September 30, 2015

Judging the DCU: August 2015

After a pretty horrifying month in July, DC Comics managed to bounce back a little in August - mainly due, I suspect, to their very popular "Bombshells" line of alternative covers. Most of the longer-running titles managed to make a fairly strong bounce back - it just remains to be seen if they drop back down in September when the Bombshells covers aren't a factor.

So much for the older titles, but what about the new? We're just four months into DC Comics' latest relaunch, when 21 separate titles were tossed into the marketplace. The other week DC confirmed the cancellation of seven of them. Add in the miniseries that were ending anyway, and that's almost half of them that are already on the way out. Some of the cancellations are rather sad. The Omega Men and Prez, for example, are two books that have actually provided something fresh and different to DC's lineup, but had their marketing either mismanaged or under-funded and never got the opportunity to present themselves well to the market. Other cancellations are simply to be expected: Scott Lobdell's Doomed was never going to find a large audience no matter how hard DC may or may not have pushed it.

Cinderella (2015)

Walt Disney Pictures are currently on a roll in terms of adapting their extensive back catalogue of classic animated features into live-action films. The current wave seemed to be kicked off by Tim Burton's phenomenally successful Alice in Wonderland, and has been followed by the alternate take on Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent, and now Kenneth Branagh's fresh version of Cinderella.

Actually fresh is probably the wrong word. This is by far the most conservative of Disney's live-action adaptations to date, and pretty much takes the 1950 animated film and translates it with a fair amount of fidelity and respect. It certainly doesn't make any significant changes to the narrative or the characters, or take any risks in terms of tone or aesthetic.

The result is a film that certainly entertains, but also to an extent underwhelms. It's effective, but only to a satisfactory extent and certainly seems unlikely to be remembered as any sort of significant work.

September 29, 2015

Blake's 7: "Assassin"

It's 9 November 1981, and time for more Blake's 7.

Vila (Michael Keating) successfully intercepts a message from Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce) to the notorious professional killer known as Cancer, agreeing to a contract for Avon's entire crew to be assassinated. Rather than wait for the assassin to come to him, Avon (Paul Darrow) goes looking for Cancer himself at a remote slave trader's community beyond the Federation's control.

So "Assassin" is, like many Blake's 7 episodes, a story split into two halves. The first, which sees Avon infiltrate a slaver's market to gain intelligence on the mysterious Cancer, is reasonably entertaining. The second, which sees Avon, Tarrant (Steve Pacey) and Soolin (Glynis Barber) hunt down Cancer in the bowels of his own ship, is positively risible. What's a viewer to do?

NES30 #11: Final Fantasy

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.

Square was a Japanese videogame developer launched in 1984 with the PC-8801 game The Death Trap. Within three years, despite having developed and released 23 games for the PC-8801 and Famicom, Square teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Acknowledging that the company was about to fold, producer Hironobu Sakaguchi named the 24th and presumably last game Final Fantasy. It was a role-playing game, with the player controlling a medieval hero using a variety of menu-based systems. Nobody at Square had much faith in the game beyond Sakaguchi. When it become a massive hit, scoring rave reviews and selling 400,000 copies on the Famicom, it came as an enormous surprise - except maybe for Sakaguchi.

September 28, 2015

Doctor Who: "The Witch's Familiar"

With Clara and Missy dead, the Doctor is trapped with Davros in the centre of the Dalek city on Skaro.

Okay so that first part is clearly untrue: while the cliffhanger ending of "The Magician's Apprentice" clearly showed both characters getting disintegrated by Daleks, I don't think there was a viewer in existence who actually believed for a moment that it was true. So while we do still have the Doctor trapped in a room with Davros, creator of the Daleks, we also have Clara and Missy teaming up to rescue him.

"The Witch's Familiar" is an unexpected second part to the story. The first part had been entirely about set-up - getting the Doctor into a room with one of his longest-running enemies - and I had expected the second to be some typically Moffat-esque extravaganza of time travel and complex paradoxes. Instead for the most part it is actually the opposite: no over-the-top action and madcap shenanigans, just a conversation in a room between old men. What a conversation though. Between the Doctor and Davros reaching an unexpected new connection in their relationship, and Clara's immensely hazardous experience as sidekick to a homicidal maniac, "The Witch's Familiar" is a wonderfully entertaining episode. With this two-parter I think the Capaldi era just found its first bona-fide classic.

Blake's 7: "Headhunter"

It's 2 November 1981, and time for more Blake's 7.

As part of his plan to recruit scientists to his cause, Avon (Paul Darrow) dispatches Tarrant (Steven Pacey) and Vila (Michael Keating) to retrieve the cyberneticist Muller (John Westbrook). When Muller unexpectedly turns violent, Vila is forced to kill him. On the way back to Xenon Scorpio begins to suffer malfunctions, putting Tarrant and Vila's lives in danger.

"Headhunter" marks a sharp contrast to Season 4's earlier episodes. It is a fully blown horror story, packed with murder, walking corpses and a growing threat to all human life in the galaxy. It is the third and final script for the series by Roger Parkes ("Voice from the Past", "Children of Auron"), and it is far and away his best.

September 26, 2015

The Omega Factor: "Night Games"

It's 27 June 1979, and time for more of The Omega Factor.

Journalist Tom Crane (James Hazeldine) continues to explore his newly-discovered psychic powers while working with Dr Anne Reynolds (Louise Jameson) and Dr Roy Martindale (John Carlisle) at the government's Department 7. When Tom's brother Michael, who is supposed to be in Germany, is found deranged and rambling in rural Scotland, Tom is driven to investigate despite both Anne and Martindale's warnings.

"Night Games" ends in a dramatically strong place. Tom's brother appears to be the victim of a government conspiracy, that conspiracy appears to involve Drexel (the man who murdered Tom's wife), and there may be a mole inside Department 7. It's a shame that the episode struggles so much to get there.

September 25, 2015

Blake's 7: "Animals"

It's 26 October 1981 and time for more Blake's 7.

Dayna (Josette Simon) teleports down to the surface of Bucol II to meet with Justin (Peter Byrne), a talented geneticist who used to know her father. Meanwhile Scorpio is ambushed by a Federation patrol, forcing Tarrant (Steven Pacey) to retreat back to Xenon base for repairs - and leaving Dayna stranded. She is horrified by Justin's experiment: creating his own humanoid beast-like species to work as a slave race for humans.

Let's jump right into the most egregious problem with "Animals". The episode focuses in the main on a growing romance between Dayna and Justin. She knows him because he used to tutor her in her childhood. There was clearly a romantic attraction then, and it's rekindled now. The only problem is that Justin is visibly in his mid-50s and Dayna is visibly in her early 20s. It's difficult to imagine their earlier attraction - possibly even an affair - as inappropriate at best and criminal at worst. The creepiness is not helped by Peter Byrne's weirdly obsessive portrayal of Justin. He constantly stares at Dayna, and leaves ominous heart-felt pauses in the middle of scenes. At its core "Animals" is a romance, and it's one that fails completely.

September 23, 2015

Blake's 7: "Stardrive"

It's 19 October 1981, and time for more Blake's 7.

A disastrous attempt to sneak past a Federation border leaves Scorpio in dire need of a new stardrive. Avon (Paul Darrow) believes he's found it on the planet Casper, where the noted Federation physicist Dr Plaxton (Barbara Shelley) is developing the galaxy's fastest new engine for the villainous Space Rats.

Oh Space Rats. I don’t think there’s anything in all four seasons of Blake’s 7 that more wonderfully reveals such a middle-aged – and middle-class – fear of youth culture. They are essentially punks in space, except they’re punks as envisaged by someone who’s never been one, never met one, and never really had a clue about what they’re like. It's also presented several years too late, attempting to capitalise on the punk craze precisely when Britain's youth had moved on to becoming new romantics instead.

Annie (2014)

Annie begins with a cloying and irritating red-headed young moppet do a twee little song and dance in a classroom, before she sits down and is replaced by another Annie: African-American, smart, inventive and outgoing. Within seconds she's hooked her entire close into a rhythmic musical presentation about how great F.D. Roosevelt's Presidency was back in the 1930s. It's a scene with multiple angles at the same purpose: here is Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie, re-imagined as a contemporary African-American story and thus much cooler than the lame 1982 film, but still with one eye firmly on its roots. It also carries a second, unintentional message, which is that this is a remake that is trying much, much too hard.

Annie (Quvenzhane Wallis) is a foster child living with a group of girls in the dismissive and cruel care of the drunken Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). A chance encounter with billionaire and mayoral candidate William Stacks (Jamie Foxx) leads to her being temporarily taken into his care.

September 20, 2015

Doctor Who: "The Magician's Apprentice"

Doctor Who has returned once again for a ninth new season - or a thirty-fifth if you want to be one of those weird pedants who considers the two separate Doctor Who productions one big long five-decade enterprise. Also returning is Peter Capaldi for a second season as the titular Time Lord, Jenna Coleman for a third season as companion Clara Oswald, and Michelle Gomez as the villainous Missy.

This is a big season opener: it's large in scale, particularly in its first half, and the story it tells feels both momentous and historic. It is an episode steeped in Doctor Who history - so much so that it's not really possible to discuss the story without giving a little spoiler room first. Suffice to say it begins with a young boy in a minefield and it ends with the Doctor attempting the unimaginable. It's also the first part of a two-part story, so just how well the story will ultimately be is a question that cannot be answered for another seven days. If you're already a regular watcher of Doctor Who, then Season 6's "The Impossible Astronaut" seems the closest comparison in terms of tone, quality and potential.

September 19, 2015

Blake's 7: "Traitor"

It's 12 October 1981, and time for more Blake's 7.

When a resurgent Federation manages to re-conquer the planet Helotrix, Avon (Paul Darrow) decides to find out precisely how they're managing to expand their territory so rapidly. Tarrant (Steven Pacey) and Dayna (Josette Simon) teleport down from Scorpio, only to find a rebellion in full swing, a new drug control system that is making the local population incapable of fighting back, and the unexpected return of a familiar face.

"Traitor" is an odd episode. Certainly it's an enormous improvement over the previous two episodes, thanks mainly to much stronger writing by British telefantasy icon Robert Holmes. On the other hand it feels oddly cursory and slightly rushed - less like a brilliant episode in its own right, and more like a rough draft of that brilliant episode. The plot is good, and the characters nicely complex, but it all feels as if it needed a little more time in development before it was produced.

When the Curtain Rises (2015)

Saori (Momota Kanako) is an under-confident high school senior pushed by her peers into becoming the new captain of the school drama club. While she struggles to lead a group of enthusiastic young women into competing in the national drama championships, she receives unexpected help from the school's new art teacher (Kuroki Haru) - who turns out to be a prematurely retired professional actress.

You know the drill: When the Curtain Rises is yet another movie about a mis-matched group of aspiring youngsters bonding together in an attempt to win the a capella championship. Or the sumo championship. Or the junior baseball league. Or, in this particular case, a drama contest. It's a very familiar story, and seems to be one that's particularly popular in countries like Japan. In true Japanese fashion, however, this film is less about getting the team to work together and much more about overcoming self-doubt. It's quite a slow film, and most of its dramatic beats are incredibly well-worn, but overall this is a surprisingly satisfying and gentle high school drama.

September 18, 2015

The Field of Blood (2011)

Patricia "Paddy" Meehan (Jayd Johnson) is a young woman in 1982 Glasgow. She works as a copy boy at a local newspaper, but harbours a strong desire to break through the sexist environment and become a professional journalist. When a young boy is abducted and murdered, a personal connection leads Paddy on a quest to investigate the killing for herself - even if it puts her own life in jeopardy.

The Field of Blood is a two-part crime drama based on the novel by Denise Mina, and written and directed by David Kane for BBC Scotland. It's a gripping piece of work, although to be honest it's plot is not its greatest selling point. Instead it grabs the viewer's attention with an excellent sense of place and time, and by centring on a strong lead performance by Jayd Johnson.

September 17, 2015

One Hour with You (1932)

A very quick history lesson on Hollywood history. In the 1920s groups of morally concerned Americans started to lobby California's film studios to rein in sex and violence in their motion pictures. By 1929 Martin Quigley and Father Daniel A. Lord developed a code, outlining specific materials that should not be represented on screen as well as areas where filmmakers should pay close attention to how they were represented. For another five years this code was effectively ignored by most filmmakers and studios, until in 1934 the Production Code Administration was established. Any film without a certificate of approval from the PCA was not permitted to be exhibited in public. The enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code (or "Hays Code" as it became known) led to a conservative shift in Hollywood film. No nudity, no swearing, no drugs, no depictions of or references to homosexuality, no ridicule of clergy, no mixed-race romance, and no depictions of white slavery (the depiction of enslaved people of colour remained fine). The Hays Code remained in effect in Hollywood well into the 1950s.

The fact is that most movie-goers will not have seen many pre-Code films - if any at all. As a result it can be quite a shock to the system to see one. We see something in black and white with scratchy sound and old-fashioned acting, and we expect to see something rather chaste and mannered. I recently sampled one: Ernst Lubitsch and George Cukor's One Hour with You, starring Maurice Chevalier. It's a musical comedy about cheating on one's wife, packed with infidelity, women lounging around in lingerie, constant references to sex, and very little in the way of enforced conservative morality.

I Wish (2011)

Kohichi (Kohki Maeda) and Ryunosuke (Ohshiro Maeda) are two brothers with separated parents. After a failed marriage, father Kenji (Joe Odagiri) has returned to Osaka with Ryunosuke to try and find commercial success with his band. Mother Nozomi (Nene Otsuka) has moved into her parents' home in Kagoshima with Kohichi. A new bullet train service is announced between the two cities. Kohichi hears a rumour at school that when the two train pass each other for the first time, the combined energy between them will make wishes come true. Kohichi formulates a plan to travel to the mid-point of the new train line, see the trains pass one another, and wish in that moment for his parents to reunite.

I Wish, from writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda, is one of those remarkable films where a brief plot synopsis completely fails to express its quality. This is a wonderful family drama packed with perfectly observed realist moments. It all feels real: the story, the characters, the various conflicts and challenges. It shows remarkable depth from beginning to end. It makes you wish its young protagonists so much happiness.

September 16, 2015

NES30 #12: River City Ransom

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.

In 1986 Taito released an arcade game developed by Technos Japan titled Hot-Blooded Tough Guy Kunio - titled Renegade internationally. While not a massive commercial success, it introduced several key elements of the beat-em-up genre, including four directional movement, an ability for a character to choose between punching, kicking and jumping, and waves of enemies who took more than a single hit to defeat. These elements were all put to much more successful use a year later in Taito and Technos' Double Dragon.

The success of Double Dragon didn't deter Technos from revisiting the characters in Renegade. Kunio-kun returned in the 1987 arcade game Hot-Blooded High School Dodgeball Club (released internationally as Super Dodge Ball), and then in the 1989 Famicom game Downtown Hot-Blooded Story. This third title was ported to the NES in the USA in 1990, under the title River City Ransom, and for the NES in Europe in 1992, under the title Street Gangs.

What About Bob? (1991)

Dr Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) is a highly successful psychiatrist with a new book just releasing, a Good Morning America interview lined up, and a quiet vacation in New Hampshire all lined up and ready. Bob Wiley (Bill Murray) is a clingy neurotic with multiple phobias who has just secured Dr Marvin as his new doctor. When Marvin goes on vacation Bob doggedly follows him, ingratiating himself into his family life and sending the ego-fuelled Marvin over the edge.

What About Bob? was a sizeable commercial hit back in 1991, although weirdly it hasn't received a home video release in Australia for some years. Finding a second-hand American DVD in a jumble sale has allowed me to rewatch this Frank Oz comedy for the first time in quite a while, and to see how well it stands up.

The answer is: mostly pretty well. It's a very commercially-minded film, with a script that can often get a little irritating, but the production is saved and then some by canny casting and two excellent central performances.

September 15, 2015

Blake's 7: "Power"

It's 5 October 1981, and time for more Blake's 7.

Soolin (Glynis Barber) has vanished after Dorian's death. Vila still can't get through the sealed hatch to the Scorpio, and there's an explosive charge ticking down the hours that will destroy the entire base if Vila can't get it open. Avon (Paul Darrow) has gone searching for crystals to help manufacture a new teleport system, but has instead been captured by the Hommicks - an ingidenous all-male tribe locked in the dying days of a war with the all-female Seska.

Writer Ben Steed returns for the third and final time to Blake's 7. His first script, "The Harvest of Kairos", focused on Jarvik, the manliest of manly men doing manly things while shouting at women about how manly he was. His second script, "Moloch", featured crass misogyny and women being dragged away to be sexually assaulted. For his final script Steed goes all out, writing a literal "war of the sexes" in which men emerge victorious and women apparently get taught their proper place.

Whip It (2009)

Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is a high school senior living in Texas. Her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) obsessively pushes Bliss into one beauty pageant after another. Bliss, however, has discovered a nearby roller derby tournament. It's love at first sight, and before long Bliss is lying about her age, playing in the league, finding a boyfriend, and hiding the truth from her unsuspecting family.

Whip It is the directorial debut of actor Drew Barrymore, and is an adaptation by Shauna Cross of her own novel Derby Girl. It's remarkably amiable, boasting pleasant and occasionally surprising performances, a nice musical soundtrack, and some great moments of comedy and small town drama. It's also a mountain of clichés, piled so thick that they can't be avoided and so high that they can't be overcome. The result is a film that is enjoyable while it lasts but immediately forgettable once the credits roll, and can't really be considered as much beyond a minor work.

To be honest the predictable by-the-number story is my only real complaint, so it's easiest and best to acknowledge that nothing in the film will surprise the viewer and move on from there.

September 14, 2015

The Pull List: 9 September 2015, Part IV

Ninjak #7 continues the British agent Colin King's mission to track down and destroy the secret organisation known as the Shadow Seven. He has taken over the arms dealing outfit Weaponeer, a subsidiary of the Seven. Now he's travelled back to London to take out one of the Seven - the surgically modified operative Sanguine.

There is a formula for this title that Matt Kindt has been following through this particular volume of Ninjak, one which jumps back and forth between over-the-top action sequences and thoughtful flashbacks into King's youth. It's a simple but very effective technique.

Juan Jose Ryp's artwork is beautifully composed and enhanced by Ulises Arreola's exceptional colours. It is, however, sometimes quite confrontational in terms of the frank way Ryp expresses violence and, by the issue's climax, actually somewhat grotesque. I think I like it, but I also felt somewhat surprised at just how dark and garish into all became.

Ninjak is an odd sort of comic book. It has a premise and a character that screams 1990s-style excess, and is precisely the sort of book I usually avoid. It's to Kindt, Ryp and Arreola's credit - not to mention the editors at Valiant - that this book is still pretty entertaining. (3/5)

Valiant. Written by Matt Kindt. Art by Juan Jose Ryp. Colours by Ulises Arreola.

Under the cut: reviews of Gotham Academy, Rebels and Unity.

NES30 #13: Castlevania II: Simon's Quest

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.

One of the best things about videogames as a medium is that they are so perfectly placed for iterative improvements. A game can be developed and released, and when a sequel is produced it can take on-board feedback from reviews, market sentiment, ideas that the developers always wanted to include in the original, and so on.

It's a general rule of thumb for the medium that the best game in a franchise is rarely going to be the original. Super Mario Bros is not the best Super Mario title, The Legend of Zelda is not the best Zelda title, and - not surprisingly - the best Castlevania game is not the original NES Castlevania.

Blake's 7: "Rescue"

It's 28 September 1981, and time for the fourth season premiere of Blake's 7.

The survivors of the Liberator appear to be trapped on Terminal forever, until they are unexpectedly rescued by the mysterious Dorian (Geoffrey Burridge) and his space freighter Scorpio. He takes Avon (Paul Darrow) and the others back to his base on the planet Xenon - but does he have an ulterior motive?

With the spontaneous re-commissioning of Blake's 7 on the night of the series finale's broadcast, production of a fourth season was understandably delayed. Producer David Maloney was already hard at work on both When the Boat Comes In and The Day of the Triffids for the BBC, and entirely unavailable. While script editor Chris Boucher was available, no scripts had been developed and no writers hired. Contracts needed to be negotiated with the regular cast: Paul Darrow, Michael Keating, Josette Simon and Steven Pacey all agreed to return. Jan Chappel chose to bow out. As a result of multiple challenges in bringing the series back, Season 4 did not premiere in January 1981 but rather in September.

September 13, 2015

Sword of the Beast (1965)

Hideo Gosha is one of the more obscure legends of Japanese cinema. Most filmgoers in the English-speaking world have heard of Akira Kurosawa, or Hayao Miyazaki, and quite a few will stretch to Yasujiro Ozu or Kenji Mizoguchi. Gosha remains comparatively obscure, mainly because it has only really been in the last few years that his films have been widely available on home video.

He started his career in television, primarily in creating and directing the chanbara (samurai action) series Three Outlaw Samurai. At the time there was an informal agreement between Japan's film studios not to use television directors in the making of their films. It was when Shochiku chose to produce a big-screen prequel to Three Outlaw Samurai that this rule was finally broken, with the studio defying their rivals and inviting Gosha to direct it himself. From there he went from strength to strength, directing a series of hard-edged, visually sharp chanbara films that still hold up today as some of the finest examples of the genre.

Sword of the Beast is one of them, telling the story of a ronin Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira) who has murdered one of his superiors and is on the run from the victim's vengeful daughter and her fiancée.

September 12, 2015

The Pull List: 9 September 2015, Part III

Recent issues of Batman have seen Jim Gordon's robot-suit Batman track down a mysterious villain, Mr Bloom, who is running around Gotham giving super-powers to warring gang members. To reveal just how long Bloom's plans for Gotham have been simmering, issue #44 - released this week - jumps all the way back to the start of Batman's second year, and Bruce Wayne's investigation of a dead body abandoned on the city limits.

This is a stunning single issue of Batman that simultaneously fills in back story on the current arc while also telling an outstanding self-contained issue in its own right. Contemporary American politics over police brutality and black youths getting shot figure strongly, as do issues of how crime is actually inspired and fed in dense city areas. The story is by Scott Snyder but the script is by both Snyder and Brian Azzarello - whose influence is keenly felt in the narration and the dialogue.

The artwork is by Jock, best known for his work on the DC Vertigo series The Losers, and whose covers accompanied Snyder's original Batman work prior to the New 52. It's a welcome reunion: this is a beautifully illustrated issue with evocative layouts and a clever blend of sketchy hand-drawn artwork and digitally composed text sections.

Comics this good are rare. Pick it up and see for yourself. (5/5)

DC Comics. Story by Scott Snyder. Written by Scott Snyder and Brian Azzarello. Art by Jock. Colours by Lee Loughridge.

Under the cut: reviews of The Fuse, Head Lopper and The Wicked + the Divine.

NES30 #14: Rygar

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.

Warriors of Argus was a side-scrolling action game produced by Tecmo, and released into Japanese arcades in 1986. Internationally it was released as Rygar, and its combination of platforming action and its fantasy setting made it a popular hit. When Tecmo ported the game from arcades to the Famicom console, however, they didn't just directly translate it - they completely up-ended and revised the entire game. Where the arcade original was a pure action title, the console remake introduced many elements of the action role-playing game (RPG). The player could explore a more open fantasy world, with separate areas opening up once the player had powered up his or her character sufficiently. It was a hit in Japan when released in 1987, and then a hit in the USA and Europe when released in 1988 and 1990 respectively.

September 11, 2015

Superbad (2007)

Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are two high school seniors desperate to lose their virginity at an end of school party. Seth is obsessed with Jules (Emma Stone), Evan with Becca (Martha MacIsaac). Both are relying on their friend Fogel (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to use his fake ID to get alcohol, but a string of events sees Seth and Evan caught on an odyssey through suburbia while Fogel finds himself hijacked by two wayward police officer (Seth Rogen and Bill Hader).

I am huge fan of the teen comedy as a film genre, however it's a genre with a fairly treacherous landscape. The themes and tropes of awkward sexuality, first love, teenage angst and self-realisation are all rich veins of material for writers and directors to mine, yet they're also wide open to lazy abuse. For every Ferris Bueller's Day Off there's a She's All That, or a Can't Hardly Wait. Indeed a quick glance at Superbad's premise - essentially three nerds hoping to lose their virginity at a party - suggests it's going to be the worst example of the genre. Thankfully a combination of a canny screenplay, well-timed direction and strong lead performances make Superbad one of the very best examples of its kind. It's crude and often-times a little painful to watch, but it's also heartfelt and honest. Personally I think it's a minor classic.

Blake's 7: "Terminal"

It's 31 March 1980, and time for the Season 3 finale of Blake's 7.

Avon (Paul Darrow) has commandeered the Liberator on a private mission. He won't tell his crew where the ship is going, he refuses to navigate around a mysterious cloud of fluid in the ship's way, and when Tarrant (Steven Pacey) tries to intervene Avon almost shoots him. When the Liberator finally arrives at its destination - the artificially constructed planet Terminal - Tarrant and Cally (Jan Chappel) follow Avon down while Vila (Michael Keating) and Dayna (Josette Simon) discover the untoward effects the cloud of fluid has had on the ship.

"Terminal" marks Terry Nation's final script for Blake's 7. At the time of its production it was intended not simply as the season finale but the series finale. At the conclusion of shooting the actors were released from their contracts and the production team subsequently moved on to other projects. It sounds like the worst kind of urban myth, but BBC1 controller Bill Cotton genuinely did watch "Terminal" go to air in his home with his family, telephone the BBC switchboard to find out when a fourth season would debut, and - on learning the drama department had axed the series - order an announcement be made over the closing titles that the series would return in 1981.

September 10, 2015

The Pull List: 9 September 2015, Part II

With everything Star Wars heating up around the world these days, it would be easy to get overwhelmed and run away screaming. Certainly Marvel are running riot at the moment with two regular monthly titles and a string of miniseries, including one that debuted this week about the aftermath of the Battle of Endor. There's even a one-shot coming down the line from the creative team of Starman, showing one of C-3PO's adventures between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.

I'm keeping things at a manageable size by focusing on just one or two of the books. I've been reading the wonderful Lando miniseries, and I've been reading Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca's outstanding Darth Vader. We're up to issue #9 now, and it's remarkable just what a wonderful and dramatic book it is.

In the aftermath of Star Wars, Darth Vader has learned that the pilot who blew up the Death Star is named Skywalker. Obsessed with finding out if it is his presumed stillborn son, he has started his own private investigations without the Emperor's authority. To fund his secret mission he has engineered a heist of valuable metals from a Star Destroyer, only now he has been assigned to help investigate that crime and bring its perpetrators to justice. Yes, in a brilliantly Philip K Dick fashion, Darth Vader has been assigned to track down and arrest himself.

This is a brilliantly twisted book, taking all of the standard space opera tropes in which the Star Wars saga indulges, but flipped to focus on bad people instead of good. Let's be honest: the villains are always the more enjoyable characters anyway. (5/5)

Marvel. Written by Kieron Gillen. Art by Salvador Larroca. Colours by Edgar Delgado.

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Catwoman and Ms Marvel.

Wayne's World (1992)

It's remarkable to look back at Wayne's World these days. The film is 23 years old. In many respects its cultural footprint feels overshadowed by Mike Myers' later comedy franchise Austin Powers, however I think this might be the stronger film.

Certainly at the time it seemed very influential, introducing English-speaking audiences to a raft of catch phrases and pop culture artefacts and becoming the 10th highest-grossing film of its year. These days it almost feels quaint.

The film is derived from a long-running series of Saturday Night Live sketches. Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers) and Garth Algar (Dana Carvey) present a no-budget cable access series from the basement of Wayne's parents' house. When a slick executive (Rob Lowe) offers them the television deal of their dreams, and Wayne begins dating an attractive rock singer (Tia Carrere), it seems like all of his dreams have come true - except the executive is up to no good, and soon starts competing for his girlfriend's affections.

September 9, 2015

The Pull List: 9 September 2015, Part I

With Atomic Robo, Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener created an outstanding pulp hero; arguably the best that comic books had produced since the Rocketeer. He's a robot created by Nicola Tesla who fights giant monsters, other robots, evil dinosaur super-villains, and any number of other weird, delightfully strange enemies. The character originally appeared in a string of independently published miniseries, but more recently has been operating as a webcomic. Now IDW has stepped in to publish those webcomic issues in print, beginning with the first issue of Atomic Robo and the Ring of Fire.

Each miniseries takes place in a different historical period over the last 100 years or so. This one is comparatively rare in that it takes place in the present day. It begins with Robo apparently dead, and his allies scattered and in hiding. Getting back together and realising Robo may actually still be alive is the premise of this issue.

There's a lot of back story but to be honest it's covered pretty well. There are details and references that new readers won't get, but to be honest I'm not sure any of them are going to get too far in the way. This is a fast-paced, fairly busy first issue that ends at a great cliffhanger. While I was happy to see the book continue in digital form, I can't lie that there isn't something nice about seeing it in print as well. Existing fans will be happy to see Robo back. Newcomers are in for a treat. (Cute X-Men reference on the cover too.) (4/5)

IDW. Written by Brian Clevinger. Art by Scott Wegener.

Under the cut: reviews of Star Trek/Green Lantern, Star Trek: New Voyages and Tet.

Blake's 7: "Death Watch"

It's 24 March 1980, and time for the penultimate episode of Blake's 7 Season 3.

The independent planets of Teal and Vandor have declared war. Rather than launch their battle fleets at one another, they have each appointed a single champion. Together they will duel until one dies, and the victor's government will declare victory over the entire war. The Liberator crew arrive on the neutral planet to observe the duel - a huge celebratory festival is attached - only to discover that Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce) is acting as the neutral arbiter, and Tarrant's older brother Deeta is Teal's appointed champion.

"Death Watch" was a last-minute script thrown together by Chris Boucher when an earlier commissioned script by a writer named John Fletcher fell through. You can't tell: Boucher throws in family drama, high concept science fiction and diplomatic conspiracies, as well as pushing along multiple character arcs for the season overall, and in doing so pretty much writes the best episode of Season 3. It's between this and "City at the Edge of the World", and pretty much personal taste is going to dictate which episode you prefer. For me, it's this.

September 8, 2015

NES30 #15: Castlevania

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.

Akumajou Dracula was a horror-themed platform game released by Konami for the Famicom Disk System in 1986. The following year Nintendo of America licensed the title and released in for the NES under the title Castlevania. It was an immediate hit, and led to 38 sequels and spin-offs and counting.

The reasons for the game's success were pretty obvious: Castlevania is a remarkably strong game. It's graphics and appealing and crisply designed, the sound and music are great, and the gameplay - while fairly punishing on the novice player - is well developed, easy to understand and fairly addictive.

Sun Valley (1996)

The Avenger (Zhang Fengyi) is a wandering swordsman suffering from a deep post-traumatic malaise. He arrives in a rural valley in western China to wait for someone. While waiting he struggles to retain his composure while encountering an old warrior-turned-monk (Ku Feng) and a kindly woman (Yang Kuei-Mei) who runs the local inn and bathhouse.

Sun Valley, from Chinese director He Ping, is a remarkably sedate film. It formed the second part of a trilogy of 'Chinese westerns', films that deliberately riffed on the tropes of the American western genre and re-worked them into a Chinese context. I have not seen the first film in this trilogy, Swordsmen in Double Flag Town (1991), but I have seen the third: He's masterful 2004 action film Warriors of Heaven and Earth (2004), which I liked very much. Sun Valley is a much quieter, less accomplished work. It feels rich with potential, but the potential is - for much of the film's running time at any rate - unrealised.

September 7, 2015

Blake's 7: "Moloch"

It's 17 March 1980, and time for more Blake's 7.

The Liberator is following Servalan's command ship to the very edge of the galaxy, only to have the ship disappear from under their noses. After investigating, Avon (Paul Darrow) and his crew discover a secret planet hidden from view - where a lost Federation battle fleet has stumbled upon a remarkable new technology.

"Moloch" is a dreadful episode, combining re-heated ideas, tedious characterisation and some unpleasant misogyny. It's not a surprise to discover the script is by Ben Steed, whose earlier episode "The Harvest of Kairos" seemed similarly obsessed with manly men treating women like objects. This time around he has them beaten on-screen and adds allusions to gang-rape as well. It's pretty much impossible to get past how horribly written and unnecessary these sequences are; to be honest, the rest of the episode's failings are a moot point.

NES30 #16: Megaman 2

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.

Rockman was a platform videogame released by Capcom in 1987 for the Nintendo Famicom. It was Capcom's first console-only title, having spent previous years working primarily on arcade games. It was also a bit of a flop, selling well below expectations and not really making any great impact on the market. It was released in the USA under the name Mega Man, but didn't sell much better.

That really should have been the end of it, except producer Keiji Inafune and his development team really believed in the quality of their game. They wanted to make a sequel and give it another chance, and so slowly developed one while simultaneously working on higher profile and more successful games for Capcom. By the end of 1988 they had completed their sequel: Rockman 2: The Mystery of Dr Wily, aka Mega Man 2. It wound up selling more than 1.5 million copies.

September 6, 2015

The Pull List: 2 September 2015, Part II

Three months after an asteroid was supposed to wipe out all life on Earth, a few pockets of abandoned humans struggle to rebuild their lives. For Elena Marlowe, left on Earth when her family was taken off-world, that means killing a charismatic cult leader to satisfy the military leader who's her only chance for meeting her family again.

The final part of a miniseries is the hardest to do well. You've got to pull your narrative into a climax, and you've got to pace it really well. Too soon and it will feel abrupt and cheated, with a long, tedious epilogue dragging things out. Too late and there's no room for an epilogue at all, and no proper sense of closure. Broken World #4 does it perfectly. It keeps driving along until its final pages, and then wraps things up beautifully while still keeping one eye on a sequel series somewhere down the road. Christopher Petersen's artwork is great, with the sort of DC Vertigo style that really seems to work with these character-centric science fiction comic books.

I really hope there is more for Broken World in the future. It's been a great miniseries with a strong, appealing lead character. Fingers crossed. (5/5)

Boom Studios. Written by Frank J. Barbiere. Art by Christopher Petersen. Colours by Marissa Louise.

Under the cut: reviews of Jem and the Holograms and X-O Manowar.

September 4, 2015

Blake's 7: "Ultraworld"

It's 10 March 1980, and time for another episode of Blake's 7.

Not just any episode either, but "Ultraworld" - the episode so cool that British electronic group The Orb named an entire album after it. It sees the Liberator stumble upon a massive artificial planet whose inhabitants lure passing starships in order to download their entire mind onto computers while feeding their bodies to a giant pulsating brain at the planet's core. Cally (Jan Chappel) is taken first, and then Avon (Paul Darrow). Vila (Michael Keating) is trapped on the Liberator - can Tarrant (Steven Pacey) and Dayna (Josette Simon) save the day?

I adore "Ultraworld" pretty much because it's one of the silliest things Blake's 7 ever produced. It's knowingly absurd. You can see it on the actor's faces. It's an episode in which the villain is an enormous brain, served by three bald blue men in jumpsuits - one of whom looks hilariously like the electronic musician Moby, and another like Smashing Pumpkins lead singer Billy Corgan. Once you've got Moby and Corgan in your head their scenes just get funnier and funnier. Then again I find pretty much everything in "Ultraworld" pretty funny. It's an episode that requires you to simply let go of common sense and enjoy it on its own peculiar merits.

The Pull List: 2 September 2015, Part I

This week sees the release of Daredevil #18, and the departure from the book of writer Mark Waid. Waid has had an exceptional run on the title - 49 issues in total, making him the single longest-running writer in the character's history. He's also done a wonderful job in re-centring the character. After successive writers including Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker, Daredevil's world had become so hopeless and depressing that it was pretty much the bleakest monthly title in Marvel's stable. With the support of artists Paolo Rivera and Chris Samnee Waid managed to bring a little more warmth and light to the character, and by balancing his two sides made it pretty much the best Marvel comic of the last five years.

It all ends in a satisfying fashion. Anybody expecting any last-second twists or upsets will likely walk away disappointed, since this is basically 50 per cent climax and 50 per cent epilogue. The ongoing storyline of the last 18 issues is wrapped up neatly, the toys are all put back in their respective boxes, and the book is completely clear for Charles Soule to take over in a couple of months.

Chris Samnee continues to provide beautiful, pitch-perfect artwork, and he's fabulously coloured by Matthew Wilson. This creative team - Waid, Samnee, Wilson - is one of the best working in comics today, and I'm happy to hear that they're sticking together for another Marvel book in the future. Thanks to them all - this has been a wonderfully entertaining ride. (5/5)

Marvel. Written by Mark Waid. Art by Chris Samnee. Colours by Matthew Wilson.

Under the cut: reviews of Doctor Who: Four Doctors, The Omega Men and Silver Surfer.

September 3, 2015

NES30 #17: Super Mario Bros 2

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.

Super Mario Bros was the kind of hit game that didn't just sell well - it reshaped the landscape of computer games. After selling millions of copies, and driving sales on both the Famicom in Japan and the NES internationally, it was inevitable that Nintendo would have to produce a sequel to satisfy public demand. In Japan they released Super Mario Bros 2 for the Famicom Disk System; it featured the same gameplay as the original but with more challenging level designs. When Nintendo of America assessed the title they feared it was too similar to the original game and too difficult for novice players. As a result they elected to bypass releasing the game altogether and instead setting about releasing a Mario sequel of their own.

Zathura (2005)

Walter and Danny are young brothers who can't get along. When they're left alone in the house one afternoon, they find an old board game named Zathura in the basement. When they start to play, however, the events of the game start to happen in the real world. Before long they're trapped in deep space, threatened by alien lizards and with only a mysterious astronaut there to help them.

Zathura was originally a children's book by Chris Van Allsburg, which was a sequel to his earlier book Jumanji. Strangely, while the same film studio produced film adaptations of both books they elected to separate them completely. As a result Zathura feels like a weird duplicate of Jumanji: some kids play a mysterious board game that sends them on a thrilling adventure, even though they're completely different kids and the games work in different genres.

Zathura was the third film directed by Jon Favreau, and marks a fairly significant progression for his career. It allowed him to demonstrate an ability to work on a studio project on a tight budget, and successfully producing a genre film with numerous visual effects. From here he went on to Iron Man and its sequel, and Cowboys and Aliens. To direct those films he proved his abilities with this one. Admittedly Zathura was a box office failure, although I suspect that was less to do with the film's quality and more to do with Columbia Pictures releasing it into cinemas one week ahead of a Harry Potter movie.

September 2, 2015

Blake's 7: "Sarcophagus"

It's 3 March 1980, and time for more Blake's 7.

The Liberator comes across an alien spacecraft floating adrift in space. When Cally (Jan Chappel), Avon (Paul Darrow) and Vila (Michael Keating) teleport onboard they discover it is a tomb. They return to the Liberator - only an alien intelligence has followed them back, and threatens to take over the ship.

"Sarcophagus" is the first of two scripts written for Blake's 7 by fantasy author Tanith Lee, the only woman to write for the series. It's a strikingly different episode to anything before or since. This is partly because - a few early scenes aside - the entire episodes takes place on the Liberator with only the five regular characters appearing. It is also because this is for all intents and purposes a supernatural fantasy: Cally has become possessed by an alien ghost, who uses poltergeist-like powers to threaten the crew and drain the Liberator's power.

September 1, 2015

Portrait of a Beauty (2008)

Shin Yun Bok (Kim Min-sun) is a painter-in-training in 18th century Korea. While skilled and creative, he has two problems. Firstly, he is constantly driven to explore unconventional styles and subject matters for his art - matter which is oftentimes controversial and obscene. Secondly, he is actually a young woman, disguising her true identity to maintain her family's honour within Korean society's strict gender expectations.

Portrait of a Beauty is a sumptuously staged historical drama. It looks great, with colourful costumes and sets, beautifully composed camera angles and reasonably strong performances. It's also a pretty awful film: twisting history for entertainment purposes, titillating audiences with regular and lengthy sex scenes, and indulging in exactly the kind of typically over-the-top and overwrought melodrama that makes so much Korean entertainment a chore through which to sit.

Popular Posts: August 2015

I haven't done one of these in almost two years. What were the most popular posts on The Angriest for the month of August 2015?

And in case you're feeling sorry for the least-read post of the month, it's: