March 31, 2016

The Angriest: March 2016 in review

In the month of March 2016, The Angriest reviewed 21 feature films, 12 television episodes, 40 comic books and three videogames.

The most popular review of the month was, rather surprisingly, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Starting in February I reviewed the Superman movie series from the 1978 Richard Donner-directed Superman: The Movie, as a lead-up to this month's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I had no idea that the most popular review of the set was going to be the one focused on by far the worst film. Other popular reviews were the surprisingly great medieval action film Last Knights, the unsurprisingly mediocre Spectre, and the first episode of the Canadian science fiction series Dark Matter.

A full index of March posts is included below.

The Pull List: 30 March 2016, Part I

In The Omega Men #10, Kyle Rayner and the Omega Men lead the defence of the planet Harna in a long, gruelling, 41-day battle. It is a real contrast to earlier issues of the series, which would tell a storyline in what felt like real-time. Here we're often getting one panel per day of story time, and both writer Tom King and artist Barnaby Bagenda really make it work remarkably well.

It has been a remarkably strong and enjoyable comic, using the DC Universe to tell an epic and atmospheric space opera with a richly designed world and a great cast of characters. While it failed to attract a large group of readers - February sales estimates put the print readership at under 9,000 - everyone involved in putting the book together should be really proud: I would honestly put this up alongside Snyder and Capullo's Batman and Azarello and Chiang's Wonder Woman as one of the best titles DC has published in the last five years.

The Omega Men ends in two issues. As a keen fan of the book I am grateful to DC for giving King the extra six issues he needed to properly end the story. Readers looking for a great science fiction comic should check it out when the trade paperback arrives. Moving on, I will be keeping an eye out for both King and Bagenda's work in future. King is already halfway through an exceptional Vertigo miniseries, The Sheriff of Babylon, and is taking over Batman in June. Fingers crossed at some point he and Bagenda collaborate again. (5/5)

The Omega Men #10. DC Comics. Written by Tom King. Art by Barnaby Bagenda. Colours by Hi-fi.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman and Robin Eternal, Daredevil and Saga.

March 30, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Eighteen months after his devastating battle against General Zod, Superman (Henry Cavill) remains a polarising figure to the people of Earth. After a north African rescue winds up killing innocent people, he comes under the scrutiny of a United States senate hearing - and in the cross-hairs of Gotham City's legendary vigilante the Batman (Ben Affleck).

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice comes to cinemas with possibly the silliest title of any superhero movie released to date, not to mention hopelessly overloaded with set-ups and previews for a whole combined universe of future DC Comics-inspired action movies. It is a bloated two-and-a-half hour juggernaut, packed with ominous portent, growling confrontations between heroes, flashbacks and dream sequences. It has been met with pretty negative reviews from critics, and to a large extent I agree with their complaints. The film is too long, too messy constructed, and definitely too bleak and humourless.

At the same time there is something genuinely exciting about seeing Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) lined up ready to combat an angry giant monster, and for a certain viewer that sort of excitement is going to trump a lot of the film's faults.

March 28, 2016

Crusade: "Ruling from the Tomb"

It is 14 July 1999, and time for another episode of Crusade.

Dr Chalmers (Marjean Holden) has been invited to address a Mars-based medical conference aimed at uniting human scientists in the fight against the Drakh plague. While Gideon (Gary Cole) fights with Captain Elizabeth Lochley (Tracy Scoggins) over security arrangements, a religious cult aims to disrupt the conference - and hopefully let the human race die out instead.

After five episodes in the opening titles but in the episode, Tracy Scoggins finally makes her Crusade debut as Babylon 5 commanding officer Elizabeth Lochley. It takes a bit of a contortion in terms of storytelling for her to arrive - former B5 medical chief Stephen Franklin recommended her for the job - but she is a welcome presence. Despite being woefully underused in Babylon 5's last year, Lochley managed to be a pretty strong character and Scoggins plays her well. Her appearance here, and romantic overtures between her and Gideon, work very well.

March 27, 2016

Zootopia (2016)

Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is the first rabbit to be made a police officer in Zootopia, a sprawling city in which anthropomorphic animals of all species live together in comparative harmony. When a group of random citizens go missing, Judy decides to investigate - roping in a con artist fox (Jason Bateman) named Nick Wilde along the way.

Zootopia is the latest animated feature from the Walt Disney Animation Studios. WDAS has been on something of a winning streak in recent years, scoring great hits with the likes of Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6 and their pop culture juggernaut Frozen. Zootopia offers much of the same as recent non-musical efforts, with gorgeous animation and character design, quality voice acting and a storyline that has been worked over to within an inch of its life for optimum thematic resonance, foreshadowing and character development. To an extent it is very much more of the same, but as the company is running on such a creatively strong line of attack that is not a bad thing.

Timeline (2003)

An archaeological dig at Castelgard, France, has been benefiting from unusually accurate intelligence by its funder - the technical corporation ITC. When the dig leader, Professor Edward Johnston (Billy Connolly) heads to ITC for answers and fails to return, his team find themselves called in after him. There they discover ITC's most secret project: transmitting human beings via a wormhole from the present day to the Middle Ages.

Timeline was a commercial misfire back in 2003, failing to break even and gathering critical reviews that ranged from indifferent to actively hostile. To this day I do not entirely understand why. While there is nothing in the film that leaps out and shows the audience something unprecedented or particularly impressive, it remains a solidly constructed and well-directed science fiction adventure film.

Howard Hawks' famous definition of what makes a good film - 'three great scenes, no bad ones' - definitely qualifies here.

March 26, 2016

The Pull List: 23 March 2016, Part II

A bold young woman in Elizabethan England learns that the man she assumed was her father was not, leading her straight to the noted occultist Dr John Dee and the real father she has been warned to never meet. That is the first issue of The Shadow Glass in a nutshell. It is a six-issue miniseries written and illustrated by Aly Fell. At this early stage it is impossible to fully categorise its genre. It is a historical drama, certainly, but whether it is to fall into fantasy or horror territory is yet to be determined - it seems likely to be one or the other.

There is a slightly mannered style to Fell's dialogue. On the one hand it does feel somewhat appropriate to the period setting. On the other it pushes the reader a little bit away from the narrative, since we never really find ourselves too close to the characters. It is visibly well researched, however, and fans of Elizabethan history, the occult and John Dee himself will find a lot to absorb and enjoy here. Even the book's logo seems designed to appeal to them.

Fell's art is remarkable, and to be honest it's this book's main selling point. It is a gorgeously composed and very European, and ridiculously easy on the eye. This issue, while imperfect, shows tremendous promise. I am keen to see how it develops over the coming issues. (4/5)

The Shadow Glass #1. Dark Horse. Story and art by Aly Fell.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman and Robin Eternal, The Spire and We Are Robin.

March 25, 2016

The Last Run (1971)

Harry Garmes (George C. Scott) is a long-retired professional criminal, living in hiding on the Portuguese coast. Harry unexpectedly receives a job offer: to drive an escaped convict from Spain across the border into France. Desperate to recapture the thrill of his past life one more time, Harry runs into unwanted complications - including the convict's girlfriend and a sudden double-cross that puts his own life at risk.

The Last Run was not a success back in 1971. For one thing it was a deeply troubled production, with an ascendant George C. Scott using the success of his critically acclaimed performance in Patton to leverage a lot more control over the production that he'd previously enjoyed. He fought so vigorously with director John Huston that Huston walked, with Richard Fleischer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) taking over after the shoot had commenced. Scott fought for his wife to be cast in a key role, and by the end of the shoot had left her for his other female co-star. Once released in cinemas the critical response was muted and the cinema-going public essentially ignored it. The film is now available via the Warner Archive range of print-on-demand DVDs, and it turns out to be something of a hidden gem.

The Pull List: 23 March 2016, Part I

Over in the extra-length Batman #50, Bruce Wayne finally returns to duty as Batman after 10 issues on the sidelines. In his place Jim Gordon has been performing the role of a police-sanctioned Batman using high-tech corporate investment and a super-powered robot Batsuit. Now both men unite to take down the bizarre new villain Mr Bloom, whose growing powers have led to him mutating into a strange giant monster that looms over Gotham's buildings.

This also marks pretty much the end of Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo and Danny Miki's run on Batman. It kicked off when the New 52 started, and for about four and a half years it's been providing a string of high-concept, blockbuster-style epic storylines including "The Court of Owls", "Zero Year", "Death of the Family" and "Endgame". Some readers have chafed at the liberties this creative team has taken - notably Jim Gordon's Batman - while others have wallowed in the imaginative manner in which the characters have been stretched and transformed. I am firmly in the latter camp. This issue is pretty much a showcase for what the team do best, so if you've enjoyed the run you'll love the climax and if you haven't enjoyed it this is severely unlikely to change your mind.

There's an epilogue to go in issue #51 but essentially this is the end of the run, and it concludes in the manner these sorts of commercial ongoing superhero books should end. The toys are mostly put back in the box: Bruce is Batman again, Jim is the police commissioner again, and Gotham is back running in a familiar, comfortable fashion. A whole raft of new characters and story threads have been brought into Batman's world, and they're all there for future creative teams to shake up and exploit. (5/5)

Batman #50. DC Comics. Written by Scott Snyder. Art by Greg Capullo and Danny Miki, with Yanick Paquette. Colours by FCO Plascencia and Nathan Fairbairn.

Under the cut: reviews of Doctor Who: The 4th Doctor, Obi-Wan & Anakin, and Venus.

March 22, 2016

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Accession"

It's 24 February 1996, and time for another episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

A three hundred year-old Bajoran starship unexpectedly emerges from the wormhole, and its sole occupant announces himself as the Emissary of the Prophets - the same religious position that Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks) unwillingly occupies in the Bajoran religion. Keiko O'Brien (Rosalind Chao) returns to the station after six month on assignment, and has unexpected news for Miles (Colm Meaney).

The executives of Paramount Television positively hated Bajor-centric episodes such as this. They focused on alien religions and politics, and those within the studios upper echelons would have much rather the Deep Space Nine team focus on episodes with phaser gun-fights, ship-to-ship combat and boisterous action. Viewing figures were generally much softer for Bajor episodes, which to an extent proved the executives' point. On the other hand I am deeply grateful that a few times a year the Deep Space Nine writers and producers would firmly push back: religion is such a central part of humanity's real-life history and evolution, and it's therefore appropriate and fascinating for a science fiction series to dig into issues of faith and culture as well. It's the kind of thing Deep Space Nine did best.

March 21, 2016

Monster Hunt (2015)

In the distant past, monsters walk the Earth but have been banished to faraway mountain regions separate from humanity. A runaway monster queen escapes to human territory and bestows her infant child upon an inept village mayor (Jing Boran). He soon teams up with an aspiring monster hunter (Bai Baihe) to protect the baby from both the monsters that have undertaken a coup of their kingdom, as well as the monster hunters who wish to eliminate the monsters once and for all.

Monster Hunt was a massive hit in China last year, where it broke box office records to become the highest-grossing Chinese language film of all time (a record since broken by Stephen Chow's 2016 film Mermaid). Monster Hunt combines computer-generated effects, wuxia action, scatalogical humour and even a few musical numbers, in a sort of 'everything-in-the-pot' approach to popular filmmaking. The result is a sort of amiable yet uneven mess, one too scrappy to really rate as a genre classic but far too goofy and loveable to criticise too harshly.

My Girl (1991)

Vada Saltenfuss (Anna Chlumsky) is an 11 year-old on summer holidays in 1972. She lives with her father Harry (Dan Ackroyd) at the local funeral parlour, she spends a lot of time playing with her best friend Thomas J. (Macaulay Culkin), and harbours a crush for her school teacher Mr Bixler (Griffin Dunne). When Shelly DeVoto (Jamie Lee Curtis) arrives in a camper van to become the parlour's new make-up artist, Vada finds her life changing rapidly beneath her feet - with comedic and tragic consequences.

My Girl rode into cinemas in 1991 on the back of Macaulay Culkin's tremendous success in Home Alone the previous year. That perhaps skewed a lot of people's views on My Girl, since Culkin is a supporting character in the film and at the time a lot of moviegoers were not too enamoured with Culkin as a performer. I was not in that group. I went and saw My Girl because I liked Culkin and I liked Home Alone. It's been 25 years and I still like My Girl, in all of its deliberate, saccharine, and overly sentimental glory.

March 20, 2016

The Flash: "Going Rogue"

It's 28 October 2014, and time for another episode of The Flash.

After foiling the attempted robbery of an armoured truck, Barry (Grant Gustin) makes an enemy of career robber Leonard Snart (Wentworth Miller). When Snart comes into possession of a super-powered freeze ray, Barry finds himself with a real challenge on his hands - although Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) has arrived to lend a hand.

Of the four episodes of The Flash so far, "Going Rogue" is by far the one that most resembles a comic book. It does this by employing two fairly key tropes of the medium. Firstly, it features a crossover character from another title. In this case Felicity pops over for a week from sister series Arrow. Secondly, it introduces the series' first fully-fledged super-villain in the form of Leonard Snart - aka Captain Cold.

March 19, 2016

The Pull List: 16 March 2016, Part II

Black Canary is one of those promising DC Comics second-stringers who has a reasonably healthy fanbase, but doesn't seem able to sustain a book of her own for too long. There have been four volumes of Black Canary published since 1991. This current volume, now at issue #9, only needs to last another four months to be the longest-running one of the lot.

That said, it might struggle to get there with stunts like this. Last issue ended on a cliffhanger. This issue ignores it entirely, instead presenting a one-off fill-in issue with a different writer and artists. DC Comics are big on hitting their monthly schedule with each ongoing book. Personally I would prefer they just publish issues when they're ready and tell good stories.

This issue is not bad, but it does feel like an inconvenience. Matthew Rosenberg writes a story about the Black Canary band turning up to a rich teenager's birthday only to discover their audience is packed with Gotham City criminals and assassins. Moritat's artwork is distinctive and has a nice energetic look - I loved his work back on All-Star Western, and it's great to see him back with DC. While in isolation it is an entertaining enough one-shot, it's still a tremendous disappointment by virtue of not being what DC advertised. Hopefully they will get back on track next month. (3/5)

Black Canary #9. DC Comics. Written by Matthew Rosenberg. Art by Moritat. Colours by Lee Loughridge.

Under the cut: reviews of Doctor Who: The 8th Doctor, ODY-C and 3 Devils.

March 18, 2016

Crusade: "Patterns of the Soul"

It's 7 July 1999, and time for another episode of Crusade.

The Excalibur is diverted to a human colony on Theta 49, where the population may have become infected with the Drakh plague while fleeing Earth. While exploring the planet Dureena makes an unexpected discovery - a long-lost community of her own species.

Here's the thing about Crusade: it is almost impossible to feel fully engaged by it. It has a cast of characters, and it has a setting, and those characters move through that setting having adventures. Things happen, and those things affect the characters, and the bottom line is that I struggle to care. The episodes that have worked so far have done so just barely. They have been reasonably engaging diversions, but they have not added up to anything that has made me enthused about seeing the next episode. Five episodes in and I am struggling to remember the characters' names.

Survivors: "The Future Hour"

It's 25 June 1975 and time for another episode of Survivors.

Greg (Ian McCullough) and Paul (Chris Tranchell) come across a well-stocked trader named Huxley and his gang, who are trading goods and food for gold - in the hopes of getting rich once civilization is restored. At the same time Huxley's pregnant wife has escaped his clutches and seeks sanctuary at the commune. When Huxley comes to reclaim her, events spiral to a violent conflict between the two parties.

Creator Terry Nation returns to the series with this blandly superficial and generally quite tedious little potboiler. There is some potential in the basic storyline, but it is squandered by weak characterisation and dialogue and an incredibly convenient ending that doesn't just simplify this episode in isolation but also stops one of the more interesting ongoing story elements in its tracks. After the stunning quality of "Law and Order" just one episode earlier, this is a jarring step down in quality. It's a deep shame.

March 17, 2016

The Pull List: 16 March 2016, Part I

Rat Queens feels like a book that's been through the wars. Early acclaim was well earned with hilarious scripts and stunning artwork, then the artist resigned under a fairly unpleasant cloud, the replacement only stuck around for a couple of much-delayed issues, and even with a third artist - Tess Fowler - it seems the delays have yet to abate. I can't remember the last time an issue came out, but it feels like quite a while.

That has been fairly frustrating, because it has knocked the wind out of the book's sails somewhat. This 15th issue, which was released yesterday, marks the climax of the third story arc and represents pretty much the biggest ground-shift in the book's overall storyline since it started. Unlike many issues, this one isn't funny. Instead it feels like tragedy, and one that will have repercussions for many issues to come.

While it is well written, I am still not entirely sold on Tess Fowler's artwork. Following Roc Upchurch and Stepjan Sejic was always going to be a difficult task, but regardless her artwork seems to shift in quality from one panel to the next. It's mildly distracting, and gets in the way of the book hitting the heights that it used to regularly smash. It's still a great book, but I keep wanting it to be truly outstanding again. (4/5)

Rat Queens #15. Image. Written by Kurtis J. Wiebe. Art by Tess Fowler. Colours by Tamra Bonvillain.

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

Dark Matter: Episode One

Six strangers wake up from suspended animation on an otherwise abandoned spaceship. None of them can remember who they are or how they came to be on the ship. Soon they are attacked by an android, and then by another spaceship. By following the ship's original course they find themselves on an isolated mining colony - but do not know why they were headed there in the first place.

Dark Matter is a Canadian science fiction series based on the comic book of the same name. It boasts an intriguing premise, but from this first episode it is difficult to decide whether that premise works well for an ongoing television series. Amnesiac heroes are a dime a dozen, but six of them at once? That's an awful lot of semi-anonymous angst to squeeze into 42 minutes.

March 16, 2016

N64:20 #15: Banjo Kazooie (1998)

In 2016 the Nintendo 64 turns 20 years old. It was Nintendo's third videogame console, produced to succeed the enormously successful SNES. Upon its release in 1996 Time magazine claimed it was "machine of the year". While the N64 failed to best Sony's enormously popular PlayStation - a console in whose early development Nintendo had a key hand - it still sold almost 33 million units worldwide and hosted some of the greatest videogames ever made. To celebrate its anniversary I'm counting down my top 20 N64 videogames; not necessarily the best titles released on the format, but definitely my personal favourites.

So let's talk about Rare. This British videogame developer was established in 1985 under the name Ultimate Play the Game by arcade game developers Chris and Tim Stamper. After developing some titles for ZX Spectrum home computer, the Stampers were shown Nintendo's Famicom console. Impressed by the technology and keen to develop for the console, the Ultimate team reverse-engineered the code - something Nintendo had maintained would be impossible - and sent a tech demo directly to Nintendo in Japan. So impressed was executive Minoru Arakawa that he signed Ultimate up - now using the studio name Rare - to develop games for the Famicom and Nintendo Entertainment System.

Shower (1999)

Daming (Pu Cunxin) is an up-and-coming executive living in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. When he gets the mistaken impression that his elderly father (Zhu Xu) is dying, he rushes home to Beijing and the family's public bathhouse. While there he comes to appreciate the family business that he abandoned, and forms a fresh bond with his father and his brother.

Shower is a Chinese comedy-drama directed by Zhang Yang. It plays with very well-worn story elements of family and duty, and the prodigal sun returning home and unexpectedly coming to embrace the small town life that he had so aggressively rejected. It is likely that most viewers will have seen similar stories played out screen several times before.

That said, there is nothing wrong with a film following a well-established road so long as it brings something else along for the ride. Shower brings a number of particularly strong performances and a gentle sense of realism that proves very emotionally effective.

March 15, 2016

The Living Daylights (1987)

After helping a Soviet defector escape to the west, James Bond (Timothy Dalton) is dispatched to assassinate a Russian general who appears to have reintroduced a program to hunt down and kill spies from the west. Soon Bond discovers that the defector, who appeared to have re-acquired by the Soviets, is actually part of a criminal gambit to defraud both the USSR and an American arms dealer at the same time.

Released in 1987, The Living Daylights introduced movie-going audiences to Timothy Dalton's fresh take on the James Bond character. He was the fourth actor to take up the role as part of EON Productions' franchise, following in the footsteps of Sean Connery, George Lazenby and Roger Moore - who had played the role through seven films between 1973 and 1985.

Dalton only played the role of Bond twice, in this and in 1989's Licence to Kill. Following production on that second film, legal wrangles led to a six-year delay before the franchise returned with GoldenEye. Despite being offered the chance to return in that film, Dalton elected to move on. As a result he has a short tenure as Bond, but to my mind an excellent one. While not the best actor to play the role - that probably is still Sean Connery - Dalton is certainly by far the most underrated.

The Pull List: 9 March 2016, Part III

Andrew Maclean's Head Lopper continues to be a delight. It's a boldly told fantasy adventure about a grizzled, white-haired barbarian who kills monsters while arguing with the severed head of a witch he once decapitated, but now carries around with him wherever he goes. It's a quarterly book, with the third issue of four just published, but it works brilliantly for a couple of reasons.

Firstly the artwork is fantastic. It's very simple, but cleanly drawn and neatly coloured. I sense the influence of the legendary French writer/artist Lewis Trondheim here, particularly his series of graphic novels Dungeon which share the fantasy aesthetic and the faint sense of the absurd.

That sense of the absurd extends to the writing, which has a nice sense of humour about it. It is ultimately an epic fantasy with giant monsters, evil wizards and long cross-country quests, but it is all done with a nice sense of how ridiculous it all is.

The third big advantage the comic has is its format. Since it is only published once every three months it really gives the reader some bang for their buck, eschewing the standard 20-22 page format in favour of a meaty 48 pages. This gives the book room to breathe, and for the story and the action scenes to take as much time as they need. It all helps to make this a really fun and enjoyable comic book, and one well worth giving a shot. (4/5)

Head Lopper #3. Image. Story and art by Andrew Maclean. Colours by Mike Spicer.

Under the cut: reviews of Descender, Gotham Academy and Mars Attacks.

March 14, 2016

Man of Steel (2013)

When Bryan Singer's Superman Returns failed to ignite audiences, Warner Bros made the decision to abandon a planned sequel and focus instead on rebooting the Superman franchise altogether. Thanks to the huge success of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, they went with Nolan as producer and Dark Knight co-writer David Goyer. To direct they signed on Zack Snyder, who had delivered a robust hit for the studio with 300 as well as the much less successful Watchmen. That was an interesting combination, since Nolan is by-and-large a stunning director but Snyder is - in my opinion at any rate - not.

The resulting film is a strange cross between the two men's styles. In some places it is jaw-dropping. In others it is also jaw-dropping - just for the opposite reasons. When I watched it for the first time I figured it was deeply flawed but overall fairly entertaining. When I watched it for the second time I decided I had been too easy on it, and that it was basically a flat-out bad film. Now on the third go, I am somewhere in between. There is a good movie buried in there, but it definitely is buried beneath a pile of poor story choices, visual excess, and a weird sense of embarrassment about being a Superman film.

March 13, 2016

Spectre (2015)

Following the death of his spymaster M (Judi Dench), James Bond (Daniel Craig) goes rogue to assassinate a man in Mexico City. In his absence, the British intelligence services are undergoing a shake-up - with the Double-O branch facing immediate retirement. When a trail of names leads Bond to a mysterious terrorist organisation, it becomes clear that the end of the Double-O program may be premature. Or something like that. To be honest an equally accurate synopsis of Spectre could be that James Bond travels to a variety of exotic international locations, has some car chases, fist fights, gun fights and foot chases, sleeps with multiple women, battles a henchman and has a climactic showdown with a ridiculous super-villain.

When James Bond was rebooted with Casino Royale it felt like something genuinely interesting was being done with the character. Better motivation. More depth. A grounded and comparatively realistic fictional world. Supremely inventive and dynamic action scenes. This quality continued for the most part in its sequel Quantum of Solace, which stumbled a little with its storyline but continued to excel in terms of character development, supporting cast and its excellent relationship between Craig's Bond and Dench's M. Then came Skyfall.

March 12, 2016

The Pull List: 9 March 2016, Part II

Action Comics #50 was released this week with a large page count and a higher cover price: US$4.99 for 40 pages of story, which is pretty good value by US comic book standards. The issue also marks the end for creative team Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder, who now step off for fresh properties elsewhere. Overall they have had a strong, nicely entertaining run. They introduced some great new supporting characters and made great use of some returning favourites - particularly Lana Lang. On the other hand the later issues of their run have been crippled by needless tie-ins and multi-title crossovers. I kept reading Action Comics, and to their credit they have made it possible to follow storylines while only reading one instalment in four, but it has been a challenge for me as a reader and I can't imagine it was great for them as creatives.

This issue sees Superman against the wall. He's leading a fight against Vandal Savage, and it is a fight he is losing. He has lost all of his powers, and is only still fighting because he's re-powered himself with a fatal dose of kryptonite. Much of the Justice League has already been knocked out of action. This issue marks something of a final stand.

Broadly speaking it's pretty great. A quite astonishing number of artists have contributed to this issue, so in visual terms it is a little all over the shop. There's a lot of emotion running through it, however, and Kuder's layouts do manage to broadly keep everything together. The good part of the issue is that it really does feel like a triumphant climax to Kuder and Pak's run. The bad news is that despite this it still ends on a cliffhanger and the story continues in Superman/Wonder Woman. I'm going to assume Superman wins the day. (3/5)

Action Comics #50. Story by Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder. Script by Greg Pak. Layouts by Aaron Kuder. Art by Aaron Kuder, David Messina, Javi Fernandez, Bruno Redondo, Vicente Sifuentes, Gaetano Carlucci and Juan Albarran. Colours by Tomeu Morey, Arif Prianto and Wil Quintana.

Under the cut: reviews of Detective Comics, Doctor Strange and The X Files: Deviations.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) packs her possessions into some boxes and leaves her apartment. As she drives into the night her boyfriend telephones her to beg her to return. Momentarily distracted, she doesn't see the pick-up truck coming. Her car rolls off the road and down a hill. When she wakes, she is chained to a bed in an underground bunker. The man who chained her there, Howard (John Goodman), explains that he found her in the wreckage and brought her underground when the world outside was subjected to an attack. Whether nuclear, chemical or even extraterrestrial, he does not know.

That is the basic premise of 10 Cloverfield Lane, a film that - like its 2008 namesake - suddenly appeared on the near horizon without most movie-goers even knowing that the film was being made. It is a claustrophobic thriller that strings it audience along on the promise of an answer to two questions: is Howard what he appears to be, and has anything actually happened to the world upstairs?

March 11, 2016

Survivors: "Law and Order"

It is 18 June 1975, and time for another episode of Survivors.

The commune finally seems to be functioning, although with so much farming to do and so little time before the rains it will take everyone's collective efforts to get the fields planted in time. To boost morale the survivors hold a party. The following morning one of them lies dead in her bed, and the horrifying realisation dawns that one of the group has murdered her. Finding the killer is one problem - what to do with them in a world without police or prisons is another.

Quite frankly if Survivors never had another episode the series' existence would be justified by "Law and Order". This is one of my favourite episodes of any British telefantasy series. It presents a starkly horrible situation without any easy solution or escape, and refuses to pull its punches from beginning to end. The script by Clive Exton (writing as M.K. Jeeves) is bold and provocative, and the series cast - there are no guest stars here - uniformly rise to the occasion. I first saw this episode about 20 years ago. I have never forgotten it.

The Pull List: 9 March 2016, Part I

The Mighty Thor has been through some fairly big upheavals in recent months. Thor himself has lost the ability to wield his enchanted hammer Mjolnir, and it has instead fallen to his former girlfriend and terminal cancer patient Jane Foster. In the guise of a new female Thor Jane has struggled to avert a dark elf invasion of the light elf realm, has fought Thor's adopted brother and arch-rival Loki, and begins this issue in a pitched epic fist-fight with the god Odin for the right to continue bearing Mjolnir.

This issue acts as essentially a first-act climax, since it momentarily resolves Thor and Odin's battle, the civil war boiling over in Asgard, and Malekith's invasion of Alfheim. There is clearly a lot more to occur in this story, but it's a natural climactic point that satisfies while making the reader crave the next issue as well. It comes with some real surprises too, which will make the wait for issue #6 all the more interminable. I was uncertain of this book when it relaunched - it had something of a messy opening - but it's settled down and now tells a gripping and highly dramatic epic fantasy story.

Russell Dauterman's art continues to impress. This is a gorgeous book, and Jason Aaron has written a storyline to give Dauterman a variety of visually arresting images to produce. Matthew Wilson's colours are superb, and complement the art wonderfully. (4/5)

The Mighty Thor #5. Marvel. Written by Jason Aaron. Art by Russell Dauterman. Colours by Matthew Wilson.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman and Robin Eternal, The Massive: Ninth Wave and Ms Marvel.

March 10, 2016

The Lords of Salem (2012)

In Salem, Massachusetts, a recovering addict and radio DJ named Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie) receives a strange delivery of a new record by an anonymous band calling themselves the Lords. The records has a strange, hypnotic effect on any woman who hears it, including Heidi. As her life appears to descend into a mess of demonic hallucinations, Heidi's fate appears linked to events centuries in the past when her ancestor prosecuted the original Salem witches.

Rob Zombie's horror films fascinate me. He started his career - and indeed continues it - as a heavy metal musician, first as lead singer of the band White Zombie and subsequently as a solo artist. He was always a keen fan of horror cinema, so in 2003 it was not a huge surprise to see him try his hand at directing a horror movie himself: The House of 1,000 Corpses. From there's he's balanced his time between recording new music and directing more horror films including The Devil's Rejects, Halloween and Halloween II, The Haunted World of El Superbeasto and The Lords of Salem.

The main reason I find myself transfixed by Zombie's screen works is because while they are generally not particularly great films they show a consistent and ongoing promise. He clearly knows his genre, and he has a very strong visual eye. There are individual elements in each of his films that I find to be extraordinary. As complete works, however, they never quite work. The potential remains, and with each film I hope he is going to finally knock a ball out of the park. Each time I am simultaneously fascinated and disappointed.

Survivors: "Spoil of War"

It is 11 June 1975, and time for another episode of Survivors.

The commune begins to grow, meeting both a young man named Paul (Chris Tranchell) and a pompous former businesman named Arthur Russell (Michael Gover) - who comes accompanied by his secretary Charmain Wentworth (Eileen Helsby). When Tom (Talfryn Thomas) and Barney (John Hallett) go missing while collecting supplies, the attempt to find them leads to an unexpected reunion with a man presumed dead.

After the fairly dreadful "Starvation", Survivors bounces back with a much better episode. While not faultless, it is a step back towards the sort of darker, more cynical episodes from the series' beginning. It also does something I have been wanting the series to do from the outset - actually go back and revisit characters encountered in earlier episodes.

March 9, 2016

N64:20 #16: Body Harvest (1998)

In 2016 the Nintendo 64 turns 20 years old. It was Nintendo's third videogame console, produced to succeed the enormously successful SNES. Upon its release in 1996 Time magazine claimed it was "machine of the year". While the N64 failed to best Sony's enormously popular PlayStation - a console in whose early development Nintendo had a key hand - it still sold almost 33 million units worldwide and hosted some of the greatest videogames ever made. To celebrate its anniversary I'm counting down my top 20 N64 videogames; not necessarily the best titles released on the format, but definitely my personal favourites.

Body Harvest is a videogame produced by Scottish developer DMA Design, whose biggest success - Grand Theft Auto - came to overshadow pretty much all of the other games that DMA produced. That is a deep shame, because there were a host of great DMA titles produced over the years and a lot of them sadly seem to be forgotten. Body Harvest is a pretty good example of that. It's inventive, addictive, challenging and in its own way rather ground-breaking. You hardly hear anybody talking about it any more though.

Last Knights (2015)

It is obvious from the key art used to promote Last Knights on home video that it is what industry types refer to as a 'europudding'. That is, it's a film project whose budget has been raised by a wide consortium of European screen agencies, financiers, and independent distributors. These kinds of patchwork arrangements inevitable result in a particular kind of movie. With so many different country markets to be catered for, there is usually a desire for action over dialogue - no mass audience likes subtitles that much - and predictable stories over inventive ones. European independent distributors seem to like period action films with plenty of sword-fighting, and each year you can find another few dozen of them released direct to home video and streaming without ever seen the inside of a cinema.

Keeping all those international funders happy also requires a pretty internationalised cast. That is certainly the case with Last Knights, which makes use of Morgan Freeman and Clive Owen as its stars and then adds in actors from New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Israel and Iran, and I am certain many other countries. Get a semi-noted actor from as many countries as possible and you have a marketing hook in each of those countries. For the record, this is officially a United Kingdom/South Korea co-production.

The last feature of the europudding is that, generally speaking, they're rarely very good. Script quality seems to follow very distantly behind if the cast's names can sell the movie at a film market, or if there are plenty of action bits, and so on. That in mind, Last Knights is something of a surprise. I think it is really rather good indeed. It's that rare unexpected gem from the DVD library's weekly shelves.

March 8, 2016

Doctor Who: "Guests of Madame Guillotine"

It's 15 August 1964, and time for another episode of Doctor Who. It's "Guests of Madame Guillotine", the second instalment of "The Reign of Terror".

The Doctor (William Hartnell) is rescued from a burning building, only to learn his companions have been taken by soldiers to Paris. While Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) attempt to break out of their cell, Ian (William Russell) receives an urgent mission from a dying prisoner. On the Doctor's way to Paris, he is waylaid by the supervisor of a road crew - who forces him to work with the gang when he cannot produce his papers.

This second episode of "The Reign of Terror" is much more satisfying than the first. It had better pacing, three storylines helps break up the action nicely, and the warm humour that typified much of Dennis Spooner's other television writing finally makes a welcome appearance. This is a genuinely fun and entertaining half-hour of 1960s children's television.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Bar Association"

It's 19 February 1996, and time for another episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

With patronage at his bar down due to a Bajoran religious festival, Quark (Armin Shimerman) cuts the wages of his entire staff. That leads his brother Rom (Max Grodenchik) to take unprecedented action: he forms a worker's union. Meanwhile Worf (Michael Dorn) continues to struggle to feel at home on Deep Space Nine.

The standard caveat applies: this episode is a Ferengi comedy, so those who don't enjoy this particular sub-genre of Star Trek are freely excused to skip ahead or watch something else. For those of you remaining: this is a great one, since it does not simply provide some comedic fluff and nonsense. It actually pushes Rom forward as a character with a number of pleasing developments. He ends the episode as a much stronger and more interesting character - and I was already a pretty big fan of the character.

March 7, 2016

Crusade: "The Path of Sorrows"

It is 30 June 1999, and time for another episode of Crusade.

While exploring an alien tomb, the crew of the Excalibur stumble upon a strange meditating alien encased in a transparent sphere. After discovering the creature bears unique psychic powers, Gideon (Gary Cole), Matheson (Daniel Dae Kim) and Galen (Peter Woodward) each experience a flashback to a pivotal moment in each of their pasts - and a confession that each feels compelled to make.

This is actually a rather odd episode. Its unusual style and tone makes me like it quite a bit more than the previous three episodes of Crusade. I am still not convinced this is a good television series in general, but at least with episodes like "The Path of Sorrows" it is visibly trying to be.

March 6, 2016

Foxcatcher (2014)

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is a wrestler and an Olympic gold medallist, yet despite his achievements in the ring is struggling financially. He is also struggling under the shadow of his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also a champion wrestler but with a more secure job and a loving wife and children. When eccentric billionaire John Du Pont (a near unrecognisable Steve Carell) offers to fund Mark's training for the world championship, it seems an offer too good to be true.

That is the basic set-up of Foxcatcher, a 2014 drama directed by Bennett Miller (Moneyball) and based on a true story of what happened when the Schultz brothers came to help Du Pont establish a well-funded, competitive wrestling squad on the grounds of Du Pont's Foxcatcher estate. It is an ominous and vaguely threatening drama from the get-go, and it takes the film's entire length to reach the full consequences of that initial decision. This is a deeply impressive and atmospheric film. For those unfamiliar with the events on which the screenplay is based, it presents a gradual and measured rising tension. For those who already know what happened, that tension is replaced with an inevitable and growing dread,

The Pull List: 2 March 2016, Part II

With the second issue of the relaunched Spider-Man, writer Brian Michael Bendis gets really metatextual. The comic begins to refer to its existence as a Marvel comic book so much that I felt the need to check it was not an issue of Deadpool, or an old John Byrne issue of She-Hulk.

There are the jokes. Iron Man makes a reference to the demon they are fighting, noting: "Demon. Not in the bottle this time." Peter Parker corrects Miles Morales' recital of the famous "with great power" speech, noting that everybody misquotes it. These are all very slightly intrusive. The gag of the comic book characters referring to their own comics is simply not funny enough to be worth the reader getting thrown out of the narrative each time it happens.

On a more positive note there is the discussion of diversity. It has been hard to ignore Marvel's recent attempts to present a more diverse and varied roster of characters, not simply with introducing new characters but by recasting existing superhero identities with new people. Miles Morales was pretty much the first attempt at this, replacing the Caucasian Peter Parker with a half-African American half-Latino teenager. Since then Marvel has introduced a Muslim Ms Marvel, an African American Captain America and a female Thor. This issue of Spider-Man actually has characters discuss this, and in response Miles bemoans being heralded as a Spider-Man of colour. All he wants is to be heralded as Spider-Man. It works incredibly well, and generates a nice moment of character.

Asides from that there is some solid Spider-Man versus demon action, some well-placed moments of humour, and typically excellent artwork by Sara Pichelli and Gaetano Carlucci. This is a much stronger issue than last month. Anyone underwhelmed by issue #1 would be well advised to check this issue too before deciding whether or not to keep reading. (3/5)

Marvel. Written by Brian Michael Bendis. Art by Sara Pichelli and Gaetano Carlucci. Colours by Justin Ponsor.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman and Robin Eternal, Darth Vader and Revival.

March 5, 2016

Superman Returns (2006)

Five years after setting off to see the remains of his home planet, Superman (Brandon Routh) returns to Earth. In his absence Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been released from prison, and is plotting an all-new criminal scheme. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has moved on completely, with a new fiancée and a young son. Is there a place in the world for Superman any more?

Superman Returns is a damned weird sequel. Bryan Singer, the director who had launched the X-Men franchise over at 20th Century Fox, jumped ship to Warner Bros to direct this unexpected sequel to the Salkind Superman films. Weirder still, he made a sequel to Superman and Superman II that actively ignored the events of Superman III and IV. Even weirder, he made a sequel to Superman II that either directly contradicts it or makes some very disturbing changes to the lead characters.

I have no doubt that by 2006 there was plenty of demand and opportunity for a new Superman film. I am really not sure the world needed a sequel to two 26 and 28 year-old films that featured none of the original crew, and that shares only one actor between them - Marlon Brando, who was dead.

Unfriended (2014)

Six high schoolers connect via Skype, only to discover a faceless hacker has hooked into their call. No matter how hard they try to get rid of him or her, the hacker keeps logging back into their conversations. Then their Facebook accounts begin to get hacked, and then text chat, all sharing secrets and betrayals they would all rather leave hidden. It all seems to be linked to Laura Barns, a classmate who committed suicide a year earlier after an embarrassing video of her was uploaded to Youtube. Then, one by one, the high schoolers start dying.

Unfriended is a 2014 horror film directed by Leo Gabriadze and produced by noted horror movie production company Blumhouse. It falls loosely into the found footage genre I suppose, although its key selling point is fairly distinctive. The entire film - all 80 minutes of it - plays out on a single laptop screen, with the action taking place across Skype, Facebook, text chat and other forms of social media.

March 4, 2016

Portland Street Blues (1998)

During the tense period leading up to the handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China, one of the stand-out film franchises was Andrew Lau's massively successful Young & Dangerous. Based on the popular Teddy Boy comic books by Cowman and Dickey Yau, they chronicled the careers of a group of young Hong Kong men as they progressed through the ranks of the city's triad organisations.

So popular was the series that the first three films were rushed into cinemas in the space of three months. A fourth followed one year later, and to satisfy audience demand a spin-off was released to expand on the background of one of Young & Dangerous 4's new characters - the Mongkok-based gang leader Sister Thirteen, played by Sandra Ng.

Portland Street Blues follows Tsui Sui Sui (Ng), the daughter of a low-level triad member whose youthful scams lead her into serious trouble. They eventually lead her into a leadership role within the Hung Hing triad, and a power struggle between rival gang members.

St Vincent (2014)

Oliver Bronstein (Jaeden Lieberher) is a bookish, under-confident 12 year-old who moves to Brooklyn with his mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) after she separates from his father. With Maggie working long shifts at the hospital, Oliver needs minding after school - which is where Vincent (Bill Murray) comes in: a grumpy, unpleasant gambling addict who lives next door.

You will guess many of St Vincent's story beats pretty much as soon as you start watching it; it is that kind of a film. It is as if writer/director Theodore Melfi sat down with a checklist of film clichés and just slowly started working his way through them one by one. The precocious child wise beyond his years? Check. The grumpy old loser with a heart of gold? Check. Scene where the old man takes the kid to inappropriate places for comedic effect? Check. I am reasonably certain that anyone that has seen movies before has probably seen much of St Vincent in something else.

Of course we have never seen Bill Murray do it, and it is his performance - and those of his co-stars - that manage to lift St Vincent from tedious chore to something much more enjoyable.

March 3, 2016

Doctor Who: "A Land of Fear"

It is 8 August 1964, and time for another episode of Doctor Who.

The Doctor (William Hartnell) lands the TARDIS is what he thinks is 1963 London, to forcibly eject Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) from his ship. It soon becomes apparent, however, that he is a few hundred miles and a few hundred years off course - and the TARDIS crew soon become unwilling participants in the French Revolution.

Doctor Who's first production block (what we retroactively think of as series one or season one) comes to a close with Dennis Spooner's "The Reign of Terror", a six part historical serial that brings the Doctor and his companions into contact with such historical figures as Maximilien Robespierre and Napoleon Bonaparte. It is the first of four serials written by Spooner, who was a major figure in 1960s British television, and also features the first-ever location shoot Doctor Who received.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

When a boy writes a letter to Superman (Christopher Reeve) pleading for him to intervene in the world's escalating nuclear arms race, Superman decides to take matters into his own hands and rid the planet of all nuclear weapons. Meanwhile Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escapes from prison and immediately sets about developing a new scheme to destroy Superman: cloning the Man of Steel and creating the deadly Nuclear Man to kill him.

When Supergirl failed at the box office in 1984, producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind elected to abandon the Superman movie franchise. They held onto the television rights - ultimately making Superboy in 1988 - but the film rights they on-sold to Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who were producing a growing number of American action films under the banner of Cannon Films. Golan and Globus successfully pitched a fourth Superman film to star Christopher Reeve, on the promise that he could have a hand in developing its story and by promising to fund any other film project that Reeve chose. With Reeve onboard they managed to sell the distribution rights to a new Superman to Warner Bros for $40 million dollars. From there it was a quick step to re-sign Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, and appoint a new director: Sidney J. Furie.

From there it pretty much all went horribly wrong.

March 2, 2016

The Pull List: 2 March 2016, Part I

Pretty much the most consistently brilliant Marvel comic of recent years was Mark Waid and Chris Samnee's stunning run on Daredevil. They told crisp, brilliantly plotted stories with simple, clean artwork and absolutely brilliant panel layouts. They got to the core of Matt Murdock's character and found fresh angles and surprises for him from the beginning of Waid's run - originally with Paolo Rivera - right through to the end about five years later.

Last year they wrapped up their Daredevil run, but thankfully they have kept the band together - including excellent colourist Matthew Wilson. Their new project launched today: an all-new monthly volume of Black Widow. It is a tantalising prospect: Marvel's best creative team taking on one of the company's most in-fashion characters. Natasha Romanov has been a regular fixture of Marvel Comics for decades, but it is only really since her feature film debut in Iron Man 2 (played by Scarlett Johansson) that she has shot into the upper echelons of popularity with many comic book readers.

This first issue is stunning. It is short on dialogue but incredibly high on action. Samnee is now actively co-writing the book with Waid, and his influence shows. This is a much more visual experience than Daredevil was - and Daredevil was already pretty damned sensational. Matthew Wilson uses a deliberately limited colour palette to accentuate each action beat as it occurs.

This is a faultless opening to what I hope is a long and successful run. Trust me: you want to read this comic book. It is going to astonishingly good. (5/5)

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

Under the cut: reviews of Doctor Who, Another Castle and The Omega Men.

N64:20 #17: Star Wars: Episode I Racer (1999)

In 2016 the Nintendo 64 turns 20 years old. It was Nintendo's third videogame console, produced to succeed the enormously successful SNES. Upon its release in 1996 Time magazine claimed it was "machine of the year". While the N64 failed to best Sony's enormously popular PlayStation - a console in whose early development Nintendo had a key hand - it still sold almost 33 million units worldwide and hosted some of the greatest videogames ever made. To celebrate its anniversary I'm counting down my top 20 N64 videogames; not necessarily the best titles released on the format, but definitely my personal favourites.

It is safe to say that when Star Wars: Episode I opened in cinemas around the world in May 1999, that the audience response was somewhat disappointed. The 16 years since the release of Return of the Jedi had created an anticipation that was effectively unsurpassable. Producer/director George Lucas could have made the best film of his career and it seems likely audiences would have still felt let down. The fact is he made the active hands-down worst film of his career, so it is not like we can blame the viewers for the poor esteem in which The Phantom Menace continues to be held. The story was weak. The acting was wooden. The digital sets and characters are made things look weirdly fake and artificial. A lengthy racing sequence in the middle was singled-out for particularly emphatic scorn. The pod race was described derisively as something out of a videogame.

Rather fittingly, while the film remains a punching bag among movie enthusiasts, the videogame-like pod race sequence actually did make for a pretty stunning videogame. LucasArts produced it themselves, releasing it alongside the film in May 1999 and making it the best aspect of the entire Phantom Menace experience.

March 1, 2016

Supergirl (1984)

When the powerful omegahedron is lost, the people of Argo City are doomed to extinction within days if it cannot be recovered. Kara Zor-El (Helen Slater), the cousin of Superman, embarks on a quest to Earth to find and retrieve it. Unfortunately it has already been taken by the aspiring witch Selina (Faye Dunaway), who plans to use the omegahedron's immense power to take over the world.

After box office returns for Superman III resulted in disappointment, producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind took the opportunity to freshen up the five year-old Superman franchise with a new protagonist, a new angle and a fresh director. It is arguable that such a re-imagining was unnecessary. Superman remained a popular character generally, and the lower revenue from Superman III (US$60m domestically compared to US $108m for Superman II) was likely less to do with viewer fatigue and more with its 1983 release wedged between Return of the Jedi and the latest James Bond film.

Nonetheless the Salkinds moved ahead with a new chapter in the franchise, introducing Helen Slater as Supergirl and launching on her own big-screen adventure. It was not a success.

Frog Dreaming (1985)

Cody (Henry Thomas) is an orphaned American teenager living with his guardian in country Australia. When he stumbles upon Donkegin Pond in the middle of the bush, and learns about its purported monstrous inhabitant, he cannot help from investigating - even if it means getting himself and his friends into trouble, or even risking his life.

Frog Dreaming is an Australian children's film directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, who took over the production mid-shoot when its investors demanding the firing of original director Russell Hagg. It featured young American actor Henry Thomas, best known for his lead performance in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, in an attempt to gain some international sales. While it did achieve those sales it received something of a haphazard international release, retitled The Quest in the USA and The Go-Kids in the United Kingdom. More recently it has become something of a half-forgotten nostalgia piece for Australian thirty-somethings, and thanks to a DVD release from Umbrella Entertainment its fans finally have a chance to see it again.