April 30, 2016

Winter of Discontent (2012)

Art has always been a powerful tool for political discourse, and cinema is clearly no different from any other medium. Ibrahim El Batout's 2012 drama Winter of Discontent is a strong example of that. It depicts the chain of events in 2011 that started with protests in Cairo's Tarhir Square and snowballed until they forced the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Shot shortly afterwards, and released within a year, it is to an extent a film without a conclusion: history had not yet provided one. As a powerful representation of a collapsing regime and the strength of the people, it is near-faultless.

Amr (played by Amr Waked) is a political dissident who was taken from the streets and tortured by the Egyptian secret police in 2009. Two years later he observes pensively as the people begin to rise up against their oppressive government and demand a revolution. His ex-girlfriend Farah (Farah Youssef), with whom he separated after his ordeal, now co-hosts a pro-government television talk show while secretly struggling with the ethics of lying to the Egyptian people. As the events on the streets grow in scale and violence, both Amr and Farah are drawn into the conflict.

N64:20 #11: Snowboard Kids 2 (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's not really spoiling anything to admit that Mario Kart 64 is one of the higher-ranked videogames in this Nintendo 64 countdown. For one thing it was such a great party game, with four players playing simultaneously in races. As with all videogames though, sometimes you can play a game too much and start craving some variety. You find yourself looking for a solid back-up: similar sorts of games but with different race tracks or mechanics, and so on. As a kart racing substitute, Snowboard Kids 2 was one of my go-to titles.

April 29, 2016

The Pull List: 27 April 2016, Part 1

One of the genuine delights of visiting your local comic shop is finding unexpected independent comics on the shelf of which you have never heard, but which turn out to be absolutely delightful. That's certainly the case with Sabretooth Dan: A Talent for Danger, whose first issue was published this week by Scout Comics.

It's a three-issue miniseries about Sabretooth Dan, a human boy with two protruding tusks raised by wolves in a house and forced to do the cleaning. When he spies a pair of pirates in the local library - which is long abandoned - Dan decides to run away from home and live a live upon the high seas.

There is a beautiful sense of whimsy and delight about this comic, which is written and drawn by C.R. Mountain. It has wonderful cartoon-like designs, and its black and white artwork makes it immediately reminiscent of all the popular independent comic books of decades past. It has perfectly-pitched humour as well as a strong sense of adventure. It is a wonderful fantasy book that deserves a huge audience - but due to its independent nature may struggle to find it. Hunt it down. Check it out. If you like it, recommend it to your friends like I'm currently recommending it to you. (5/5)

Sabretooth Dan: A Talent for Danger. Story and art by C.R. Mountain.

Under the cut: reviews of Daredevil, The Omega Men and Saga.

April 27, 2016

David Bowie: The Next Day (2013)

The Next Day was a hell of a surprise back in 2013, with David Bowie spontaneously coming out of apparent retirement after a heart attack ended his 2004 world tour. The album's lead single was simply released without fanfare in January 2013, with no advance publicity. It was simply a case of revealing a new song out of nowhere, and then a new album soon afterwards. The Next Day represented yet another phase in Bowie's career, with another seeming change in identity: now an intensely private performer, Bowie released an album of new songs but did not appear in interviews or undertake any tours. Even the album's cover seemed to suggest a new reclusive identity: the original cover art to his legendary album Heroes with Bowie's face obscured by a white square. It seemed - it still does - a striking erasure of his popular identity, leaving just the music behind for his fans to enjoy.

I suspect history will obscure The Next Day to a large degree in favour of his 2016 follow-up, Blackstar, which was released just days before his death from cancer. I think that will prove a pity, since The Next Day is an unexpectedly strong album with so many exceptional songs to recommend.

April 26, 2016

The Pull List: 20 April 2016, Part 2

Dark Souls has been an unexpectedly huge franchise for Bandai Namco; the third game in the franchise was recently released, and despite being a quite harshly difficult game usually suited to a hard-core fanbase, it has managed to become something of a mainstream hit.

Cashing in on that success is British publisher Titan Comics, whose growing range of licensed titles are turning them into something akin to Dark Horse at their Alien/Predator/Star Wars peak. This past Wednesday they released Dark Souls #1, a spin-off comic book written by Doctor Who comic book writer George Mann and illustrated by Alan Quah.

Quah's artwork makes an immediate and sensational impact. This is the best illustrated comic book of the week, with a beautiful painterly quality and a rich gothic tone. Komikaki Studio has handled the colours, which are evocative and subtle. If fans of Dark Souls want some exceptional artwork to pore over in between rounds of playing the game, then this is absolutely a must-purchase.

Sadly Mann's script is not anywhere near as successful. The problem with a comic book based on a videogame about knights running around in the dark smacking the undead with swords is that it generally results in a pretty dull comic about those knights still running around in the dark smacking the undead with swords. There's a lack of depth and originality in this issue that lets the whole book down. I hope future issues expand the scope of the story more, but my gut tells me this isn't going to be the case. Gorgeous but a little dull, Dark Souls #1 is a comic for the dedicated fans only. (2/5)

Dark Souls #1. Titan Comics. Written by George Mann. Art by Alan Quah. Colours by Komikaki Studio.

Under the cut: reviews of Aquaman, Robin: Son of Batman and The Shadow Glass.

April 25, 2016

Hisashi Tenmyouya: Samurai Nouveau (2006)

The New People Artist Series was a range of documentaries released on DVD by American anime distributor Viz. As a collection they provide a fantastic insight into contemporary Japanese art in the middle of the last decade. I enjoyed one of the documentaries, Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara, immensely, and this led me to watch a second: the 2006 film Hisashi Tenmyouya: Samurai Nouveau.

Hisashi Tenmyouya is a former art director who abandoned commercial art to become a full-time painter. He draws his inspiration from 19th century Japanese painting, but adds a strong contemporary tone. Some of his more famous works include a Goddess of Peace armed with sub-machine guns, a feudal-looking Gundam robot, and a pair of samurai playing football (a commission for the Tokyo World Cup).

Tenmyouya describes his art as 'new Japanese painting', and over the course of the documentary he explains this position and reveals much about the history of 19th century Japanese fine art. It's a fascinating insight into both a style of art and the titular artist himself.

April 23, 2016

The Pull List: 20 April 2016, Part 1

Boom Studios is on a winning streak of miniseries of late, and from its first issue it looks like Joyride is going to be yet another feather in the publisher's cap. This energetic series follows a trio of teenagers on a race across the galaxy, combining science fiction, drama and humour in a really effective fashion. Don't be surprised to read news that it has been picked up by a Hollywood studio: this is high concept, well-illustrated entertainment.

Joyride follows Uma and Dewydd, two teenagers living in a repressive future Earth that has been encased within an enormous shell to block it off from the rest of the universe. Uma has a plan to escape, and hitch-hike a ride with a friendly alien, and Dewydd is basically devoted enough to follow her with her plan. Their escape attempt is interrupted by Catrin, a much more dutiful and obedient teen. The adventure begins there.

The issue has a fast pace and great, immediately likeable characters. Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly have written a script with a sort future dialect and slang that's familiar enough to be immediately readable but abstract enough to strongly evoke a dystopian future. Marcus To's artwork is beautiful and nicely detailed; Irma Kniivila's colours really make it pop off the page. This is a fabulous first issue. (5/5)

Joyride #1. Boom Studios. Written by Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly. Art by Marcus To. Colours by Irma Kniivila.

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Doctor Who and Obi-Wan and Anakin.

April 21, 2016

The Bombay Royale: You Me Bullets Love (2012)

The Bombay Royale is an 11-piece independent pop group based in Melbourne, Australia. The group was formed in 2010 by musician Andy Williamson, and it was initially devoted to performing covers of songs from 1960s and 1970s Bollywood movies. They rapidly segued into writing and performing original songs, albeit ones overwhelmingly inspired by the kind of popular Indian music they were covering.

They really are a band you need to see live, given they not only sing songs but enthusiastically perform them. Lead singers Parvyn Kaur Singh and Shourov Bhattacharya front the Bombay Royale with a surfeit of energy and personality. The nine musicians are each clothed in a different weird fancy dress - one a ship captain, one a masked bandit, and so on. They blend Indian popular music with funk, surf rock and even elements of disco. In short they are a near-perfect multicultural party band, well-suited to be lined up at the next festive gathering before jumping to the dance floor.

April 20, 2016

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "The Muse"

It's 29 April 1996 and time for another episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

If you can get through the pre-credits teaser of "The Muse" without rolling your eyes, you are a stronger viewer than I am. 'I'm pregnant,' announces occasional guest star Lwaxana Troi (Majel Barrett-Roddenberry) to Odo (Rene Auberjonois), who stares at her, slack-jawed. Cut to titles.

It is farcical, and much of what follows is farcical as well. The story of a pregnant Lwaxana hiding from her possessive new husband is not even the main storyline here. "The Muse" primarily follows Jake (Cirroc Lofton) as he falls under the spell of a mysterious and seductive alien woman (Meg Foster) who inspires him to write more fiction. She draws energy from him, vampire-like, as he does.

April 19, 2016

Lacuna Coil: Broken Crown Halo (2014)

In recent blog posts I have listened to kawaii metal via Babymetal and cello metal via Apocalyptica. I figured for a third go I would listen to some goth metal, which is basically a sort of dark, dramatic kind of rock music. It seems to use a lot of the standard techniques and sounds of metal, but in much softer ways. In my experience it sort of sits on the fringes of metal as a broad genre, incorporating little bits of electronica and classical music to round out its sound.

A band whose work I have really enjoyed in this sub-genre is the Italian group Lacuna Coil. They have been around since 1994. Two years ago they released Broken Crown Halo, their seventh studio album. It is not their best work in my opinion - that would probably be their 2006 album Karmacode - but it is still pretty representative of their sound and a pretty enjoyable example of goth metal.

All-Round Appraiser Q: The Eyes of Mona Lisa (2014)

Riko Rinda (Haruka Ayase) is a professional appraiser, working out of her own small business All-Round Appraiser Q. Upon the invitation of the Louvre art museum, Riko travels to Paris - a dogged young journalist (Tori Matsuzaka) in tow - to appraise the legendary "Mona Lisa" and ensure it is delivered safely to the Tokyo History Museum. Before long it is clear something is awry, and a mystery is afoot.

All-Round Appraiser Q: The Eyes of Mona Lisa is an adaptation of one volume from a popular series of mystery novels by Keisuke Matsuoka. The books follow Riko Rinda's adventures around Japan and the globe, solving mysteries and preventing crimes wherever she goes. The character is clearly a sort of female Sherlock Holmes, with journalist Ogasawara as her dutiful Watson analogue. The film, on the other hand, has clearly been sculpted to capitalise on both the popular Warner Bros Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey Jr - the soundtrack is a dead giveaway - and the best-selling Dan Brown novel The Da Vinci Code. It is slickly produced, and engagingly performed, but also rather silly and in the end only partially successful.

April 18, 2016

N64:20 #12: Tetrisphere (1997)

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.

Canadian developer H2O Entertainment started working on a new puzzle game in 1995, to be released on Atari's struggling Jaguar console. The game involved shifting groups of coloured blocks around a sphere in order to destroy them and eventually reveal the core underneath - and thus win the level. It was the sort of high-concept puzzle game that traditionally sold quite well on videogame consoles. After Nintendo purchased the rights to release a version of the game for the Nintendo 64, the Jaguar collapsed and the game - then titled Phear - became a Nintendo exclusive. Since Nintendo held the rights to the legendary puzzle game Tetris the new game was retitled Tetrisphere, partly to reflect it's Tetris-like gameplay and aesthetic and partly as a bluntly commercial sales pitch. The gambit worked: while lacking significant marketing upon release Tetrisphere still managed to become a solid seller for the N64 and a very popular puzzle game.

It's Such a Beautiful Day (2012)

Don Hertzfeldt is one of the most singular talents in American animation. His short films, including Billy's Balloon, Rejected and Wisdom Teeth, have been a constant and joyful surprise. They blend deliberately primitive, near-stick figure designs with a wonderful sense of the absurd and a gleefully dark, bleak sensibility. He has established a strong reputation with them, including awards, Oscar nominations, and even an invitation to create a couch gag for The Simpsons (it was weird).

Between 2006 and 2011 Hertzfeldt completed a series of three animated shorts - Everything Will Be OK, I Am So Proud of You, and It's Such a Beautiful Day. In 2012 he edited them together into a single 62-minute animated feature, sharing its title with the third of the three shorts. It is an incredible work, managing to be in turn wonderfully silly, charmingly absurd, deeply depressing and ultimately quite transcendent. It is a film that gives the viewer so much more than they might expect upon first seeing it. I am still rather struck by just how profoundly moving it turned out to be.

April 17, 2016

The Pull List: 13 April 2016, Part 2

Some years back Brian Wood wrote an excellent DC Vertigo series titled Northlanders. This wonderfully researched ongoing book told a series of stories about Vikings from all points of European history. They were rich in character and full of drama. Northlanders is still one of my favourite Vertigo titles. More recently Wood teamed with the excellent artist Garry Brown on The Massive. Now Wood and Brown are teaming up once again on Black Road: a continuation of both their collaborative partnership and of Wood's work with Viking history.

The book, subtitled "A Magnus the Black Mystery", introduces Magnus - a strong warrior hiring himself out to kill or defend people on the road. He lives at a time when Christians are swarming up the Norwegian coast, replacing the old religion with a new one and doing a fairly violent job on anybody bold enough to resist. In this new world Magnus agrees to escort a Cardinal up the dangerous 'black road'.

It is a well-written and evocative issue, which takes a surprisingly even hand on Christianity in a story that could easily flat-out demonise it. It also creates a strong hook into the next five issues. It's great to see Wood and Brown together - they're still working on The Massive: Ninth Wave of course (see below) - and it's great to see Wood back in a historical setting with which he works so well. (4/5)

Black Road #1. Written by Brian Wood. Art by Garry Brown. Colours by Dave McCaig.

Under the cut: reviews of Black Canary, Gotham Academy and The Massive: Ninth Wave.

April 16, 2016

The Pull List: 13 April 2016, Part 1

This month Marvel Comics celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Silver Surfer: not with some big crossover or variant cover acknowledgement, but by slapping "50th" on the cover of the standard-length Silver Surfer #3. It feels like a bit of a weak celebration, all things considered, as if the anniversary crept up so quickly that no one at Marvel noticed until it was too late. Either that or the bitterness at a corporate level that 20th Century Fox retains the movie rights to the character led to an instruction to keep any commemoration at the barest minimum. The reason does not particularly matter, but for fans of the character - myself included - it seems a little weak.

Dan Slott and Michael Allred do their best to give the character a momentous climax within the confines of a standard 20-page issue, but it is an uphill battle. Norrin Radd is forced to choose between the return of his own planet and the survival of Earth, which is a nice sort of anniversary-style story, and there is a cameo by the Avengers, but altogether it is business as usual. It's enjoyable, but not exceptional. (3/5)

Silver Surfer #3. Marvel. Written by Dan Slott. Art by Michael Allred. Colours by Laura Allred.

Under the cut: reviews of Darth Vader, Superman and Batman/Superman.

April 15, 2016

Wagakki Band: Yasou Emaki (2015)

Yasou Emaki is the second studio album from Japanese rock group Wagakki Band. This eight-piece group comprises a lead singer, Yuko Suzuhana, and seven musicians playing a variety of contemporary and traditional Japanese instruments. While the band includes the likes of Machiya on guitar and Asa on bass, it also features the likes of Beni Ninagawa on the shamisen (a kind of three-stringed guitar), Kiyoshi Ibukuro on the koto (a sort of horizontal harp) and Kurona on the wadaiko (specifically Japanese drums).

It is a striking blend that gives Wagakki Band a unique musical sound. In broad strokes it sounds like fairly typical Japanese pop/rock. In the fine details it sounds remarkably old-fashioned and highly evocative. The band's aggressive sense of fusion extends to their elaborate costuming, mixing outfits from feudal Japan with a vibrant and colourful punk identity.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Shattered Mirror"

It is 22 April 1996, and time for another episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Jake (Cirroc Lofton) is kidnapped by the mirror universe Jennifer Sisko (Felicia M. Bell) as a lure to draw Benjamin (Avery Brooks) over to help in the fight against the Klingon-Cardassian Alliance. Once there he is forced to help Smiley (Colm Meaney) finish building a replica of the Defiant based on stolen plans from their last encounter. Meanwhile the Alliance Regent Worf (Michael Dorn) is rapidly bearing down on the liberated station Terok Nor.

The mirror universe episode has become an annual event for Deep Space Nine at this point, but it is an event that - for this viewer at least - rapidly wore out its welcome. "Shattered Mirror" is proof that constant returns to the same well such as this simply lead to diminishing returns. The story feels the same, but the initial fun of seeing alternative versions of the lead cast has long since withered.

April 14, 2016

Apocalyptica: Shadowmaker (2015)

When reviewing Babymetal's second album Metal Resistance yesterday I mentioned heavy metal's penchant for numerous sub-genres and categories. Babymetal have described their own music as 'kawaii metal', and today I figured I would look at Finnish metal group Apocalyptica's latest album Shadowmaker. This is another specific kind of metal: cello metal.

That's a pretty self-evident description since the album blends heavy metal with quite wonderful cello compositions. It gives the entire work a very smooth, symphonic feel to it. This is the first Apocalyptica album that I have listened to, but the band has been active since 1993. They're the real deal: three of the band are graduates of the prestigious Sibelius Academy with a strong classical music education. While Apocalyptica started life as a Metallica tribute act, they soon segued into producing their own music. This eighth studio album has been a while coming: it's been five years since their last CD, and it is the first to exclusively utilise one vocalist (Frank Perez).

April 13, 2016

Crusade: "The Rules of the Game"

It's 21 July 1999, and time for another episode of Crusade.

Gideon (Gary Cole) needs permission to land on the planet Lorka 7, in the hopes that a long-dead civilization there may provide a cure to the Drakh plague. This brings the Excalibur to Babylon 5, where he attempts to negotiate with the suspicious Lorkans who now live on the planet. While on the station Eilerson (David Allen Brooks) meets his ex-wife, and learns she is heavily in debt to a local loan shark.

"The Rules of the Game" is a messy and underwhelming episode, one that appears to rehash old and well-worn Babylon 5 plot elements without anything particularly new or innovative to justify it. It is typical of what seems to be the Crusade formula: reheated leftovers from an earlier and better series, produced with what strikes me as a surprising lack of enthusiasm. I don't get the sense that anybody is enjoying making this show: not the cast, not the production team, and certainly not the writer. J. Michael Straczynski is absolutely writing on automatic here.

Babymetal: Metal Resistance (2016)

Metal is a broad genre, something that often surprises listeners either unfamiliar or unimpressed with the metal sound in general. Sure, most metal bands provide some combination of loud noise, aggressive drums and screaming electric guitars, but they split off into all manner of specific sounds including death metal, speed metal, power metal, and even more esoteric forms like pirate, viking and troll metal. Add to the list kawaii metal, the latest metal genre essentially invented by Japanese band Babymetal. The band comprises seven musicians and three singers: Moa Kikuchi, Yui Mizuno and lead singer Suzuka Nakamoto.

Like most popular Japanese bands it is an entirely constructed and artificial outfit, with all ten members hired independently for the project rather than assembling by themselves, but regardless of their origins they have developed into a comparatively unique and hugely entertaining group.

On the surface it all seems so cynical and so ridiculous. The band's initial singles went viral on Facebook because people found them ridiculously funny. The sight of cute teenage girls jumping up and down to heavy metal seemed so weirdly incongruous and silly. The thing is, once you get past the cognitive dissonance and the cynicism about the band's ultra-commercial origins, Babymetal are kind of the real deal. This is a really strong power metal album that blends fast, uplifting guitar work with Japanese teen pop.

Metal Resistance is the band's second album, although the first to be released in Australia. It's absolutely wonderful.

April 12, 2016

April Story (1998)

Uzuki (Takako Matsu) is a quiet and underconfident young woman who makes the move from Hokkaido to Tokyo to study at university. She struggles to make friends and fit in, all the while dwelling on the reason - initially unknown to the audience - why she elected to study so far from home.

April Story is a Japanese romantic drama written and directed by Shunji Iwai. To a large degree it simply does what it is that all Japanese dramas of this type do: Uzuki is a very traditional, essentially stereotypical protagonist. She quietly struggles to settle into her new life in Tokyo. She does not seem capable of making friends, mainly due to being too shy and insular to speak up or be more outgoing. The film is also near-crippled by an incredibly cloying and twee piano-based score - again pretty much the stereotypical take on this sort of film.

On the other hand it is remarkably short: from opening titles to closing credits the film runs less than 70 minutes.

April 11, 2016

N64:20 #13: Star Fox 64 (1997)

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.

Star Fox 64 was a much-anticipated sequel to the popular SNES game Star Fox. In both games the player controlled space fighter pilot Fox McCloud, who was as his name suggests an actual fox, as he led a squadron of fighters against an alien invasion. It is for the most part an 'on rails' space shooter, by which I mean the player has only limited control of her or his space fighter as it travels through the level. Instead the player controls the direction in which he or she wishes to shoot at things. It is a format that become reasonably popular in the mid-1990s, reaching its creative height with Sega's excellent Saturn title Panzer Dragoon Zwei.

Robin Redbreast (1970)

Norah Palmer (Anna Cropper) is a recently separated script editor, who decides to temporarily move into the rural cottage that she kept as part of her split from her ex-boyfriend. Once in she is immediately struck by the strange residents in the village nearby: the superstitious Mrs Vigo, the creepy and invasive Mr Fisher, and the withdrawn and awkward Rob - real name Edgar - who practices martial arts near-naked in the forest and with whom Norah begins to feel an attraction. When unexpected events lead her to want to leave the village, however, she finds the locals conspiring to keep her trapped there.

Robin Redbreast is a TV play - nowadays you would call it a made-for-television film - produced by the BBC as part of its Play for Today series of self-contained dramas. It is written by John Griffith Bowen, who would go on to write a number of Christmas supernatural dramas for the BBC, and directed by James MacTaggart. In many respects it reflects the Play for Today franchise in a typical fashion. The production budget was clearly somewhat limited, with a small cast and a very theatrical sensibility. The fashions and the dialogue are charmingly dated. The pace, by today's standards, is relatively slow. At the same time it is a rather effective horror story.

April 10, 2016

The Pull List: 6 April 2016, Part 2

Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's contemporary fantasy series The Wicked + the Divine shot out of the gate for its first story arc, meandered just a little in its second, and then - rather deliberately I must say - became rather inaccessible and difficult in its third. Now it's back for volume 4, the 18th issue overall, and things have rocketed into high gear again. In fact it seems as deliberately commercial and filled with action scenes as the immediately previous issues were filled with confusing backstory and odd segues.

It is the sort of issue you really don't want to find out about before you read it, although it's fair to say it focuses on a surprise twist that is maybe not so surprising as both expected and immensely satisfying. It successfully kick-starts the book again and sets it off at high velocity towards a conclusion. The writing is great, the art is slick and wonderful, and Matthew Wilson's colours are positively vibrant.

For anybody who has not yet encountered The Wicked + the Divine (or WicDiv, to its fans): every ninety years the world is hit by an event known as the Recurrence, in which 12 young people are revealed to be reincarnations of ancient gods. Once revealed they have two years to affect the world and inspire humanity before dying. This latest time has fallen somewhat off the rails, with the gods getting murdered one by one and their various alliances falling apart. It's a great, smart, pop music-soaked dark fantasy, and well worth checking out. (5/5)

The Wicked + the Divine #18. Image. Written by Kieron Gillen. Art by Jamie McKelvie. Colours by Matthew Wilson.

Under the cut: reviews of Black Widow, Detective Comics and Spider-Man.

April 9, 2016

The Pull List: 6 April 2016, Part I

I have written a few times about The Sheriff of Babylon, the exceptional DC Vertigo miniseries from writer Tom King and artist Mitch Gerads. It follows American military contractor Chris Henry, sent to train new police officers in post-war Iraq. He is drawn into a criminal investigation along with Nassir, who seems like the last decent cop Baghdad has, and an elusive criminal underworld figure named Sofia. It is an exceptional and intelligent crime drama with a beautiful pace and panel layout, great artwork by Gerads, and a striking sense of realism - prior to writing comic books King was a CIA operations officer.

The book is obviously capturing some attention, because DC recently extended its run from 10 issues to 12. This latest issue, the fifth, is an excellent example of why the book works so well. Previous issues have involved tense negotiations, explosive action and a rapidly evolving storyline. Issue #5 is a late night conversation between Chris and Nassir's wife Fatima. The change in pace is remarkable, and welcome. It allows for an extended piece of character development for both of them, and showcases subtle artwork by Gerads and intelligent dialogue by King.

There's going to have to be a particularly great comic book in the next eight months to stop The Sheriff of Babylon from being my favourite of the year. It really is a superb work. (5/5)

The Sheriff of Babylon #5. DC Vertigo. Written by Tom King. Art by Mitch Gerads.

Under the cut: reviews of Amazing Forest, Ninjak and Poe Dameron.

April 8, 2016

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Hard Time"

It's 15 April 1996, and time for another episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Chief O'Brien (Colm Meaney) has been falsely convicted of espionage against the Argrathi. By the time Major Kira (Nana Visitor) has arrived on the Argrathi homeworld to assist, O'Brien has already been tried, sentenced and convicted. His punishment: the memory of twenty years imprisonment has been implanted into his mind. Now he must adjust to life back on Deep Space Nine after two decades away, while his wife Keiko (Rosalind Chao) and his colleagues must come to terms with a man deeply changed overnight.

Putting Miles O'Brien through an emotional torture appears to be an annual tradition for Deep Space Nine. They tortured him in "Whispers", they did it in "Tribunal", they did it in "Visionary", and a fourth time in "The Assignment". Now they present the most emotionally battered O'Brien yet, in an episode pretty much entirely devoted to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

April 7, 2016

Slow West (2015)

Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a young Scot who has travelled to America to reunite with his true love Rose (Caren Pistorius). On his journey across to the west he encounters a gunslinger named Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender). They travel together, having a series of unusual encounters, and with secrets slowly revealed about their respective pasts.

Slow West is a wonderful oddity. It is a New Zealand-British co-production, but it is also a western set in 19th century America. It is also an unexpectedly idiosyncratic and bleak comedy, albeit one that can unexpectedly burst forth with frank and bloody moments of violence. At the same time it is soaked in a sort of mournful, melancholic fog. The film marks the feature film directorial debut of Scottish director John McLean. Quite how a Scottish fine arts graduate came to shoot a western in New Zealand is beyond me. However he managed it, I am glad that he did.

Kick Ass Girls (2013)

Boo (Chrissie Chau) runs a Hong Kong boxing club, Kick Ass Girls, that has fallen on hard times. To improve its chances - and to capitalise on a throng of sex-obsessed scrawny nerds - she hires the voluptuous Miu (Dada Lo) to be the club's new trainer. At the same time Boo is not speaking to former best friend TT (Hidy Yu) after TT stole her boyfriend. Then in Malaysia all three get kidnapped by a criminal organisation.

This is that rare case when a review steps well beyond a critical opinion, and instead becomes a warning: you do not want to see Kick Ass Girls.

There is a good chance you would not watch it anyway. This 2013 Hong Kong comedy - and I use the word in the broadest sense possible - sank without a trace upon release, and with very good reason. It is ultimately a bit of an insult to both taste and intelligence, garishly edited and astonishingly poor in terms of story and character. To an extent it wants to be a smutty, old-fashioned "Category III" exploitation flick; the kind that used to litter Hong Kong cinemas in the early 1990s. The problem is that it also wants to be a "girl power" action-comedy about some young women operating a boxing club, and that precludes its exploitation aspects from actually showing off any kind of sex or nudity. Now I am not a fan of Hong Kong's old Cat III films, but had Kick Ass Girls at least emulated them properly I could at least respect it for sticking to its guns.

April 6, 2016

N64:20 #14: Donkey Kong 64 (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.

Rare had scored some big hits on the SNES with Donkey Kong Country and its sequels: they were essentially Super Mario World clones, but boasted visually arresting graphics thanks to a careful conversion of 3D rendered characters into two-dimensional sprites. It was a big deal at the time, with Nintendo handing over responsibility for reviving their first big videogame character over to a British developer. Given Rare's success with the character, it was not a surprise to see Nintendo and Rare repeat the exercise on the Nintendo 64.

Inception (2010)

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a professional thief who uses high-technology devices to invade other people's dreams and steal their secrets. After an extraction attempt goes wrong, he is reluctantly forced into taking a contract to attempt an 'inception': not stealing information from another person's dreams, but implanting an idea instead. Cobb's own traumatic past, however, threatens the mission when his own demons follow the team down into the dream world.

Inception was the zeitgeist film of 2010, attracting not only critical acclaim and box office returns but also widespread discussion, parody and satire of its themes and content, and a lot of subsequent films riffing off Hans Zimmer's exceptional orchestral score. It is an exemplary case of taking one imaginative core concept, and then playing it out in ways that push the visuals and the story in interesting and arresting directions. At the time industry pundits were predicting a subsequent golden age of smart American blockbusters. To date that age has not entirely eventuated - even director Christopher Nolan has failed to match it with his two later films The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar - but even if it never does, Nolan has left behind a remarkable and memorable visual masterpiece. This is one great film.

April 5, 2016

Survivors: "Revenge"

It's 2 July 1975, and time for another episode of Survivors.

While the community of survivors head out to make hay for livestock, Vic (Hugh Walters) finds himself increasingly despondent at his failure to contribute. His depression hits a peak with a failed suicide attempt - at which point the community is visited by Donnie (Robert Tayman) and Anne (Myra Frances), the woman who left a crippled Vic to die six months earlier.

Writer Jack Ronder returns to Survivors with a much stronger instalment than his last effort ("Starvation"), and a third and final instalment to Vic's loose trilogy of episodes. When we first met him in "Genesis" his legs had been crushed by a rolling tractor, and Anne's deceit led Greg (Ian McCullough) to unwittingly leave Vic to die. In "Spoil of War" Greg found Vic still alive in the quarry where he'd been left, and brought him back to live with the community. Now Vic finally gets to come face to face with the woman who abandoned him, and precisely at the point when his emotional state is at its most pressured and unstable. It is a strong recipe for character drama.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

Five high school students (Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, and Anthony Michael Hall) assemble early one Saturday morning for detention in the school library. They do not know each other particularly well, and all stem from different social groups. Over the course of the day they talk, fight, make jokes, and eventually come to a better understanding of one another - and their own lives.

Or something along those lines. The Breakfast Club is, in many respects, the simplest form of drama: it locks five characters in a room and forces them to talk to one another. It is, in fact, so simple a structure that motion pictures rarely bother with it at all. It is more the domain of live threatre; and by the by The Breakfast Club would make one hell of a play.

The Breakfast Club is regularly held up as one of the best teen movies in American film history, and it is with good reason: this John Hughes film presented a much more realistic and unvarnished depiction of adolescence than the idealised comedies that have long typified the teen genre. It is still relatively heightened - there isn't a single unattractive actor in the lead cast - but it has a sense of authenticity to it. The characters feel like real people. Their problems sound like exactly the challenges most teenagers face. The film is more than 30 years old now and to a large degree simply refuses to date.

April 4, 2016

Ten Years, and Hong Kong's future tensions

Last night the independent feature film Ten Years was awarded Best Film at the Hong Kong Film Awards, continuing that film's remarkable and unexpected success. By winning it managed to beat several big-budget studio features including The Taking of Tiger Mountain, Ip Man 3 and Port of Call. Ten Years is a portmanteau film, comprising five separate short films depicting hypothetical lives in Hong Kong in the year 2025, and is directed by Ng Ka-leung, Jevons Au, Chow Kwun-Wai, Fei-Pang Wong, and Kwok Zune.

Ten Years presents a dystopian future for the Chinese city, in which Mandarin has become the sole official language, gangs of teenage agitators bully shop-owners who dare to sell banned goods, and a political activist sees no means of effectively protesting mainland Chinese control other than self-immolation. The film was produced on a shoestring budget of about HK$500,000 (approximately US$65,000) and has to date grossed more than HK$6 million in local cinemas.

As a science fiction enthusiast, it pleases me to see a science fiction film win Best Film at any country's national film awards. As a fan of Hong Kong - the city, its people, and its culture - the film's enormous success and acclaim points to a rapidly-building discontent with Beijing's steady growing interference in Hong Kong's affairs.

April 3, 2016

Ronin (1998)

A group of strangers are assembled in Paris for a criminal job: to steal a briefcase before it can be sold to a third party. The team do not know the contents of the briefcase, the identity of its buyer or seller, or even their own employer. When the team is double-crossed by one of their own, all bets are off as American ex-agent Sam (Robert De Niro) and mysterious Frenchman Vincent (Jean Reno) team up to recover the case.

Ronin is a stunning 1998 action-thriller by noted American director John Frankenheimer. It is a superbly constructed film. It boasts an excellent cast, including not only De Niro and Reno but Jonathan Pryce, Natascha McElhone, Sean Bean, and Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd. It has a twisting and intelligent storyline and whip-smart dialogue, thanks in part to an pseudonymous rewrite by David Mamet. Perhaps most memorably of all it features some of the most effective car chases ever presented on film.

Some action films come and go, or become dated, or slip out of popularity due to changing tastes. Ronin simply gets better and better each time I watch it.

April 2, 2016

The Pull List: 30 March 2016, Part 2

Like all of the original New 52 books still running, Aquaman has hit its magical 50th issue. To an extent I am mildly surprised to see it reach such a rarefied number: out of the seven separate volumes of Aquaman published since 1962 this is already the third-longest. He is not the most sustainable of characters. Enough readers like him to ensure he is a constant presence in the DC Universe, but perhaps not quite enough like him enough to put down the US$2.99 a month to read about his adventures.

This extra-length issue really uses its spare pages to emphasise and accentuate a central fight between Aquaman and a new nightmarish mutant villain. Nicely illustrated splash pages give the fight a pleasing amount of weight and power, and demonstrate the physical strength of the new adversary. Dan Abnett's script introduces a level of comedy akin to Keith Giffen's work which mixes the tone up a little and helps stop the comic from feeling so portentous.

We are also seeing a transformation of Mera, Aquaman's long-term wife/partner - I am not sure if the New 52 has ever officially confirmed their marital status - into Aquawoman. She has her own Aquaman-style uniform, which Brett Booth sadly realises in the most egregiously sexual of terms. It's an annoying blemish on an otherwise wonderfully entertaining comic.

I hope Aquaman continues to please in this vein going forward. It staggered around somewhat following Geoff Johns' departure, and is in sore need of a new and consistent creative approach. After all, it is his 75th anniversary this year.

Aquaman #50. DC Comics. Written by Dan Abnett. Art by Brett Booth and Norm Rapmund. Colours by Andrew Dalhouse.

Under the cut: reviews of Darth Vader, Invader Zim and Revival.

Swordsmen in Double Flag Town (1991)

He Ping, the Chinese director best known for his international arthouse hit Red Firecracker Green Firecracker, is also the director of an intriguing trilogy of 'Chinese westerns'. In these films He developed a combination of wuxia-style stories of heroic feudal warriors fighting evil in China's distant past with an aesthetic borrowed liberally from Sergio Leone and other Italian westerns of the 1960s and 1970s. It is a curiously successful blend. I had previously reviewed Sun Valley (1996), the second film of the three, and many years ago I had the opportunity to see the third - Warriors of Heaven and Earth (2003) - on the big screen. Swordsmen in Double Flag Town (1991) is the first of He's thematic trilogy, and it is a starkly told and effective sword-wielding western.

A teenager named Hao Ge (Gao Wei) travels across the western desert region of China to a small walled village known as Double Flag Town. He is there on the dying command of his father, a noted swordsman, to track down a crippled restaurant owner (Jiang Chang) and marry the man's daughter Hao Mei (Zhang Manna). When Hao Mei is almost raped, Hao Ge murders the assailant. When the assailant's brother arrives in town - a notorious and violent swordsman known as One Blow (Sun Haiying) - Hao Ge must stand against him or see the entire village slaughtered.

April 1, 2016

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Rules of Engagement"

It's 8 April 1996, almost exactly 20 years ago, and time for another episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Worf (Michael Dorn) is on trial for opening fire on an unarmed Klingon civilian transport, causing the deaths of 441 people. Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks) vigorously defends Worf before the Federation arbiter while Odo (Rene Auberjonois) investigates the case from behind the scenes. Could Worf possibly be guilty?

Of course not: it is not as if the series is going to see Worf prosecuted and sent to prison. This pretty much means the episode killed stone dead as soon as it begins. Episodic drama is always going to have an element of false menace: the heroes will be threatened with death, but we know 99 times out of 100 they are going to pull through. The difference is that in the heat of an action sequence the speed of the scene allows us to ignore the obvious safety of the characters. When we spent 42 minutes watching Commander Worf frowning in a courtroom, we have too much time to realise he is going to come out fine.