January 31, 2016

The Pull List: 27 January 2016, Part II

From the outset ODY-C has been a bit of a hard sell: a gender-flipped science fiction retelling of The Odyssey, blended together with The Thousand and One Nights and Moby Dick, told in a sexualised, Metal Hurlant-style fashion with verse narration replacing dialogue. I'm pretty sure that, with all those elements mashed together, ODY-C could be the most love-it-or-hate-it comic on the market right now.

I am firmly on the side of loving it. Christian Ward's artwork and panel layouts are tremendously imaginative, and beautifully coloured. It uses a tremendously rich palette, and regularly experiments with the panels themselves. Gods and monsters regularly shatter them. Rare moments of dialogue get rendered as sound effects. The scale of the action varies wonderfully from page to page.

Each issue also comes with a fascinating essay at the end, written by Dani Coleman and adding a great amount of insight and value in terms of unpacking and analysing the story Matt Fraction is telling. As for Fraction himself, the verse in this issue is sensational. It's well worth reading it aloud just to feel how rhythmically in falls off the tongue, and how evocative the descriptions are.

If you're ever looking for a book to break your comfort bubble of DC and Marvel superhero titles, then ODY-C should absolutely be on your radar. Nine issues in, and it's close to faultless. (5/5)

Under the cut: reviews of Black Canary, Daredevil and Revival.

Babylon 5: "In the Beginning"

It's 4 January 1998, and time for a Babylon 5 made-for-television film: In the Beginning.

Picking up the rights to Babylon 5 for just one season must have been a difficult choice for TNT. Why spend the money making and promoting a new series for your channel only to end it after just 22 episodes? I strongly suspect this why TNT also moved forward with a series of TV movies. They could exploit higher production budgets, be packaged individually for home video release, and extend the property a little further than just the single season. It made a lot of financial sense. Had they been more successful there's a good chance that TNT could have made a lot more of them in subsequent years. Sadly this did not prove to be the case, and in the end they only produced four.

While it was the second TV movie to be shot, In the Beginning was the first to be aired. It premiered in January 1998, just before TNT's launch of the fifth season. It recounts the events of the Earth-Minbari War that dominated the back story of Babylon 5, and showed the participation of several of the series' key characters: Sheridan, Delenn, Franklin, Londo and G'Kar.

January 30, 2016

Alien vs Predator (2004)

It is all Predator 2's fault. Back when that 1990 sequel was in production, a member of the design team mocked up the skull of an Alien from the 1979 Ridley Scott film and added it to a way of bizarre skulls inside the Predator's spaceship. It was intended as a small in-joke, a knowing reference for science fiction fans and film geeks to notice and have a little chuckle at it.

Or maybe it's the fault of Dark Horse Comics, who had the rights to publish comic books based on both Alien and Predator, and whose editor in chief noticed the Alien skull and based an entire comic miniseries around the idea of Aliens and Predators fighting: Alien vs Predator. Or even Activision, who promptly developed an Alien vs Predator videogame for the Super Nintendo console.

In the end, however, it is probably fair to lay the blame at the feet of 20th Century Fox, who green-lit the concept, developed it for several years and finally released an Alien vs Predator feature film in 2004 directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil). It even had the world's most unaware tagline: whoever wins... we lose.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "The Sword of Kahless"

It's 20 November 1995, and time for another episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

The ageing Klingon master Kor (John Colicos) teams up with Dax (Terry Farrell) and Worf (Michael Dorn) in a search for the fabled Sword of Kahless: the bat'leth originally wielded by the founder of the Klingon Empire. Their search is interrupted by the arrival of the disgraced son of Duras, Toral (Rick Pasqualone), and even when they find the sword they may be unable to keep it.

"The Sword of Kahless" is another attempt to integrate Worf into the regular cast of Deep Space Nine, by providing a sequel to the earlier episode "Blood Oath". That episode reunited the three Klingon commanders from the original 1960s Star Trek, killing two of them off in the process. This one brings back the sole survivor, and sends him on a quest with Dax and Worf. The rest of the regular cast barely get a look-in.

January 29, 2016

Outlander: "Sassenach"

In 1945 Claire Randall (Catriona Balfe) and her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) take a holiday to Scotland to reconnect with one another following the Second World War. When Claire visits a stone circle one afternoon, she finds herself inexplicably thrown centuries in the past and into the Scotland of 1743 where roving English patrols are hunting down the Jacobite rebels.

Outlander is an American/British co-production based on the romantic time travel novels by Diana Gabaldon. The series caught my eye when it was first released in mid-2014, but it has taken until now for me to sit down and watch its first episode. I was interesting in seeing the series due to an interest in both time travel stories and Scottish history, and also because the series has been supervised by writer and executive producer Ronald D. Moore whose previous work on Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine have impressed me a great deal.

As a pilot episode "Sassenach" is overly long and a bit clunky, but it points to some pretty solid historical drama down the line. It is definitely worth giving it a watch and seeing where the series goes.

Babylon 5: Season 5 in Review

Where does one begin?

The short version: Babylon 5 was initially conceived and promoted as a five-season series with a serialised storyline. It was to have a beginning, a middle and an end; essentially a novel made for television. Halfway through making Season 4 it became clear that PTEN, the cable network that originally commissioned Babylon 5 was not going to survive into 1998. Without a new network immediately willing to pick the series up for one more season it appeared that Babylon 5 would conclude at the end of its fourth year. As a result, series creator and writer J. Michael Straczynski made some edits to the plot of Season 4. A storyline about the Minbari civil war was truncated fiercely, and the intended first four episodes of Season 5 moved back into the end of Season 4. Those changes would at least conclude the liberation of Earth from its corrupt government and give the series a broad sense of closure.

A last minute reprieve came via TNT, which commissioned a fifth and final season quite late in the day. The series finale "Sleeping in Light" was put aside for a year, a hasty replacement recorded and slotted in its place, and Season 5 was left to kick-start a series that had for all intents and purposes already wound down to conclude.

So how does Season 5 fare under those circumstances? Not too well, to be honest.

January 28, 2016

The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

It is the night of the USA's annual Purge, in which all crimes are declared legal for a 12 hour period. While most of the nation's civilians cower fearfully inside their homes, other step onto the streets armed with handguns, rifles, knives and baseball bats to commit random violent crimes or even to engage in premeditated murder against people they dislike. A car breakdown leaves a young couple stranded on the freeway just as the Purge is set to begin. A mother and daughter have their home invaded and are dragged out onto the streets. A mysterious well-armed man sets out into the night in an armoured car with murder on his mind. Over the course of the night, all five people's lives intersect as they band together and attempt to survive.

The Purge: Anarchy is the 2014 sequel to The Purge, a small-scale near-future thriller. Both films are directed by James DeMonaco. Buoyed by the success of the first film and armed with a bigger budget, this second film is in pretty much every way its superior. Whereas the original was a serviceable home invasion movie, Anarchy is a fully-fledged near future thriller with pointed social satire on its mind.

The Pull List: 27 January 2016, Part I

Saga is back this week, continuing its whirlwind tour of the galaxy and showing what the growing cast of this ongoing comic book epic have been up to in the two years the series jumped forward at issue #31. This time around it is the unexpected return of harried journalists - and lovers - Upsher and Doff, as they get back onto the trail of the rumoured baby born of two enemy civilizations.

This sixth arc for Saga is jumping all over the place, which is nicely unexpected on the one hand, but lacking in momentum on the other. It's an approach that works really well if an issue focuses on really interesting characters, but not quite so well when the protagonist becomes someone a little ordinary or underwhelming. Personally I put Upsher and Doff in that category. They're simply not engaging enough compared to the other people the book could be following right now.

All of the standard features of Saga are there: the well-crafted and funny dialogue, the unexpected reveals and twists, and the gradually tiresome attempts to shock the readership with sex and random depictions of genitalia. Fiona Staples continues to produce distinctive and bright artwork. This isn't the best issue of Saga but it remains pretty enjoyable. I just hope things start to pull together in the next issue or two. (3/5)

Image. Written by Brian K. Vaughn. Art by Fiona Staples.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman and Robin Eternal, Jem and the Holograms and Victorie City.

January 27, 2016

Babylon 5: "Sleeping in Light"

Just over four years ago I stumbled upon a copy of Babylon 5's original made-for-television film, "The Gathering", and decided to watch it again. I had seen it when it was originally released and quite liked it, and had gone on to watch the subsequent television series. The first time around I found the series a fairly frustrating thing, with every decent episode or performance matched by one that seemed pretty substandard or even actively awful. When the series chose to end a multi-season story arc in its fourth season with the protagonist shouting at the enemy to "get the hell out of our galaxy" I quit watching the series altogether.

After rewatching "The Gathering" I tracked down a copy of Season 1 and rewatched that. I reviewed each episode as I went. From there I moved on to the second season, then the third, and eventually through to the fourth and beyond the point where I quit the first time around. Now I have watched the final episode, "Sleeping in Light". I may be almost two decades late, but I have finally completed Babylon 5.

So, for the last time on this blog: it's 25 November 1998, and time for another episode of Babylon 5.

Shadowland (2010)

After being given control over the Ninja clan known as the Hand, Daredevil establishes control over Hell's Kitchen and declares his own martial law - little knowing that an evil demonic force is starting to influence his actions. When Daredevil kills his arch-nemesis Bullseye his fellow superheroes attempt to intervene. It may already be too late to save him, or themselves.

Shadowland was a five-issue miniseries published by Marvel Comics in 2010. It capped off a run on Daredevil by Andy Diggle and formed part of a serialised chain of Marvel events during the period including Secret Invasion, Dark Reign and Siege. Several tie-in miniseries were also published, showing the effect of Daredevil's actions on a variety of Marvel characters. I have not read those, but I have just finished the central miniseries. It did not particularly impress me.

Shadowland is a typical Marvel event miniseries in which the core issues simply tell the key story beats without any depth or background information. For side-stories or narrative colour readers are forced to read the various spin-offs and tie-ins. What is presented here is a bunch of superheroes turning up one after another to say a few lines, have a brief fight, and wait until it's time for a climax.

January 26, 2016

Predators (2010)

A disparate group of soldiers, mercenaries and criminals are dropped via parachute into a jungle. After resolving their distrust of one another and agreeing to work together, they soon discover they are no longer on the planet Earth - and that something invisible and alien is stalking them. A race is on to escape, survive and somehow manage to get off the jungle planet before the Predators kill them all.

Twenty years after Predator 2 came and went to disappointing results, and three years after Alien vs Predator 2: Requiem crashed at the box office, producer Robert Rodriguez and director Nimród Antal collaborated to make an all-new Predator film. The title makes their ambition pretty obvious: just like Aliens expanded on the potential of Alien to create an expanded and thrilling new experience, so too Predators would take the promise of the original and push it into bolder, broader, new directions.

If only that ambition had translated to reality; we could have really had something.

Babylon 5: "Objects at Rest"

It's 18 November 1998, and time for the penultimate episode of Babylon 5.

Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) and Delenn (Mira Furlan) leave Babylon 5 for the new Interstellar Alliance headquarters on Minbar. En route Lennier (Bill Mumy) makes an unforgivable decision. Londo (Peter Jurasik) makes an unexpected appearance, arriving with a gift for Sheridan and Delenn's unborn child.

The final episode of Babylon 5, "Sleeping in Light", is really an epilogue to the series, so that pretty much leaves "Objects at Rest" to act as the final chapter. It is an odd episode, featuring a strange, bumpy storyline. It seems more interested in tying up a few final loose ends than it telling a proper story. The result is emotionally satisfying, but leaves a niggling concern in the back of the mind. Was this the very best way to tell this story?

January 25, 2016

Beauty and the Beast (2014)

Generally speaking I begin a film review by summarising the film's premise and basic plot. In the case of Christophe Gans' 2014 film Beauty and the Beast it hardly seems necessary. Even if you did not read or get told the fairy tale when a child, it is likely you have seen some sort of adaptation of the story before - notably Disney's popular animated adaptation. Suffice to say that while the smaller details of the film have been invented for Gans' adaptation, this is in broad strokes a very faithful and straightforward translation of de Villeneuve's story to the big screen.

When taking such a well-known storyline and turning it into a film, a director essentially has two choices: find a new angle from which to attack the story, and make the film a distinctive and fresh interpretation, or tackle the story head-on, presenting a traditional take and focus on simply making it the best-looking and most effective adaptation possible. With Beauty and the Beast Gans goes for the second option, and partially succeeds. While one could quibble over the predictable plot and the fairly simplistic characters, there's no questioning that this is a beautiful film in terms of production design, costuming and visual effects.

Babylon 5: "Objects in Motion"

It's 11 November 1998, and time for the antepenultimate episode of Babylon 5.

Former Mars resistance leader Number One (Marjorie Monaghan) arrives on Babylon 5 with a warning for Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle): someone has paid an assassin to kill him. Meanwhile G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas) prepares to leave the station forever, and hopes to take Lyta (Patricia Tallman) with him.

So here we are: three episodes left to Babylon 5, and time for things to begin winding down and wrapping up. It feels appropriate, given how much of the series has broadly cribbed from Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, that Babylon 5 also takes its sweet time in farewelling each character in turn. We have already farewelled Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik) with the end of the Centauri War. In "Objects in Motion" we say goodbye to Garibaldi, Franklin (Richard Biggs), G'Kar and Lyta. Generally speaking, it's an effective and emotional goodbye for all four of them.

January 24, 2016

Babylon 5: "The Wheel of Fire"

It's 4 November 1998, and time for another episode of Babylon 5.

Garibaldi's (Jerry Doyle) alcoholism finally catches up with him, leading to his suspension from duty and a new connection with Captain Lochley (Tracy Scoggins). G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas) returns to the station to find his position as the Narn's spiritual leader greatly enhanced. The Earth Alliance calls for the arrest of Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman) - but she is not willing to go down easily. Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) and Delenn (Mira Furlan) receive unexpected news.

After the climax of the Centauri War storyline, there was always going to be a challenge for the next episode to sustain too much drama or suspense. "The Wheel of Fire" is an absolute curate's egg. Garibaldi's addiction to alcohol continues to be an excuse for a lot of awful clichés and stereotypes. G'Kar's ascension to unwilling messiah is moving too slowly to remain engaging. The revelation that hits Sheridan and Delenn is sweet but insubstantial. That only really leaves Lyta's story to sustain the episode, and while it does manage to an extent it's a difficult, thorny kind of a story arc that I am not sure how I am enjoying.

Predator 2 (1990)

During a 1997 heatwave, the Los Angeles police department struggles to prevent a gang street war between Colombian and Jamaican drug kingpins. Lt Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) and his team uncover a third party working its way through both gangs, using seemingly super-human powers to sneak into their hideouts unseen and ritually murder them all. It is a Predator (Kevin Peter Hall); a seven-foot tall reptilian alien that has come to Los Angeles to hunt and kill human beings.

Three years after the original Predator came Predator 2, a sequel boasting a different setting, director and cast. It retained writers Jim and John Thomas, as well as composer Alan Silvestri and Predator performer Kevin Peter Hall. Outside of those four men, it was pretty much an entirely new enterprise.

Predator 2 under-performed in cinemas compared to the original, and it was met with generally negative reviews. Watching this film immediately after the first one makes it fairly clear why this is the case. Predator was a relatively simple, dull story told in a very energetic and engaging manner. Predator 2 has a much more interesting story, but it is not told in anywhere near as effective or dramatic a fashion.

January 23, 2016

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Little Green Men"

It's 15 November 1995, and time for another episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Nog (Aron Eisenberg) sets off for Starfleet Academy, accompanied by his father Rom (Max Grodenchik) and his uncle Quark (Armin Shimerman) in Quark's brand-new shuttle. When the shuttle malfunctions - the result of sabotage by the cousin who gave it to Quark in the first place - all three Ferengi are transported back in time to 1947 and into the hands of the United States military.

The standard warnings apply: this episode is the next in Deep Space Nine's annual series of Ferengi comedies. There is always at least one each season. Some people like them, some hate them. Personally I take each one on its own merits. "Little Green Men" is one of the best that the Deep Space Nine team ever did.

The Pull List: 20 January 2016, Part II

A while back DC editorial made the decision to unshackle their writers from cross-book continuity, with the idea that they would be enabled to just write the best possible stories that they could. The problem with this approach is that, as a shared universe, it actually does matter to an extent that what happens in one book is at least correctly reflected in another. Without a tighter rein on continuity you get a comic like this - Batgirl #47 - in which Bluebird appears in the story at an earlier point than her adventures in Batman and Robin Eternal, yet Jim Gordon references the events of Batman which occurs after Eternal. It would be fine if these inconsistencies just happened to be there, but dialogue and editorial footnotes actually direct the reader's attention to them. It's sloppy, and throws this particular reader out of the story.

It's a shame, because Batgirl is currently telling a pretty great story. It has been building in a solid and dramatic fashion for a few issues now, and this issue ends on a particularly ominous cliffhanger. I'm particularly enamoured with the book's growing supporting cast, which now includes both Bluebird and Spoiler; I desperately hope they get their own team-up book really soon.

The balance of light-hearted dialogue and action-based drama that the book has settled into is really working for it. It's just a damned pity about the continuity woes. (4/5)

DC Comics. Written by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher. Art by Moritat and Eleonora Carlini. Colours by Serge Lapointe.

Under the cut: reviews of Robin: Son of Batman, Silver Surfer and Usagi Yojimbo.

January 22, 2016

Bodacious Space Pirates: "We'll Have Juice at the Afterparty"

It's 5 May 2012, and time for another episode of Bodacious Space Pirates.

Or, to work on real time, it's been about six weeks since the last Bodacious Space Pirates review, so we're probably a bit overdue. Marika has a new mission: to get former yacht club president Jenny Dolittle to Space University before Jenny's corrupt magnate uncle has her married off for his own political advantage. In her way, the Dolittle fleet commanded by that same uncle, Robert, who isn't going to let his corporate master plan be ruined.

This is a great episode. It blends light-hearted action with some properly crunchy bits of plot, has an energetic pace, and provides a nice balance of action and character. It helps that this is the final episode of the current storyline. With everything already set up during the slightly less interesting earlier episodes, there's nowhere for this episode to be than sprinting towards the finish line.

The Curse (1987)

In the town of Tellico Plains, Tennessee, a meteorite crash-lands at the farm of Nathan Crane (Claude Akins). At first the meteorite's arrival seems to stimulate the growth of the fruits and vegetables on Nathan's farm, but then it seems to cause everything to rot and the animals to turn mad. As the meteorite also begins to affect Nathan's wife Frances (Kathleen Jordon Gregory), his son Zack (Wil Wheaton) comes to realise just how much danger his family is in.

In 1987 actor David Keith, best known for his performances in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Firestarter (1984), made an unexpected and temporary segue into directing. To date he has only ever directed one film, and that's this one: The Curse, an adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft story "The Colour Out of Space". Independently financed and produced, it was shot in Tellico Plains and Rome, Italy, and boasted Italian genre filmmaker Lucio Fulci as one of its producers and visual effects supervisors.

It is also, by the way, a really terrible film.

January 21, 2016

Magic Kitchen (2004)

For a while there in the early 2000s Sammi Cheng was one of the biggest stars in Hong Kong cinema. Every year brought about another high profile romantic comedy, more often than not pairing Cheng with superstar Andy Lau. While their biggest hits seemed to be with director Johnnie To in films such as Needing You and Love on a Diet, they also co-starred in a number of other comedies including Magic Kitchen. This 2004 release was directed by Lee Chi-ngai and based on the popular novel by Hong Kong author Lam Wing-sum.

Cheng plays Yau Mo-yung, a talented chef and owner of her own private kitchen. Private kitchens are a curious Hong Kong artefact, in which independent chefs set up very small restaurants inside their own living rooms. These restaurants, which often serve outstanding food, can only accommodate a few diners at a time. Mo-yung is unlucky in love, suffering from what her mother told her was a family curse that prevents the women in their family from finding happiness. When an ex-boyfriend (Andy Lau) comes back into her life, she angsts over pursuing him again - all the while overlooked the desperate affections coming from her kitchen assistant Ho (Taiwanese pop star Jerry Yan.)

The Pull List: 20 January 2016, Part I

You don't get anthology comics very often. Image has been publishing Island in recent months, which has been a mixed but often-times excellent publication. Now IDW is adding to the tradition with Amazing Forest, a new series written by Erick Freitas and Ulises Farinas with a rotating group of different artists. This first issue features four separate stories.

"Tank", illustrated by Julian Dufour, focuses on a group of men stuck inside a massive rolling tank. Every day the toxic green sludge outside transforms into the shape of their loved ones, and every day they are forced to roll over or shoot the images of their families and friends to live for another day. It's an odd, dark little science fiction story, but all in all it's pretty effective. "Wolf Mother", illustrated by Matt Rota, is distinctively drawn and coloured, but the script feels too short and slight for the reader to make a proper connection. "Ronnie the Robot", featuring art by Melody Often, is also very short but manages to squeeze in some nice story beats and an emotional kick. "Bird Watcher", illustrated by Yumi Sakugawa, is the strangest story of the bunch. Sakugawa's simple artwork is a brilliant match to the non-realist, idiosyncratic story.

Altogether it is a great package, with great cover artwork, great ideas and wildly varied artwork. I really hope it finds an audience - it deserves one. (4/5)

IDW. Written by Erick Freitas and Ulises Farinas. Art by Julian Dufour, Matt Rota, Melody Often and Yumi Sakugawa.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman, Judge Dredd and Ms Marvel.

January 20, 2016

Ten fantasy films coming in 2016

There's a bumper crop of fantasy films coming out in 2016, including epics, children's book adaptations, remakes and sequels. I have very mixed feelings about the slate overall. Some of these films look wonderfully promising. Some of them I have doubts about. A few I am actively expecting to be dreadful. Have a look down the list and see which films tickle your own fancy - and let me know which ones you're looking forward to the most.

Alice Through the Looking Glass
Opens 21 May. Directed by James Bobin. Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen.
The Muppets director James Bobin replaces Tim Burton as director on this CGI frenzy sequel to the 2010 Disney hit. This new film brings back most of the all-star cast of its predecessor, plus adds Sacha Baron Cohen as a new villain. I was reasonably entertained by the first film, although it definitely wallowed in far too many unconvincing computer-generation effects and Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter was actually rather irritating and self-indulgent. I'm not entire averse to the idea of a sequel, but at the same time I am unsure if we needed one. This is a case where I shall likely sit on the fence until the first reviews come out, then decide whether or not to see it at the cinema.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Starship Down"

It's 6 November 1995, and time for another episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

The Defiant has entered the Gamma Quadrant to allow for trade negotiations between the Karemma Commerce Guild and the Federation - negotiations made difficult by all of the fraudulent fees charged by the Ferengi as intermediaries. When the negotiations are ambushed by two Jem'Hadar starships, the Defiant soon finds itself badly damaged and sinking into the atmosphere of a gas giant - and the Jem'Hadar remain hot on its tail.

"Starship Down" is basically a fusion of two well-worn genre tropes, brushed down, thrown together and re-purposed as a science fiction adventure. The first trope is the submarine movie, with the Defiant forced to play a tense game of cat and mouse as it tries blindly to locate and destroy two enemy vessels. The second is the disaster movie, with the regular cast split up into isolated groups when the ship is damaged. Each pairing of characters is then forced to improvise in order to survive the day and get back to safety. In the end those two blended storylines help to make "Starship Down" a generally entertaining but also rather generic experience.

January 19, 2016

Predator (1987)

A six-man team of special operatives head into the South American nation of Val Verde to retrieve an official held hostage by an insurgent militia. Once in the jungle the team find themselves stalked by an invisible assailant that is killing them off one by one.

Predator is a 1987 science fiction action film written by Jim and John Thomas and directed by John McTiernan. It was the second feature film for McTiernan, after his 1986 debut Nomads was met with widespread disinterest by American movie critics. Predator, however, knocked McTiernan's career into high gear. He followed it up with Die Hard (1988) and The Hunt for Red October (1990), before seeing his career falter with less popular works including Medicine Man (1992), The Last Action Hero (1993) and the troubled, expensive flop The 13th Warrior (1999, which remains a great but hopelessly compromised film). McTiernan's last film was the 2003 thriller Basic. A few years later he was convicted of lying to an FBI investigation and sent to prison for several years. He has been free since early 2014 but, to date, he has not returned to filmmaking.

This is a deep shame, since films like Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October and particularly Predator show McTiernan off as a significant filmmaking talent. We are all losing out without him working in the industry any more. Well, all of us who were not the subjects of his illegal wire-tapping at any rate.

The Pull List: Faith #1

Faith Herbert was a member of the superhero team the Renegades, under the alias Zephyr. Now she's split up with the team and moved to Los Angeles. She has a new secret identity and hopes of establishing herself as the city's greatest new hero - assuming she doesn't bite off more than she can chew straight out of the gate.

Valiant do an outstanding and regularly overlooked job with their comic books. They employ great writers and brilliant artists, and tell some of the best superhero stories in America, and they absolutely do not get the attention or sales that they deserve.

Faith #1 is a perfect example. It's the beginning of a four-issue miniseries. It highlights a great character. Faith is a comic book geek turned comic book-style superhero. She is wide-eyed and optimistic, and desperate to help others and make a real impact. She also has a much fuller build than your average female superhero, and that makes her a visually distinct character as well as a really likeable one.

January 18, 2016

The Purge (2013)

In a future America, one night of the year is handed over to the Purge: a ritualised spree where all crime including murder is no longer illegal, and where citizens can act out their most violent fantasies with legal impunity. On one Purge night, a wealthy security sales manager (Ethan Hawke) and his family bunker down inside their house only to have their lives threatened with the Purge comes for them.

Blumhouse Productions has spent the last few years churning out cheaply made, commercially savvy horror movies and violent thrillers, beginning with Paranormal Activity in 2006 and working its way through 40 films since. The Purge, released in 2013, only cost three million dollars to make but grossed almost ninety million in the cinemas. It has since been followed by two sequels, the second of which is set for release this July. It's a canny method of making commercial cinema, that seems to rely on having a strong hook with which to reel audiences into movie theatres. On the face of it the hook for The Purge seems a little ridiculous and difficult to believe. Once seen on screen, however, the satirical nature of the concept becomes much clearer.

Babylon 5: "The Fall of Centauri Prime"

It's 28 October 1998, and time for another episode of Babylon 5.

As Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) races to stop the Drazi and Narn fleets from obliterating Centauri Prime, Londo (Peter Jurasik) makes a choice to save his people - by sacrificing himself. Meanwhile Delenn (Mira Furlan) and Lennier (Bill Mumy) remains lost in hyperspace. For Lennier it is finally time to speak out loud the thoughts he has kept secret for several years.

It must have been enormously frustrating for viewers back in 1998. The previous episode, "Movements of Fire and Shadow", was aired back in June 1998 giving viewers an intolerable four month wait to find out the resolution of its cliffhanger ending. Thankfully it seems it would have been worth the wait: "The Fall of Centauri Prime" is a deeply felt tragedy that builds on five seasons on plot and character development and seems to act as the final curtain for Londo Mollari's story arc. He started as an irresponsible drunken career politician, more interested in his own advancement than his people's welfare. He ends pretty much at entirely the opposite end of the spectrum: a man so desperate to save his own people that he will sacrifice himself to alien control for the rest of his life.

January 17, 2016

Alien Resurrection (1997)

200 years after her death of Fury-161 Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is cloned by the United Systems Military so that they can extract the developing Alien queen inside her chest. When the USM experiments fail, and Aliens break out across the massive medical ship the Auriga, Ripley joins forces with a band of mercenaries to escape the ship and save the human race from an Alien outbreak.

Then it all came crashing down. Alien Resurrection is a colossal misfire of a film. None of it fits well together. None of it works. Even the elements that should work fail to do so because they contrast too uncomfortably with the other parts of the film. It pairs a writer who built his reputation on a particular brand of self-aware sass and snark with a director who built his on strange, eerily disturbing and deliberately absurd tones and imagery. Like all films Alien Resurrection has its fans, but their affection for the film is simply not one that I can completely understand. To me this is not an under-appreciated masterpiece, or a thought-provoking extension of the Alien concept. It is just a bad film: badly written, quite poorly directed, and wholly and unqualifiably unnecessary.

The Pull List: 13 January 2016, Part II

The Massive was a great post-apocalyptic comic book series that followed the environmental activist group Ninth Wave as they chased after their missing ship the Massive across the flooded remnants of the Earth. The Massive: Ninth Wave is a six-issue miniseries set prior to the events of the main comic book, and reunites writer Brian Wood and artist Garry Brown. I am loathe to describe it as a prequel, but it doesn't really act like one. Instead it is a series of self-contained stories showcasing what Ninth Wave did before the world got turned upside down.

They act as vignettes, stripped down to tell the bare minimum of story to get its point across. There is plenty of ellipsis going on: Wood's scripts are deliberately sparse, and point to the ending rather than openly show it. It creates a really sharp narrative style. Garry Brown's artwork continues to impress, and is about a sharp and to the point as the script. There's not a great amount of dialogue; the story does not really need it.

When Ninth Wave was announced I was concerned it was going to be a superfluous cash-in. Instead it's an excuse to tell some exceptionally solid, direct story vignettes. Any aspiring comic book writer could benefit enormously from following its lead. (5/5)

Dark Horse. Written by Brian Wood. Art by Garry Brown. Colours by Jordie Bellaire.

Under the cut: reviews of Doctor Who, Gotham Academy, Invader Zim and The Mighty Thor.

January 16, 2016

Alien³ (1992)

An onboard incident causes the colonial military vessel Sulaco to eject its sleeping crew in an escape pod, which crash-lands on the isolated and inhospitable planet Fury 161. Of the four passengers only former flight officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) survives. While she struggles to comprehend the deaths of her companions Hicks, Bishop and Newt - not to mention the all-male penal colony in which she has woken - Ripley learns that an alien has followed her down inside the escape pod. With no weapons and no escape, Ripley must lead a group of rapists, murderers and other violent criminals in an effort to trap and kill the alien before the Weyland Yutani corporation arrives to retrieve it.

Suffering from both a protracted and confused development and a group of studio executives obsessed with interfering with its production to the point of catastrophe, Alien³ is the most difficult of the Alien films to properly embrace. Its director, David Fincher, was fired from the production twice before it was completed. The theatrical edit is missing enough footage to render several key plot points close to nonsensical. The film also seems wilfully unlikeable. It begins by murdering a child and then adds insult to injury by populating its cast with near-identical violent criminals. It follows up the military action of Aliens with a story where there isn't a single gun to be seen and it deliberately ends on the most downbeat and depressing note that it can find. Upon release it was widely derided as a colossal misfire, and has since gained a reputation as something of a commercial disaster - this despite it grossing more money in cinemas worldwide than either of its predecessors.

Putting the biases of the time aside, it is clear from its troubled production if nothing else that Alien³ is not as good a film as the original Alien. It is, however, easily the most intriguing of the four original Alien movies. It remains since its 1992 release my personal favourite of the entire saga. It's a film that makes you work a little to engage with it, but which brings great and entertaining rewards once you do.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Rejoined"

It's 30 October 1995, and time for more Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

A Trill science team arrives at the station to begin tests to create the galaxy's first artificially created wormhole. The leader of the team is Lenara Kahn (Susanna Thompson), whose former host was once married to one of Dax's (Terry Farrell) former hosts. Trill society strictly forbids former spouses to reconnect in new bodies, yet as Dax and Kahn work together they begin to rekindle their old relationship - at great risk to them both.

First and foremost, it is important to emphasise that this episode is not about how it's bad to be a lesbian. Sure the episode involves two women who fall in love, and their fellow Trill are very quick to warn them to stop because it's unnatural and disgusting, and they risk being marginalised from society for having a love affair that the broader Trill society finds repugnant and gross, and they're two women kissing on screen, and in the end they separate because one of them decides that two women - I mean, two rejoined Trill - having sex is not worth society's scorn, but it is categorically not an attack of lesbians.

January 15, 2016

Babylon 5: "Movements of Fire and Shadow"

It's 17 June 1997, and time for another episode of Babylon 5.

The Interstellar Alliance goes to war with the Centauri Republic, although some member planets may have more extreme plans than others. While Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) races with the White Star fleet to prevent catastrophe, Franklin (Richard Biggs) and Lyta (Patricia Tallman) uncover disturbing new revelations on the Drazi home world.

It seems as if the last episode of Babylon 5 finally lit a firecracker underneath the dwindling series. "Movements of Fire and Shadow" is a fast-paced , highly dramatic episode. The plot develops rapidly, the characters are pushed into moments of desperation, and enormous tragedy once again looms over all. I think it is easily the strongest episode of its season. That sounds like potentially weak praise giving the generally poor quality of Babylon 5's final year, but it really can stand up as one of the best episodes the series has produced.

Rashomon (1950)

'I just don't understand,' mutters a woodcutter (Takashi Shimizu), and he shelters under the half-ruined eaves of the Rashomon gate with a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a passer-by (Kichijiru Ueda). The woodcutter has just returned from a trial by the local magistrate into a rape and murder. There he heard testimony from the accused - the notorious bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) - as well as the victim of the assault (Machiko Kyo) and, via a medium, the victim of the murder (Masayuki Mori). The problem is that these three different versions of events don't add up. Two of them have to be untrue, however all three seems improbably enough that it is possible - indeed likely - that they are all untrue. 'I just don't understand,' mutters the woodcutter again. The audience would likely agree.

Rashomon is one of the most significant feature films of all time. It is significant on three counts. Firstly it was the film that broke Akira Kurosawa out to an international audience, giving him a strong reputation as a creative artist and auteur that he never received in his own country. Secondly it was the first Japanese film to receive mainstream international attention at all; it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and received an honorary Academy Award the following year. Finally it introduces the idea of an unreliable narrator to narrative cinema. That is possibly its greatest achievement of all.

January 14, 2016

Aliens (1986)

Decades after she escaped the alien and bedded down in hypersleep, the Nostromo's flight officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is recovered and returned to Earth. At first nobody believes her story of a crashed alien spacecraft on the planet LV-426, or the deadly menace hidden inside. When a small terraforming colony on LV-426 loses contact, however, Ripley is convinced to accompany a unit of colonial marines back to the planet. They find the colony in disarray, the humans missing and the base infested with aliens.

Given the huge commercial and critical success of Ridley Scott's Alien, it does seem bizarre that it took 20th Century Fox seven years to pull together a sequel. While Sigourney Weaver returned to play Ripley, Scott did not return to direct - handing control over to the up-and-coming filmmaker James Cameron. Cameron, then riding on top of the success of his science fiction thriller The Terminator, both wrote and directed Aliens. It is one of the best film sequels ever made. It is enormously clever because it manages the remarkable feat of honouring its predecessor while changing its genre. Alien was a brilliant blend of science fiction and horror. Aliens blends science fiction and a Vietnam War film.

The Pull List: 13 January 2016, Part I

Praise be to DC Comics, for they have finally managed to produce a really good comic book crossover again. I honestly can't remember the last one I really enjoyed - possibly Final Crisis, but even that got a little confused and messy towards the end. By contrast Robin War has been a great storyline, bringing together Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, Jason Todd, Damian Wayne and the cast of We Are Robin for one big city-threatening fight against the Court of Owls.

The final instalment of the saga comes as Robin War #2, at an extra length and with an extra price (US$4.99). The story by Tom King is fast-paced, dramatic and allows for each character to get their final moment in the sun. It also manages a nice bait-and-switch towards the end, and leads into a conclusion that works for this story while throwing one of the regular Bat-books into a whole new direction. It's the kind of event storyline I like: it uses multiple elements from different books, teases them into an intriguing new pattern and gets out with both a thrilling climax and fresh narrative threads to inspire future stories down the line.

If I have a criticism it's the art: clearly DC were insistent on hitting its publication deadline come hell or high water, because there's a near record number of pencillers, inkers and colourists in the credits to bring this book over the line. It winds up giving everything a slightly inconsistent, 'jumpy' look that works against King's script. It's a bit of a shame. I'd have been happy to wait another month or so if it meant getting something more consistent.(4/5)

DC Comics. Written by Tom King. Art by Khary Randolph, Alvaro Martinez, Raul Fernandez, Carmine di Giandomenico, Scott McDaniel, Andy Owens and Steve Pugh. Colours by Chris Sotomayor, Emilio Lopez and Mat Lopes.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman and Robin Eternal, Gutter Magic and Rebels.

January 13, 2016

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Indiscretion"

It's 23 October 1995, and time for more Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Major Kira (Nana Visitor) sets out to find a long-lost Cardassian prison transport that carried a cargo of Bajoran political prisoners - only Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo) insists on coming along for the ride. On the station, Sisko (Avery Brooks) mishandles the news that his girlfriend Kasidy (Penny Johnson Jerald) will be living on the station full-time.

"Indiscretion" hinges on the fairly improbable and somewhat unpleasant notion of Kira and Dukat teaming up for an adventure together. He used to be a tyrannical despot, ruling over work camps on an occupied Bajor, and personally responsible for countless Bajoran deaths during the brutal Cardassian occupation. She used to be a work camp prisoner and a freedom fighter, devoting her life to overthrowing the Cardassian regime. Putting them together is sort of like asking a Jew and a Nazi to team up some time after the Second World War. Deep Space Nine never goes quite that far in making the comparison, but it's openly there for the viewer to pick up. To an extent it hamstrings the episode from the get-go - I do not believe Kira would willingly cooperate with a war criminal against her own people quite so readily.

Eight science fiction films coming in 2016

There are a bunch of science fiction films headed our way from Hollywood this year. Some of them are high profile blockbuster sequels, and some are a little smaller in scale. Hopefully we'll manage to get two or three knock outs from this batch. As with previous film preview posts, I'll let you know what I'm anticipating as we go. Release dates are for their USA debuts - international dates are obviously going to vary like crazy. Rule of thumb: the bigger the movie, the more likely it will get a simultaneous release.

The 5th Wave
Opens 22 Jan. Directed by J Blakeson. Starring Chloe Grace Moretz, Ron Livingston, Nick Robinson and Maggie Siff.
First off the rank, and opening in just a few weeks, is The 5th Wave. Based on the novel by Rick Yancey, the film follows a young woman on the run after four waves of alien attacks have almost entirely wiped out the human race. I have to be honest: I don't know a lot about this one other than its trailer - which seemed interesting without feeling like a must-see - and its basic premise. Moretz, however, is a pretty great actor. Hopefully she's signed onto something worthy of her talents.

January 12, 2016

Outside (1995)

Last night, along with everybody else in the developed world, I heard the news that David Bowie had died. It seemed a tremendous shock, even though he had released a final album four days earlier that pretty much told everyone he was dying of cancer - we had all simply failed to listen to him. It was a typical move for Bowie, to turn his own death into a work of art. He was, and will remain through his work, a remarkable artist. Not just a musician but a multi-media phenomenon: an actor of stage and screen, the writer of a musical, a talented painter, a fashion icon, and so on. I am not certain there was a medium in which he did not at least experiment. He even co-wrote a videogame.

Bowie has had an enormous impact upon me personally. As a small child I was terrified of this creepy man dressed as a clown singing "Ashes to Ashes". When I was growing up in the 1980s he was a permanent fixture of music television through his sometimes-derided period of very commercial pop hits. He starred in Labryinth, one of the three films directed by another of my heroes Jim Henson. It was in 1993 that I was completely taken by Bowie's album Black Tie White Noise. From that point on I became an enormous fan of his work, eagerly awaiting new material while digging back and properly appreciating his earlier works.

I was trying to think of what to write about David Bowie - I knew I wanted to write something to honour his memory, because he's left such an indelible impression on me and influenced me a great deal. Should I write some kind of career overview? A list of my favourite songs? A look at his work as an actor? In the end I decided to keep it focused and personal. Here's a review of my absolute favourite David Bowie album: his 1995 release Outside.

Babylon 5: "And All My Dreams, Torn Asunder"

It's 10 June 1998, and time for more Babylon 5.

The Interstellar Alliance learns of the Centauri attacks on their cargo ships, leading the Alliance to declare war on the Centauri Republic. Londo (Peter Jurasik) is recalled back to Centauri Prime, where he and G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas) are imprisoned.

Credit where it's due, when the time comes from J. Michael Stracyznski to write a stirring, emotive speech, he usually does a pretty good job of it. This is the sort of episode we used to see all the time in Seasons 3 and 4, and it's sad that it's taken 16 episodes for Season 5 to finally reach this point. The fragile peace formed in the wake of the Shadow War has been shattered. An all-new war has taken its place. No one is happy about it, and it's clear that many people are about to die.

January 11, 2016

Alien (1979)

A commercial spaceship is on its way back to Earth when its journey is interrupted by an unknown signal emanating from a nearby planet. The crew is revived from hyper-sleep to investigate. On the planet LV-426 they discover a mysterious alien spacecraft, and one of the crew is attacked by an spider-like organism that latches onto his face and puts him into a coma. With no choice but to return the man to their ship, alien attached, they unwittingly bring on board a monstrous predator that appears set to kill them all.

You probably didn't need that synopsis: Alien is one of the most famous and widely seen science fiction movies ever made. Directed by Ridley Scott and released in 1979 it has spawned three sequels, two movie crossovers with Predator and a prequel - with a second prequel due in 2017. It is a brilliant film, taking a fairly simple storyline and upping its quality through strong performances, great dialogue and characterisation, and unparalleled production design. The design of the titular alien alone, by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, is enough to grant Alien legendary status. The truth is that the rest of the film is just as good.

Babylon 5: "Darkness Ascending"

It's 3 June 1998, and time for more Babylon 5.

Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) learns of the mission Delenn (Mira Furlan) gave to Lennier (Bill Mumy). When he tries to recall Lennier's ship, Lennier takes matters into his own hands. Lise Hampton-Edgars (Denise Gentile) arrives on the station to surprise Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle), only to learn he has started drinking again.

"Darkness Ascending" proves that the previous episode, "Meditations on the Abyss", was a largely unnecessary episode to make, since it by-and-large continues the same general storylines in a slow and unsatisfying manner. Both episodes could easily have been squeezed into one, resulting in something that would at least be faster-paced. The other problems were would not so easily be fixed, since they indulge mercilessly in cliché and stereotype. It all adds up to a pretty dull watch.

January 10, 2016

Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! (1963)

In the 1950s and 1960s the Japanese film studio Nikkatsu managed to find itself a profitable niche with a string of pulp action flicks, boasting energetic jazz scores, police and private detectives, yakuza and other mobsters, and a lot of shootouts, punch-ups and chases. Rather than spend money hiring movie stars, Nikkatsu made stars of their own contract players. Their films form one of the more interesting parts of Japanese film history, and thanks to a number of American and British DVD distributors they are finally getting the international exposure and recognition that they deserve.

Among Nikkatsu's directors, the one most widely celebrate today is Seijun Suzuki. He was ultimately fired from the studio after his artful and surreal thriller Branded to Kill upset studio management, and after he sued for wrongful dismissal he found himself blacklisted from the industry for about a decade, Thankfully he was still alive when his works were re-evaluated and widely celebrated, and today a string of his films are noted as genre classics: not just Branded to Kill but A Tattooed Life, Tokyo Drifter, Youth of the Beast and several others.

Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! is not one of Suzuki's better-known films for Nikkatsu, but it remains an impressively energetic, morally ambiguous and enormously stylish crime-based thriller. It's simply tremendous fun.

The Pull List: 6 January 2016, Part II

For the last six months or so Detective Comics has felt like a pretty uneven and inconsistent book. The eagerly anticipated run by Brian Buccellatto and Francis Manapul seemed to collapse after just one storyline, and got replaced by a mixture of Peter J. Tomasi one-shots and random crossover tie-ins. There didn't seem to be consistency any more, and it was making the book rather difficult to properly enjoy.

I am hoping those troubled days are behind the book, because this latest issue - #48 - begins a very promising new story arc. A man is found dead in an alleyway dressed like George Washington, with a frightening level of detail right down to the style of buttons on his coat. The murderer nearly kills Batman - still played by former police commissioner Jim Gordon - when he arrives to investigate. Now the chase is on to track down the killer and work out precisely what's motivating him to kill in the fashion he does.

It's an evocative and intriguing opening instalment, giving just enough material to hook the reader into the mystery. It's also aided by great art from Fernando Pasarin and Matt Ryan, and beautiful characterisation from Tomasi's script. I don't expect Gordon to remain in the Bat-suit for much longer, but when he's written like this I kind of wish he would stick around for longer. (4/5)

DC Comics. Written by Peter J. Tomasi. Art by Fernando Pasarin and Matt Ryan. Colours by Chris Sotomayer.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman and Robin Eternal, Doctor Strange and The Eighth Seal.

January 9, 2016

Seven superhero films coming in 2016

Hollywood's enthusiasm for comic book movies shows no sign of abating in 2016: Marvel Studios, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros each have two superhero movies this year, while Paramount is rolling the dice on another live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Every year I do wonder if this is going to be the year when the superhero movie bubble finally pops, and audience stop embracing them with such aggressive zeal. To be honest I suspect Marvel Studios will go perfectly fine with their two productions, and a new X-Men is guaranteed to turn some level of profit. It's the two DC offerings, the Ninja Turtles and Deadpool that I've finding slightly doubtful. Sure Batman v Superman will gross a lot of money, but I suspect it also cost a hell of a lot to make. Here's my take on the seven superhero flicks coming up in 2016.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Opens 25 Mar. Directed by Zack Snyder. Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg, Gal Gadot, Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane and Holly Hunter.
Superman is great. He's a wonderful uplifting old-fashion superhero who is an absolute monster to write good stories about, but retains such a huge iconic presence and storytelling potential. Batman is also great, and has demonstrated a real flair to be adapted into live-action cinema - this is his ninth live-action feature to date. It's rather sad, then, that the odds seem high that Batman v Superman - their first movie encounter together - is going to be a pretty bad movie. The evidence is in the film's director, Zack Snyder, who managed the outstanding feat of making Superman unlikeable in Man of Steel and whose previous comic book adaptation Watchmen was a near-perfect instruction manual for how to ruin a classic comic. I have very low expectations for this film, mainly to protect myself from disappointment. I am a DC fan at heart, and  Batman-meet-Superman movie should be on the top of my to-watch list for the year. It's not. It's not even in the top ten.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Hippocratic Oath"

It's 16 October 1995, and time for more Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Bashir (Alexander Siddig) and O'Brien (Colm Meaney) crash-land on a planet in the Gamma Quadrant, and meet a group of Jem'Hadar attempting to escape from the Dominion. On the station, Worf (Michael Dorn) struggles to accept the manner in which Odo (Rene Auberjonois) undertakes his duties as security chief.

"Hippocratic Oath" is mostly very good, taking two characters who are close friends and pushing them into a situation where they're forced to take diametrically opposed positions to one another. There is a lot of dramatic potential there, and to a large degree that potential is fulfilled. The other side of the episode is less successful, with Worf struggling to adapt to life on the station. This subplot takes an obvious idea, and runs with it in an obvious manner: hardly must-see television.

January 8, 2016

The Pull List: 6 January 2016, Part I

Due to shipping accident or an intentional attempt to boost the week's market share, Marvel released both Star Wars #14 and Darth Vader #15 to comic shops simultaneously this week. Together they wrap up the six-issue "Vader Down" crossover that they have been running.

In the end it's a masterful conclusion. I complained last week that Chewbacca #5 offered a truncated and unsatisfying climax to that miniseries, before ending with an overly-long and rather tedious epilogue. That simply isn't the case here. The action continues right up to the final pages, and Kieron Gillen offers a two-page final scene that actually packs many times the punch of Chewbacca's in about a fifth of the pages.

These final two issues pack a lot of fighting into them. Vader versus Leia, Han and Chewie versus the Wookiee bounty hunter Krrsantan, Vader versus the Mon Calamari cyborg Karbin, Luke versus Stormtroopers, villainous droids BT-1 and Triple-O versus Stormtroopers, Aphra versus Leia, Krrsantan versus C-3PO. It just keeps piling higher and higher, becoming more and more ridicuous yet more and more hilariously entertaining at the same time. It's plotted and scripted so consistently that you really can't tell that Jason Aaron wrote one issue and Kieron Gillen the other. Mike Deodato's slightly gritty artwork on Star Wars #14 is impressive, but I remain more enamoured with Salvador Larroca's work in Darth Vader #15. He and Gillen make a sensational team.

Altogether this has been a fantastic little event storyline that not only manages to be a fan-pleasing meet-up of heroes and villains but also a genuine step forward in both book's ongoing narratives. It feels like an event that matters, and one that didn't require having read both books beforehand to enjoy. (5/5)

Star Wars #14. Marvel. Written by Jason Aaron. Art by Mike Deodato. Colours by Frank Martin Jr. Darth Vader #15. Marvel. Written by Kieron Gillen. Art by Salvador Larroca. Colours by Edgar Delgado.

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Giant Days and The Sheriff of Babylon.

Split Second (1992)

Harley Stone (Rutger Hauer) is a burnt-out, obsessive police officer in the flooded London of 2008. He remains fixated on the death of his partner several years earlier - a death linked to a series of unsolved ritual murders across the city. With a new partner, the Scottish rookie Dick Durkin (Neil Duncan), Stone races to stop the killer before he can kill again.

Remember the glory days of VHS, when your local video store would stock a vast array of direct-to-video genre titles like Moon 44, Slipstream and Society? They were often not very good, but they often boasted the occasional stand-out performance, or clever idea, or innovative special effects. You had to give these films a lot of latitude: with low budgets and short production schedules they could never aspire to be as slick or watchable as a studio-backed theatrical release. For the right viewer in the best possible frame of mind, some of these direct-to-video films seemed genuinely great.

Split Second probably isn't entirely great. It is great, but it's also fairly awful. That's the thing about these kinds of films: they're great, and they're awful. They're both at once. This one has some pretty dreadful dialogue, and a lot of cliches in the plot, but it also has a wonderfully hammy central performance by the amazing Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner, Ladyhawke), a beautiful water-logged aesthetic, and a nice genre twist at the film's mid-point. There is no need to rush to see this movie, but at the same time if you ever get the chance it is worth checking out.

January 7, 2016

Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season 4 in Review

The conventional wisdom is that Star Trek: The Next Generation was a pretty shaky series for its first two years, but 'got good' with its third season. A rewatch of those three seasons showed that assessment to be slightly inaccurate: Season 3 does indeed get much, much better, but it's a transition that takes it much of that season to make. As a result Season 4 is really the first year of the series to be running at a fully superior quality, and that easily makes it the best year for the series thus far.

It's also the year that finally saw the production successfully convince Paramount to let it tell proper ongoing stories. The episodes are suddenly less self-contained. Worf's discommendation and the near-collapse of the Klingon Empire are threaded throughout the series. Picard's traumatic violation at the hands of the Borg gets an entire episode to deal with its aftermath, and it is still a plot point towards the end of the year in "The Drumhead".

Put simply, Season 4 is the first year of the series that actually feels like what we think of when we remember it. This is Star Trek: The Next Generation, fully shaken free from its origins as a sequel and well established as a major American television drama in its own right.

Asako in Ruby Shoes (2000)

U-In (Lee Jung-jae) is a disenfranchised Korean public servant who has a boring life, constantly under-achieves and spends most of his spare time masturbating to Internet pornography. Aya (Misato Tachibana) is a depressed Japanese health centre employee who buys shoes he can't afford and plans to commit suicide by holding her breath. To earn some quick money Aya turns to performing for a soft-core pornographic web site - at which point her and U-In's lives collide.

I really don't know quite what to make of Asako in Ruby Shoes. It is a 2000 comedy drama from Korean writer/director E. J-yong. It effectively tells two stories in parallel. One of them follows an endearing and rather funny young woman struggling to find her place in the world. The other follows a pervert and sex pest, the sort of man who hides in the women's toilets in the hope of glimpsing whatever woman he is currently fixated upon. Lee Jung-jae gives a great and rather engaging performance as Korea's worst slacker, but in truth he's almost too ugly a character to like.