this episode is entirely on the augments, as they take control of Cold Station 12 and begin torturing and murdering the scientists there to get what they want. It's a highly dramatic episode, with some great action sequences, the debut of an oft-mentioned character and a strong moral challenge for Arik Soong.

March 22, 2015

Wonderful Days (2003)

By the mid-22nd century, environmental pollution has all but wiped humanity from the face of the Earth. Now two communities remains: the rich, powerful elites of the city Ecoban and the "diggers" outside, who are exploited to mine for the resources needed to keep Ecoban's high-technology paradise working. Childhood friends Shua and Jay meet one another for the first time in a decade - only this time she works for Ecoban security, and he leads a growing revolution agains Ecoban's control.

Wonderful Days, released in some markets as Sky Blue, is a 2003 animated feature film from South Korea. It tells a fairly familiar science fiction story, and certainly keen fans of anime are unlikely to see any kind of story here they haven't already seen before - although it is well-expressed. Where animation fans are likely to find more worth is in the astounding manner in which the film has been animation - a process that involved traditional cel animation, computer-generated graphics and physical model work.

The Pull List: 18 March 2015

It can't all be superheroes and science fiction: this week I jumped at the chance to sample Boom Studios' new title Giant Days. It's not, as you might expect, some kind of fantasy about giants. Instead it's a humorous book about three young women in their first semester at college (university to us southern hemisphere folk), having the sorts of lives one expects college students to have.

It's a really enjoyable read: there's nothing here that is going to blow your mind or leave your jaw hanging on the floor, but it's a genuinely enjoyable read with likeable characters and a nice cartoony art style. Sometimes that honestly is enough to make a book worth purchasing, and I really do think this book is worth checking out.

I'm not familiar with the creative team. John Allison is, I am reliably informed, a very successful webcomics author. Artist Lissa Tremain illustrates his story wonderfully with a sort of style that really brings a warm smile to your face. Some times, as a reader, you really do want to just relax and read something fun and breezy. This book qualifies as both, and is a great addition to Boom's expanding range of titles. (4/5)

Under the cut: reviews of Batgirl, Batgirl: Endgame, Batman Eternal, Batwoman, Black Widow, The Fly: Outbreak and Shaper, plus bonus reviews of Ms Marvel, Rat Queens and Thor.

March 21, 2015

Star Trek: Enterprise: "Borderland"

It's 29 October 2004, and time for Star Trek: Enterprise.

A Klingon bird of prey is ambushed by a group of genetically modified humans known as 'augments'. They kill everyone onboard and steal the ship. With the Klingon Empire moving towards violent conflict with Earth over the incident, Captain Archer (Scott Bakula) is dispatched to bring back the augments at any cost. He is assisted in his search by the convicted criminal Arik Soong (Brent Spiner) - the geneticist who originally brought the augments to life and raised them as his children.

This episode marks the beginning of yet another change to the narrative structure of the series. Seasons 1 and 2 presented broadly self-contained episodes in a similar fashion to Enterprise's immediate predecessor, Star Trek: Voyager. Faced with declining viewing figures, the series was transformed for its third year into a much more serialised affair. There was still a solid smattering of self-contained episodes, but overall the season was shaped by a single year-long narrative about the Enterprise travelling into the Expanse to stop the Xindi.

Slipstream (1989)

Steven Lisberger may not have had a commercial hit with his 1982 film Tron, but he certainly found a highly appreciative cult audience and left behind a film that seemed to get more viewers with each passing year. Nonetheless the financial failure of Tron was a likely reason why he didn't direct another film for five years. That film, the John Cusack vehicle Hot Pursuit, was another commercial flop. Two years later he followed it up with Slipstream, a post-apocalyptic science fiction film that remains his final film as director.

On paper, Slipstream seemed like a guaranteed box office success: a science fiction film from the director of Tron (which was only getting more popular by the year), produced by Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz, and featuring the much-delayed return to the big screen of Mark Hamill after several years away. The cast included the likes of Bill Paxton, Bob Peck, and Oscar winners F. Murray Abraham and Ben Kingsley.

In practice Slipstream had its independently-financed budget collapse underneath it with days before production commenced. Lisberger limped along the best he could, but the completed film looked so disappointingly cheap and weirdly episodic that no American distributor would touch it. In the end it went straight to home video, with a cinema release only in the UK, Australia and Japan.

March 20, 2015

Star Trek: Enterprise: "Home"

It's 22 October 2004, and time for more Star Trek: Enterprise.

While the Enterprise is repaired, and its crew are celebrated around the world for saving the Earth, Captain Archer (Scott Bakula) goes through a crisis of confidence when it comes to his future as a Starfleet captain. Dr Phlox discovers that not all humans are ready to re-embrace contact with aliens. Tucket accompanies T'Pol to her home on Vulcan, and gets an unexpected - and unpleasant surprise.

"Home" really reminds me of "Family", the second episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation's fourth season. Both episodes come from a similar point of origin: terrible things have happened, and the series needs to spend an hour resetting the situation and giving the characters space to recover from their experiences. In the case of "Family", it was all about Jean-Luc Picard recovering from being aggressively violated by the Borg. In the case of "Home" it's about all of Jonathan Archer's morally dubious choices in Season 3 piling down onto him at once.

March 19, 2015

Stakeout (1987)

Seattle police detective Chris Lecce (Richard Dreyfuss) and Bill Reimers (Emilio Estevez) are assigned to a stakeout of Maria Maguire (Madeleine Stowe) - the ex-girlfriend of a dangerous prison escapee (Aidan Quinn). When Chris surreptitiously enters into a romance with Maria, he puts the investigation and his own career at risk.

Stakeout was one of the unexpected hits of 1987. It wasn't a high profile blockbuster, and lacked wall-to-wall action or eye-catching visual effects, but its combination of appealing performances and a tightly written screenplay struck a chord with audiences. It finished up as the 8th highest-grossing film of its year.

28 years later and the performances still appeal and the screenplay is clearly very well written. It's also damn-near unwatchable thanks to some fairly profound changes in how we perceive the lead character's behaviour.

Star Trek: Enterprise: "Storm Front, part 2"

It's 15 October 2004, and time for more Star Trek: Enterprise.

Captain Archer (Scott Bakula) and his crew remain trapped in the 20th century, however with the aid of the Suliban operative Silik they may be able to redirect the course of history and end the temporal cold war once and for all.

It's a general trend in Star Trek that the second half of a two-part story is not as good as the first. This had me particularly worried about this episode, since the first part of "Storm Front" was a pretty confused and tedious affair. It's a relief that this second part picks up the pace, streamlines the narrative and actually presents something half-watchable - even reasonably enjoyable. It's apparent in retrospect that "Storm Front" was created with a single purpose: to end the cold war arc once and for all. In that respect it's a qualified success.

March 18, 2015

Judging the New 52: February 2015

It's a weird time to be analysing DC's superhero titles, since we're only a few weeks away from DC's big move from New York to Los Angeles. To paper over delays in producing new books over that time the company is presenting a massive two-month event called Convergence. In addition to a weekly miniseries there's a raft of two-issue storylines bringing back and mashing together a lot of old characters and concepts from the 1980s through to the 2000s. I have to be honest it's not grabbing my attention and I'm unlikely to pick up many of these temporary books. I am interested to see how well they all sell.

Then in June we're getting a mini-relaunch for the whole line. New directions on many of the old books, new costumes for some key characters - which is what you do when you don't have a new direction, but want to make it look like you do - and 25 new monthly titles and miniseries. DC will also be dropping the "New 52" moniker, which is fair enough - you can't be new forever. I guess that means this is the second-to-last instalment of this particular column. Come June I'll have to call it something else.

Blake's 7: "Mission to Destiny"

It's 13 February 1978, and time for episode 7 of Blake's 7.

The Liberator intercepts a spaceship drifting out of control. When Blake, Avon and Cally teleport aboard they find the entire crew unconscious, save for the pilot - who has been murdered. The ship has been sabotaged and its precious cargo - a device intended to rid the planet Destiny of a virulent fungal infection - can no longer be delivered on time. While Blake races to deliver the device in the Liberator, Avon and Cally stay behind to investigate the murder and reveal the killer.

It is rather odd that, after hitting on such a perfect creative direction for the series in "Seek Locate Destroy", the very next episode is a by-the-numbers murder mystery, complete with confined setting, several suspects, carefully placed clues and a couple of red herrings. It really is completely unlike the previous six episodes, and sticks out like a sore thumb. It's also rather odd that, despite all of the above, it's a really enjoyable episode.

March 17, 2015

Sanshiro Sugata (1943)

In the mid-1950s Japanese film finally started to get international recognition, largely through the films of Akira Kurosawa. His films struck a chord with international festival audiences, and he soon become the most famous Japanese director in the world - although, perhaps surprisingly, he was never quite as enthusiastically embraced within his own country.

Films like Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Rashomon remain immensely popular to this day, however Kurosawa did direct another 27 films - many of which I haven't seen. I figured it was time to redress that imbalance, beginning with his 1943 directorial debut Sanshiro Sugata. The film is an adaptation of the Tsuneo Tomita novel, in which a brash young man named Sanshiro travels to Tokyo in order to learn jujitsu - but winds up learning the new martial art of judo instead.

Star Trek: Enterprise: "Storm Front"

It's 8 October 2004, and time for the fourth season premiere of Star Trek: Enterprise.

While Captain Archer and his crew have successfully defeated the Xindi attack on the Earth, they are not yet out of the woods: the Enterprise has been thrown back in time to 1942, where alien-assisted Nazis have invaded the USA. With Archer on the surface and presumed dead, T'Pol has her hands full when the Suliban agent Silik is revealed to have hitched a ride back with them.

When Enterprise's viewing figures plummeted during its second season, the production team looked for a strategy to claw viewers back during its third. One of their solutions was to undertake a season-long story arc, in which the Enterprise would head into an uncharted and dangerous part of the galaxy to avert the Earth's planned destruction. That arc ended with a rousing season finale, but rather than give the viewers the satisfaction of a triumphant return home to 22nd century San Francisco they instead threw in this curve ball of a season cliffhanger: Archer the prisoner of alien Nazis and the Enterprise trapped in a parallel history.

March 16, 2015

The Pull List: 11 March 2015

Ales Kot is rapidly establishing himself as a potential heir-apparent to Grant Morrison. He often covers very similar territory: densely researched stories of science fiction, sex, drugs, violence, and inter-dimensional strangeness. His 2013 miniseries Change was a remarkably odd four-parter that inspired and frustrated in equal measure. Since then he's been doing both original work (Zero) and work-for-hire (Secret Avengers, Suicide Squad). The Surface is his latest work, apparently the second part of a 'thematic trilogy' that began with Change. To my mind it's a much more accomplished and coherent work, and demonstrates a rapidly growing talent at work.

The book is set in a future Tanzania, where Middle Eastern and Chinese commercial interests have transformed the country into a high-tech international hub. Mark, the President's son, travels beyond the city limits with his two lovers Gomez and Nasia in an attempt to find layers of reality that exist beneath the surface (there's the title, I guess) of their own.

It's a very dense book that openly references many of its inspirations (Burroughs, Ellis and Robertson's Transmetropolitan), as well as deliberately pokes fun at itself. It's a maze of odd character moments, jumps from comic narrative to written interviews and back, and a visual style that seems more inspired by French science fiction comic books than anything else. It's odd, lively, a little pretentious, but overall a fantastic first issue - and a series well worth following. (5/5)

Image. Written by Ales Kot. Art by Langdon Foss. Colours by Jordie Bellaire.

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Batman Eternal, Detective Comics, FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics, Howard the Duck, Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man, Silver Surfer and Southern Cross. Thor and Ms Marvel I will endeavour to review later, once I've actually grabbed hold of copies of each.

Cherry 2000 (1987)

Sam Treadwell (David Andrews) manages a recycling plant in the post-apocalyptic California of 2017. The rich, like him, live in garishly lit cities, their social and sex lives negotiated by lawyers. When Sam's robot girlfriend Cherry short-circuits, and Sam discovers that there are no new models available in Los Angeles, he is forced to venture out into the wilds of California and Nevada in search of a replacement. On his way he is accompanied by a gun-toting 'tracker' (Melanie Griffith) while avoiding the roaming gunmen led by a violent regional warlord (Tim Thomerson).

After rewatching Steve De Jarnatt's thriller Miracle Mile, it seemed an appropriate time to watch his first film Cherry 2000. While he has continued to work as a director for American television, Miracle Mile and Cherry 2000 are the only feature films he ever directed. It's immediately obvious when watching this earlier film that it's from the same director. It shares the same garish, neon lighting, the same odd disaffected performances, and a very similar line in 1980s 'yuppie' culture satire. Unlike Miracle Mile it's difficult to defend Cherry 2000 as a good movie by any reasonable definition, yet while watching it I cannot look away.

March 15, 2015

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Season 3 in review

Season 3 was in many respects an odd season for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Season 2 had climaxed with the discovery of the Dominion: a massive, enormously powerful civilization on the other side of the Bajoran wormhole. It brought with it the threat of an all-out war for the Federation. Season 3 ends by-and-large in the same place. The pieces have moved around the board a little, and perhaps the threat of the Dominion is more finely developed, but we're still sitting on the edge of a precipice waiting for the series to jump.

So what has changed? For one thing there's the USS Defiant, a compact little warship that has enabled the series to step away from the station a little more often. Deep Space Nine always had a fairly bit challenge in front of it by being stuck in a comparatively stationary setting. The two preceding series, Star Trek and The Next Generation, put exploring new worlds and civilizations at the forefront, whereas for the first two years Deep Space Nine struggled to drag the action to them. The Defiant is a not-unexpected compromise: an attempt to keep the station setting but occasionally escape from it as well.

March 14, 2015

How I Ended This Summer (2010)

Pavel and Sergei both work in an isolated meteorological station in Russia's far north. Every day they step out into the frozen coastal tundra to take radiation readings from a group of sensors in the area. When they head out, they have to go armed in case of polar bear attacks. Once the readings are made, they use a radio to report them back to Russia's science ministry. Sergei has worked here for years, and is a gruff, impatient bully. The much younger Pavel only took the assignment so that he could write an article about it, and spends most of his days either playing first-person shooters on the station computer or listening to pop music.

Sergei heads out to go fishing for ocean trout, leaving Pavel behind to cover for his absence. While he's gone, the ministry radios in to inform him that his wife and child have been killed in a car accident. Pavel, who's terrified of the violently aggressive Sergei, can't bring himself to pass on the message. The longer he waits, the worse the situations gets.

March 13, 2015

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "The Adversary"

It's 19 June 1995, and time for the season finale of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

A newly promoted Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks) is ordered to take the Defiant to the Federation's border with the Tzenkethi, an alien civilization that has fought a war with the Federation before. En route it becomes clear that someone has sabotaged the ship. Now Sisko commands a race against time to track down the shapeshifting saboteur before the Defiant is used to spark an all-new war.

Season 3 comes to a close with a tense, action-packed homage to John Carpenter's The Thing. The crew of the Defiant are trapped in a similarly closed-off, isolated environment with no escape, and any one of them could be a changeling. It apes the film's claustrophobic hunts for the hidden monster, and blatantly copies its blood test sequence. How much you enjoy this episode will likely depend on where you think homage ends and plagiarism begins.

March 12, 2015

Miracle Mile (1988)

Imagine you were walking past a public telephone and it starts ringing. You pick up out of curiosity, and get what appears to be a wrong number - what seems to be a young military officer warning his father of an imminent nuclear strike. What would you do? Who would you tell? This dilemma is at the heart of Miracle Mile, a 1988 thriller written and directed by Steve De Jarnatt. Anthony Edwards plays Harry, a Los Angeles big band musician who misses a date with a girl named Julie (Mare Winningham), accidentally takes the wrong phone call, and then struggles to get out of Los Angeles with Julie in tow before it's too late.

It's a strange, slightly off-kilter film. It juggles tense drama with blunt satire of late 1980s 'yuppie' culture. It also walks a careful balancing act. The phone call Harry received could be a joke, or a mistake. On the other hand it could be frighteningly real. De Jarnatt deliberately keeps the audience in the dark until the film's final minutes.

New Avengers Vol 1: Everything Dies (2013)

Marvel have fallen into such a habit of renumbering and relaunching their ongoing comic titles that it's difficult to know where to start reading. Everything Dies seemed to be a decent place to begin, since it boasts Marvel's most recent trade dress and is clearly labelled Volume 1. Sadly it doesn't read like the first six issues of anything. Instead the reader is dropped into a maze of pre-established character relationships, references to events they haven't necessarily read, and an ending that doesn't climax so much as abruptly stop - presumably leaving the reader to blindly buy Volume 2 in the hope of discovering what the hell is going on.

So it turns out there is a secret group of superheroes - Black Panther, Iron Man, Dr Strange, Black Bolt, Mr Fantastic, Sub-Mariner and the Beast - who meet up from time to time to discuss how to keep the world safe, and to make the big decisions that the broader superhero community might not be trusted to make. They have a new problem, which involves parallel universes somehow colliding with catastrophic results. To save the Earth, they may have to blow up parallel versions of it - including murdering anyone living on that alternate planet.

March 11, 2015

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Facets"

It's 12 June 1995, and time for more Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell) summons her friends together to assist her in undertaking the 'zhian'tara': it's a Trill ceremony where the memories and personalities of the Dax symbiont's former hosts are temporarily transferred into other people's bodies so that Jadzia may properly meet and talk to them. Meanwhile Nog prepares for his entrance examination to Starfleet Academy.

"Facets" is a bit of an odd fish as far as episodes go. It has an intriguing premise, and of course by putting the former Dax hosts into the bodies of the regular cast it's a good excuse for an inexpensive 'bottle' show. It's odd due to two slightly unexpected creative choices. Firstly, the actual conflict of the episode doesn't turn up until effectively its third act. Secondly, the obvious direction for this storyline - as revealed in "Equilibrium" one of Dax's former hosts is a murderous psychopath - isn't the one that gets followed at all. So while there's much to enjoy in this episode, it's all a bit off-kilter and sedate.

Downtown Torpedoes (1997)

A team of operatives skilled in industrial espionage are apprehended by Hong Kong's secret service and blackmailed into undertaking a raid of MI:5. Their target is a set of British sterling printing plates that could, if released to the black market, devalue the Hong Kong dollar. As soon as they secure the plates, however, they are betrayed - sending the team on a mission of revenge.

Downtown Torpedoes is a 1997 action film directed by Teddy Chan and starring Takeshi Kaneshiro, Jordan Chan, Charlie Yeung, Theresa Lee and Alex Fong. Historically speaking it's a reasonably significant film in the Hong Kong movie canon. It was released on 7 August 1997, just over a month following the city-state's official handover from Great Britain the the People's Republic of China. For all intents and purposes, post-handover cinema commenced here, with a film that has Chinese secret agents fighting against the British authorities and emphasising to one another just how great a place Hong Kong is. It also kicks off a trend in Hong Kong cinema of producing glossy, American-style action films, high on movement and explosions but low on pretty much everything else.

March 10, 2015

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Shakaar"

It's 22 May 1995 and time for more Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Major Kira (Nana Visitor) is dispatched to negotiate with Bajoran farmers who refuse to return valuable equipment to their government. When the leader of the farmers - Kira's former resistance commander Shakaar - persuades her of how badly they need the equipment, she changes sides to defend the farmers instead.

In other news I fell into a coma and nearly died. This episode nearly killed me. It took several goes to get through because it was incredibly easy to find more important things to do. I'm not quite certain how they managed it, but the Deep Space Nine production team managed to create what might be the most boring episode of Star Trek ever made. It's not technically incompetent, and the storyline makes sense. It is simply excruciating to watch, and irredeemably dull.

March 9, 2015

Blake's 7: "Seek Locate Destroy"

It's 6 February 1978, and time for episode 6 of Blake's 7.

Blake's team infiltrate a Federation communications centre to steal a cypher machine, blowing up the facility as they go to prevent their theft from being discovered. There's only one problem: in the confusion of their escape Cally has been left behind. Meanwhile the Federation's Supreme Commander Servalan assigns the ruthless and uncompromising Space Commander Travis to track down Blake and stop his insurrection at any cost.

"Seek Locate Destroy" is a stunning episode, as far removed from "The Web" as could realistically be possible. It's well-paced and written, inventively directed, and most importantly of all it gives the series a firm and solid creative direction in which to proceed. For all intents and purposes this is like a second pilot episode. Terry Nation has stumbled through the past few episodes, taken a pause, and subtly retooled the series.

The Pull List: 4 March 2015

Over the past year or so I've been paying closer attention to Boom Studios, who have been expanded the diversity of their books considerably. That diversity has been enhanced through their purchase of independent publisher Archaia, who have a long-established reputation for smart, beautifully illustrated titles.

HaloGen is the  latest Boom/Archaia title. It's a four-part science fiction miniseries written by Josh Tierney with art by Afu Chan, although it's been co-created by the excellent Giannis Milonogiannis (Old City Blues). A dead god has reportedly been found in orbit around a giant city-spaceship, so everyone is scrambling to find out if the rumours are true and to secure the god by any means necessary. It's an imaginative science fiction blend with a lot of visible influences, one of the key ones apparently being Ghost in the Shell (not a surprise, given Milonogiannis' involvement; Old City Blues was very GitS-inspired as well).

It's not the perfect first issue - it's a little disorientating and all over the place - but it's certainly an intriguing one, and it shows enough potential to really pick up as the series goes on. I'll be keeping an eye on it. Sci-fi fans looking to try out a four-issue miniseries should definitely give it a go as well. (3/5)

Boom Studios/Archaia. Written by Josh Tierney. Art by Afu Chan. Colours by Shelly Chen.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman Eternal, Black Science, Descender, Detective Comics, Doctor Who, Justice League 3000, Revival, Saga and The Woods.

March 8, 2015

Flight of the Navigator (1986)

David Freeman (Joey Cramer) is a 12 year-old boy living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On 4 July 1978 he takes a short-cut through the woods behind his house and falls into a small ravine. When he climbs out, the world has somehow jumped forward eight years and David has long been assumed dead. His return coincides with the NASA discovery of a crashed alien spacecraft, and it doesn't take long for the two events to become connected.

As part of my continuing rewatch of 1980s childrens and family films, I've had a fresh look at Randal Kleiser's Flight of the Navigator. Independently produced but distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, it broadly slots in quite well alongside Disney's other live-action films of the period.

The Flight of the Navigator is a film of two very distinct halves: distinct in tone, content and most importantly of quality. It's a film that starts off with a highly intriguing premise and some great atmosphere. It ends as a bit of a childish farce. Had the film followed one tone or the other it might have worked completely. By straddling the two styles it runs the serious risk of breaking itself in half.

Blake's 7: "The Web"

It's 30 January 1978, and time for episode 5 of Blake's 7.

Cally (Jan Chappell), the newest member of the Liberator's crew, is acting strangely out of character. She's sabotaged the ship, planted an explosive device, and now holds her companions hostage at gunpoint. Meanwhile the Liberator is flying blind into deep space - and into the grip of a massive space-bound web that will trap it there forever, unless Blake (Gareth Thomas) is willing to assist with genocide.

"The Web" is a shriekingly awful hour of television, one so bad it actually provides a perverse sort of entertaining value. Its story is based around psychic exiles from Auron, Cally's home planet, who have extended their lifespans by forming a weird, shrivelled sort of puppet body in a tank of water. To undertake physical tasks they have created New Romantic lookalike servants, and they defend their complex from the tiny, mushroom-like Decimas (played by small actors in incredibly cheap and unconvincing costumes).

March 7, 2015

Cloak & Dagger (1984)

Davey Osborne (Henry Thomas) is an 11 year-old boy living in San Antonio, Texas. His mother has only recently died, and his coping mechanism has been to bury himself in role-playing and video games, particularly the spy thriller Cloak & Dagger. When Davey accidentally stumbles into a real-life espionage affair, and witnesses a violent murder, nobody believes that he's telling the truth - including his own father (Dabney Coleman). Davey is left him to evade and defeat the mysterious Dr Rice (Michael Murphy) on his own.

Cloak & Dagger is one of those 1980s childrens films where you occasionally pause to question whether or not it's fully suitable for children at all. Childrens films generally base themselves around what you might call 'false peril': the creepy old man in Home Alone, for example, acts as a frightening antagonist until it's revealed he's actually just misunderstood. Cloak & Dagger refuses to deal with false peril: it's young protagonist witnesses a violent murder, is actively hunted down and shot at with guns, and uses a gun himself to shoot and kill one of his assailants. It's also unexpectedly dark in that Davey doesn't simply go along with events as if they're the thrilling spy adventure he's always wanted. He seems actively terrified at what's going on. One can only assume there's a lot of therapy waiting for him on the other end of the closing credits.

March 6, 2015

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

A family arrives in an isolated country house: a father, stepmother and two teenage sisters. From the outset it is clear that something is wrong. The father is having difficulty talking to his daughters, the stepmother appears to resent their not immediately accepting her in place of their mother, and the sisters themselves seem withdrawn and traumatised. As their backstory is gradually filled in, and the reasons for each of their behaviours become clear, tensions in the household increase to breaking point.

A Tale of Two Sisters is a South Korean horror film written and directed by Kim Jee-woon (The Good the Bad and the Weird, I Saw the Devil). It loosely adapts an old Korean folk story, "Red Flower, Red Lotus", and indeed that's the direct translation of its Korean title. This isn't a surprise from watching the film: between the woods, the creepy house, the evil stepmother and the two fearful sisters it has all of the trappings of a fairy tale from any number of nations or cultures.

It is also, by the way, utterly superb. This is one of my favourite Korean films: perfectly paced with a constant rising tension, and beautifully shot and edited.

Blake's 7: "Time Squad"

It's 23 January 1978 and time for episode 4 of Blake's 7.

Now armed with a ship and a crew, Blake makes his first strike against the Federation: a massive communications centre on the enslaved world of Saurian Major. While en route the Liberator picks up a small drifting capsule containing three cryogenically frozen passengers. While Blake, Avon and Vila teleport down to contact Saurian Major's resistance forces, Jenna and Gan are left onboard to greet the sleepers once they are revived.

"Time Squad" will always be best remembered as the debut of Cally (Jan Chappell), the telepathic alien freedom fighter who joins Blake's cause and becomes a key member of the cast for the next three seasons. What's surprising is just how little Cally features in this episode: she first turns up more than halfway through, and even then her storyline has to be shared with what's going on in the Liberator at the same time. This juggling of two disparate plotlines makes "Time Squad" quite a messy episode. The individual parts could probably work just fine if given room to move, but jammed up together and it's all a bit underwhelming.

March 5, 2015

The 13th Warrior (1999)

Some movies are good. Others are bad. A few sit somewhere in between: ones that demonstrate enormous potential, and that clearly could have been a great film had something in the production process not stepped in the way and fouled everything up. The 13th Warrior is definitely this third kind of a film. The short version: in the 1990s author Michael Crichton celebrated enormous commercial success in Hollywood. He had created ER, which had become the most popular drama on American television. The film adaptation of his science fiction novel Jurassic Park had become the most successful movie of all time. A string of his other novels all rapidly fell into production, including Congo, Disclosure, Rising Sun and Sphere.

At the same time Spanish actor Antonio Banderas had just enjoyed a one-two punch of starring in Robert Rodriguez's Desperado, which was an acclaimed minor hit, and then Martin Campbell's The Mask of Zorro, which was an enormous commercial smash. It seemed clear he was the next big action star in Hollywood, and all of the major studios were attempting to line up projects in which he could star.

Then throw in director John McTiernan, who had scored big with Predator in the 1980s, then re-invented the modern action film with Die Hard, then adapted Tom Clancy's popular novel The Hunt for Red October to great success.

At the crossroads of these three 'hot' talents lay Walt Disney Pictures, which owned the motion picture rights to Michael Crichton's novel Eaters of the Dead. The studio spent deep, and managed to score not just McTiernan to direct but also Banderas to star. It seemed a slam dunk for the summer of 1998.

Of course what actually happened was that Michael Crichton agreed to co-produce the film with John McTiernan, production costs overran wildly, Disney got cold feet over how much money was being invested in the project, test screenings went badly, and Crichton used his clout as Hollywood's golden goose to have McTiernan fired before taking over the production for a series of costly reshoots. The end result, retitled The 13th Warrior, was delayed from its original release date by more than a year, cost an estimated $160 million dollars to make, release and market, and made less than half of that back in cinemas.

March 4, 2015

The Pull List: 25 February 2015

The penultimate issue of Batman's "Endgame" story arc delivers some shock moments of extreme violence, rapid story development towards the climax and quite the jaw-dropping surprise cliffhanger as Batman's forces gather together to stop the Joker once and for all. It's brilliant stuff, but it does raise quite a few questions, one of the key ones being: where the hell does Batman go from here?

There's always been an ongoing issue with the Joker, in that he's regularly so murderous and his body count so excessive that one wonders why somebody doesn't just step up and kill him. He's on an even darker rampage than usual in this story arc too.

Let's talk about it below the cut, to prevent unnecessary spoilers.

Under the cut: reviews of Aquaman, Batman Eternal, Catwoman, Daredevil, Darth Vader, Gotham Academy, He-Man: The Eternity War, ODY-C and The Wicked + the Divine.

D.A.R.Y.L. (1985)

An amnesiac ten year-old boy named Daryl (Barrett Oliver) is found alone in the woods. While the authorities look for his parents, Daryl is housed with a foster family: Joyce (Mary Beth Hurt) and Andy Richardson (Michael McKean). Despite his amnesia Daryl shows unexpected intelligence, physical skill and maturity. It is rapidly revealed that Daryl is not a boy at all, but rather an experiment in artificial intelligence: a data-analysing robot youth lifeform, or D.A.R.Y.L.

D.A.R.Y.L. is not a good film. Its story feels reheated and perfunctory. Its pace is slow and lethargic. Its performances are broadly telegraphed and flat. Visually it is competent but ordinary. I re-watched it as part of an extended 1980s movie kick that has thus far also included The Karate Kid (reviewed here) and WarGames (soon to be featured over on FictionMachine). Nostalgia for the films of my childhood led me back to it. A disappointing viewing experience will now hopefully keep me away.

March 3, 2015

Blake's 7: "Cygnus Alpha"

It's 16 January 1978, and time for the third episode of Blake's 7.

While Blake, Avon and Jenna explore their newly-captured alien spacecraft - which Jenna has christened "the Liberator" - Gan, Vila and the other prisoners are deposited onto the penal colony world of Cygnus Alpha. Once there they find a community ruled by a religious cult leader named Varga (Brian Blessed), and become infected by a disease that may prevent them from ever escaping.

Brian Blessed has weird shoes. They're really jarring when they appear during the climax of "Cygnus Alpha". He's wearing a sort of tatty purple sarong and has these oddly white slip-on loafers.  They don't look like the shoes of a medieval-era cult leader, which is what his character has styled himself as, and they don't look like shoes from our far future. Instead they look like what I suspect they are: the result of a cash-strapped BBC costume designer throwing any old shoes onto Blessed's feat in the mistaken impression that nobody will see them. I saw them when I was a young child, and remember thinking they were a bit weird. They have grabbed my attention every time I've seen this episode in the decades since. They really jump out at you: Brian Blessed's weird shoes.

March 2, 2015

February film reviews

I reviewed a higher-than-average number of films in February, so I figured it might be worth linking them all here in case you missed any of them.

The Karate Kid (1984)

The Karate Kid is one of the touchstones of 1980s American pop culture, as significant to the cultural narrative as Ghostbusters, E.T. or The Breakfast Club. It's a film whose most iconic elements are now better known than the film itself, and which continues to get referenced and name-checked in all manner of parodies and popular comedies.

The plot, in case you've been living in a cave: teenager Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) moves with his mother from New Jersey to California's San Fernando Valley. He is soon targeted by high school bullies, all of whom have learned karate at a local "cobra kai" dojo. When he's targeted for a particularly brutal beating, Daniel is rescued and defended by his apartment block's maintenance supervisor - the Japanese Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita). Miyagi agrees to personally teach Daniel karate so that he can defeat the bullies in the local karate tournament.