May 31, 2016

The X-Files: "Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster"

It is 1 February 2016, and time for another episode of The X-Files.

Mulder (David Duchovny) is already disenchanted with his return to hunting down paranormal creatures and UFOs. While investigating a string of murders in which the victims have had their throats torn open, Mulder uncovers evidence of some form of humanoid lizard creature - but is he willing to believe what he sees?

Now that James Wong and Chris Carter have both returned to the kind of episodes they generally wrote for the original X-Files, the task now falls to Darin Morgan to deliver the kind of off-kilter, comedic take on the series that made him famous. Morgan was the writer of such episodes as "Humbug", "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" and "War of the Coprophages". He brings his entire bad of tricks to bear on the series again, including humorous characters, satire, unreliable narrators and an energetic glee at puncturing the entire style and tone of the series in general. It is wonderful.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: "Flushing Out the Mole"

It is 22 October 1979 and time for the final episode of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Retired intelligence deputy George Smiley (Alec Guinness) has laid a trap for the Soviet mole inside the MI6 "Circus". With the traitor revealed, Smiley simply has one main question: why betray their country?

Perhaps the biggest surprise of this final episode of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is that in a 45-minute episode the mole is unmasked and apprehended within 10 minutes of the opening titles. The rest of the episode is dedicated to the fallout rather than the actual crisis itself. It is, on reflection, a typical move to make. A few episodes ago I referred to Tinker Tailor as a 'forensic drama', in that the real action has all pretty much already happened and the protagonist is primarily involved with picking up the pieces and making sense of it all. That is essentially the task of "Flushing Out the Mole": it gets the action out of the way as quickly as possible, so it can spend most of its time finally tidying up the whole story and showcasing the characters' reactions to it.

May 30, 2016

Sting: The Soul Cages (1991)

It always seems 'de rigueur' to mock Sting. Born Gordon Sumner, he rose to fame as the lead singer of the hugely popular British rock band the Police. After the band went on hiatus in 1984 he went on to record his first solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles. It was a massive hit both in the UK and internationally, and when the fractious relationship between his two Police band-mates finally collapsed he shifted into a full-time solo career.

I do not think it is a controversial claim to say that Sting is one of the UK's finest composers and lyricists. At the same time, and despite liking the vast majority of his work over the decades, I think it is fair to say he is an artist with a richly developed ego that often manifests as a tremendous self-importance. People generally do not appreciate hubris, and as a result Sting has left himself open for his entire solo career to scorn, ridicule and widespread dismissal.

Let us for the moment put aside the man's ego, however, and actually take a look at his work. His musical style is to my mind rather wonderful, combining at different points jazz, blues, rock, reggae and even classical music. His lyrics are more often than not stunningly good. I am a huge fan of his work, and of his 11 studio albums I think 1991's The Soul Cages is his absolute best.

The X-Files: "Founder's Mutation"

It is 25 January 2016 and time for another episode of The X-Files.

A computer programmer at a military-supported medical research company commits suicide. While investigating his death Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) stumble upon what appear to be genetic experiments being undertaken on abandoned children.

There is a big narrative jump between the end of "My Struggle", the season premiere, and "Founder's Mutation". That episode ended with Mulder and Scully deciding they need to return to the FBI and the X-Files. This episode begins with them already well into a professional routine of investigating the paranormal again. The jump may irritate some viewers. Personally I was thankful that the series is moving on from its pretty dire first episode and concentrating on doing what it does best.

May 29, 2016

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: "Smiley Sets a Trap"

It is 15 October 1979 and time for the sixth episode of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Smiley (Alec Guinness) has one more person with whom to speak before he is reading to move in on the MI6 mole: journalist Jerry Westerby (Joss Ackland), a one-time ally of the Circus now also out of service.

The end of episode 5 seemed to indicate that Tinker Tailor was swinging around for its final act, and this episode is pretty much an uninterrupted downhill run towards the climax. Smiley's list of suspects has narrowed to three, and he is finally prepared to step forward and lay a trap for the mysterious "Gerald" whose leaked intelligence has cost so many lives. It is enormously satisfying to see it all finally slot together.

The Pull List: 25 May 2016, Part 2

Uma, Dewydd and Katrin are three teenagers who have managed to escape the quarantined and oppressive planet Earth, steal a spacecraft and head off to explore the universe. They begin this second issue running for their lives through an alien shopping mall.

Joyride, by writers Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly and artist Marcus To, is an exceptional space opera. It is brightly designed and illustrated, boasts three well-defined and likeable characters, and has a story that is both fast-paced and nicely fleshed-out. I like a good science fiction comic, and now that we're two issues into this four-issue miniseries I am happy to claim this as one of the best being published at the moment.

It really is great value for money. The panel-per-page ratio is high, which leads to both a lot more plot than other single issues as well as many more opportunities for the characters to be explored. Literally the only criticism I have right now is that the book's only scheduled for four issues. At this stage I really quite desperately want either an extension or a sequel. Either would do. I just want more opportunities to see and explore this hugely entertaining set-up and cast. (5/5)

Joyride #2. Boom Studios. Written by Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly. Art by Marcus To. Colours by Irma Kniivila.

Under the cut: reviews of Batgirl, Daredevil, Doctor Strange, Ms Marvel and Obi-Wan & Anakin.

May 28, 2016

The X-Files: "My Struggle"

It's 24 January 2016, and time for the first new episode of The X-Files in close to 14 years.

Former FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) are reunited to meet with a conservative TV host named Tad O'Malley (Joel McHale). He claims that the alien visitation investigated by Mulder and Scully throughout the 1990s were simply a smoke-screen for a clandestine operation by the American government.

The return of The X-Files to Fox after a 14 year gap was certainly a surprise. All previous indications were that the franchise died when its second feature film, I Want to Believe, under-performed in cinemas. While surprising, it was to my mind a welcome development. I have always felt that The X-Files was a robust enough format that it could in theory run indefinitely. This new six-episode season was in a sense a victory lap, with key writers from the original series returning to tell all-new stories featuring former agents Mulder and Scully. This premiere episode is written and directed by Chris Carter, the series creator. I have always felt there were two kinds of Carter. One of them wrote some of the series' best key episodes in the early years. The other kept writing key episodes as the series went on, but they become tortuously complicated and dramatically inert. His series finale "The Truth", the last TV episode preceding this, was pretty much the worst thing Carter ever wrote.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: "Tinker Tailor"

It is 8 October 1979 and time for the fifth episode of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

As George Smiley (Alec Guinness) begins to draw closer to the mole in the Circus, he seeks out retired field agent Jim Prideaux (Ian Bannen) whose capture by Soviet forces in Czechoslovakia brought about Smiley's dismissal from MI6.

We last saw Prideaux screaming with pain and rage after getting ambushing and shot in the back at the Czechoslovakian border. Now he's a visibly traumatised and alcoholic mess, paying the bills by teaching at an English boy's school. Unlike many of the other characters visited upon by Smiley, Prideaux is actually established and effectively showcased well before Smiley arrives. We see his relationship with the students, and the emotional and physical wreck that he has become as a result of his torture and interrogation by the Russians.

May 27, 2016

N64:20 #7: Paper Mario (2000)

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.

One of the more surprising titles released for the Super Nintendo was the Nintendo/Squaresoft collaboration Super Mario RPG. It was an unexpected blend of the Super Mario Bros characters and the gameplay of a turn-based role-playing game (RPG). While Nintendo moved from the SNES to the Nintendo 64, Squaresoft did not. The developer jumped ship to produce videogames for the Sony PlayStation instead. As a follow-up to Super Mario RPG Nintendo teamed with second-party developer Intelligent Systems, who had produced the console's Fire Emblem franchise, which had been very popular in Japan.

Porco Rosso (1992)

Between the First and Second World Wars, the Adriatic Sea is packed with travellers, pirates and bounty hunters, all flying various seaplanes. The most famous of them all is Marco Pagot, a war veteran with the face of a pig, who is known across the sea as the legendary "Porco Rosso".

Porco Rosso is the sixth animated feature film by Japan's most popular and acclaimed animator Hayao Miyazaki. It is based on a three-part manga he wrote and illustrated some years earlier. In Japan it was by some distance the highest-grossing feature film of 1992.

In terms of Miyazaki's overall career Porco Rosso sits comfortably between the family-friendly adventure of Kiki's Delivery Service and the more mature fantasy of Princess Mononoke. Tonally it lies somewhere in the middle of the two: there is plenty of broad comedy for a younger audience, but there's also some more mature themes and character relationships as well. It is a nice combination, which makes this a particularly great film from this legendary filmmaker.

May 26, 2016

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: "How It All Fits Together"

It is 1 October 1979 and time for the fourth episode of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Quillam (Michael Jayston) is forced to head back into the Circus to retrieve some documents, and finds himself directly questioned by Alleline (Michael Aldridge) about Ricki Tarr's whereabouts. Smiley (Alec Guinness) recalls his sole encounter in India with the mysterious Soviet spymaster Karla (Patrick Stewart).

Quillam's first venture into the Circus in episode 3 was an unexpectedly tense affair. This second trip, in which he attempts to physically steal an intelligence file from under MI6's noses, leaves it in the dust. This is the sort of sequence where the drab, smoke-stained realism of the series really pays off: in a heightened, Hollywood-style thriller it takes an awful lot to ratchet up audience tension. Here it is a much easier affair: these are realistic characters, and there will not be any gunfights, martial arts extravaganzas or explosive car chases. It is instead brutally simple: if Quillam is caught, he's in serious trouble with the authorities.

The Pull List: 25 May 2016, Part 1

DC and Marvel, as the two giants of the superhero comic book genre, have quite different approaches to continuity. Their storylines have been running for decades. For Marvel it has always been a case of every previous storyline having happened to the same set of characters, and the timelines have always shifted along a sort of constantly amorphous 'now'. For the past 30 years DC Comics has acted quite differently. In 1985 they published Crisis on Infinite Earths, an epic storyline that effectively rebooted the entire DC Universe and fixed up all of the continuity glitches, inconsistencies and problems that had developed over the preceding 40-odd years. By-and-large the same characters remained, but they were re-envisaged slightly or brought up to date for a 1980s audience. The process was undertaken again in 1994's Zero Hour, and then again in 2005's Infinite Crisis, and then again in 2011's Flashpoint.

The five years since Flashpoint have seen DC re-develop its fiction universe under the name "The New 52", with fairly mixed and often-times contentious results. There have been fairly widespread and also fairly accurate accusations that the company has creatively lost its way, getting relentlessly dark and grim and losing sight of the bright, optimistic feel that made the DC characters so popular in the first place. So the process of reworking DC Comics continuity begins all over again this week with the 80-page special DC Universe Rebirth.

Under the cut: reviewing DC Universe Rebirth, plus reviews of The Omega Men, Superman and We Are Robin.

May 25, 2016

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Body Parts"

It is 10 June 1996 and time for the penultimate episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's fourth season.

Quark (Armin Shimerman) has been diagnosed with a terminal disease, and begins to put his affairs in order. By the time he learns his diagnosis was made in error, it may already be too late to save him. An accident on a runabout puts Keiko O'Brien (Rosalind Chao) in danger, and Dr Bashir (Alexander Siddig) is forced to transport her unborn baby into a new host: Major Kira (Nana Visitor).

Season 4 gets one more Ferengi comedy, so the usual caveats apply. In this case it has a surprisingly serious element to it, one that really lifts the episode up from mediocrity into something rather special. At the same time the episode has a truly bonkers sub-plot involving swapping a foetus from one woman to another with a transporter. I honestly cannot say whether I like that idea or not, but certainly the way it is executed is bizarrely twee. It is, all in all, a mixed experience.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: "Smiley Tracks the Mole"

It is 24 September 1979 and time for the third episode of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Smiley (Alec Guinness) begins his hunt for the mole in the Circus by visiting an old friend at Oxford. Meanwhile his assistant Quillam (Michael Jayston) ventures into the Circus himself to obtain valuable intelligence on Smiley's behalf.

This third episode of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy effectively divides itself into three sections. The first two are mentioned above. The third is another lengthy flashback, this time to Smiley's closing days as deputy chief of the Circus before he is forced out by the ambitious Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge). It is a valuable addition.

May 24, 2016

22 Jump Street (2014)

Police officers Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) move from high school to college in a new undercover mission to track down a fresh teenage drug syndicate. Once again their different experiences undercover threaten to split their friendship apart.

Much like 21 Jump Street defied the odds and made a comedy smash hit out of a parody movie remake, so too 22 Jump Street makes an arguably funnier film out of what would typically be a cynical and repetitive cash-grab sequel.

Let us be honest: sequels are rarely as good as the original work, and superior comedy sequels are even rarer. 22 Jump Street transforms this challenge into a virtue. It not only duplicates the key plot beats and character arcs of the previous movie, it positively revels in pointing it out while it does it. The result is a comedy that escapes its flaws and drawbacks by mocking them as they fly by, and gets funnier and funnier as it goes along.

The Pull List: 18 May 2016, Part 2

A girl named Abbie appears to run away from home, leaving her sister Mae behind. Now Abbie has returned - and is bringing the fantasy kingdom in which she has been living back along with her. This is Mae, a new fantasy comic book by writer/artist Gene Ha, that appears to be telling a portal story like The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland from the other way around.

I love a good fantasy comic, and I came to Mae with all the goodwill in the world. I really hoped it would leap out and grab me like Umbral or The Autumnlands. Instead it is sort of just there. The writing is sufficient but unexceptional. The art is okay, but not particularly great. It has a fairly low panel count per page, which is a particular annoyance of mine.

Its biggest problem is that not enough actually happens by the end of issue #1. It is difficult to properly decide whether it is worth persevering with Mae or not. Not enough has occurred to really give a proper indication of content, style or tone. Perhaps it will pick up, and perhaps it will not, but based on what Ha provides on this first issue it is impossible to tell. For me that pretty much kills it. It's a pity. If you're a fan of Ha's work by all means check it out, or if you're looking for a new fantasy comic and want to give it a chance. I'm not convinced. (2/5)

Mae #1. Story and art by Gene Ha. Colour assists by Rose McClain.

Under the cut: reviews of Aquaman, Black Road, Doctor Who: The 11th Doctor, Silver Surfer and Usagi Yojimbo.

May 23, 2016

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: "Tarr Tells His Story"

It is 17 September 1979 and time for the second part of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Retired intelligence deputy George Smiley (Alec Guinness) has been brought back into the fold to debrief runaway agent Ricki Tarr (Hywel Bennett), who has returned to London after three months in hiding. He brings with him a disturbing story about his last mission - and the discovery that there is a mole hidden somewhere in the senior command of MI6.

The leisurely and thoughtful pace of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy continues in its second episode, the bulk of which is dedicated to Ricki Tarr's story. To an extent it requires the viewer to put aside any expectation of following up directly on the events of the first episode, and simply enjoy Tarr's adventure on its own merits. It is a slightly odd episode as a result, but ultimately a satisfying one.

Braveheart (1995)

In the early 14th century Scottish patriot William Wallace (Mel Gibson) leads a growing rebellion against the tyranny of King Edward I (Patrick McGoohan) and his English army. From Stirling to Falkirk and beyond, Wallace's rise and fall is conveyed at length in this lengthy, large-scale and hilariously inaccurate historical epic from actor/director Mel Gibson.

It was difficult to avoid Braveheart back in 1995. It was the kind of massive medieval story that Hollywood simply did not make any more, and it was packed with beautiful panoramic vistas and stylised slow-motion photography. It received 10 Oscar nominations, ultimately winning five including Best Picture. In some measures the film was a throwback to older Hollywood productions. In others it was a ground-breaking film that shifted a paradigm in screen representations of violence and historical warfare. Overall it is fair to say that Braveheart achieves its aim: it is a rousing period drama with excellently staged action sequences and more than a few now-iconic scenes and moments. It is in the detail that the film begins to fray and disintegrate.

It is a great film, but far from perfect. It may have captured Hollywood's affections but was not by any stretch the best film of its year (to my mind that would be Seven). Today it is ageing remarkably well, its intrusive mid-1990s musical score notwithstanding, and definitely warrants a rewatch by those who have not seen it for some years.

May 22, 2016

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "The Quickening"

It's 20 May 1996, and time for another episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Bashir (Alexander Siddig) and Dax (Terry Farrell) respond to a distress call from a planet on the edge of Dominion space. They find a dying civilization, all of whom have been infected by a mysterious plague known as the Blight: a centuries-old punishment from the Dominion. They are born with the disease, and after a random period of years they undergo "the quickening" and die in agony. Dr Bashir immediately leaps in to find a cure, but soon discovers his ambition may have run away with him.

"The Quickening" is an episode that creeps up on you. It begins as something that seems relatively ordinary and commonplace for a Star Trek episode. Before long it transforms into something starkly horrific, and then awfully tragic, and ultimately something that is oddly uplifting. That's a hell of an emotional journey for 42 minutes of television.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: "Return to the Circus"

It is 10 September 1979 and time for the first episode of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

The BBC have a long-held reputation of exceptional television drama. I recently watched and reviewed Wolf Hall, which is probably the latest of their hugely successful miniseries. To follow on from that I decided to jump back a few decades to re-watch of their most famous and acclaimed television miniseries ever: the seven-part adaptation of John Le Carré's novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. While the series was excellently adapted by Arthur Hopcraft and well directed by John Irvin, it remains best known for Sir Alec Guinness' masterful and understated performance as retired deputy head of intelligence George Smiley.

In this first episode a top-secret mission to Czechoslovakia goes horribly wrong, and rather than meet with a potential defector British agent Jim Prideaux (Ian Bannen) is shot and captured by Soviet forces. Some time after the incident former deputy head George Smiley (Guiness) - who resigned in the aftermath - is unwillingly pulled back into duty.

May 21, 2016

Tokyo Jihen: Great Discovery (2011)

Tokyo Jihen (also known as Tokyo Incidents) were a four-piece jazz-rock band formed in 2004 by singer/songwriter Ringo Sheena. They disbanded back in 2012, but leave behind a great set of albums. The band fused together multiple musical genres - while they ultimately worked as a pop group, they blended in elements of jazz, funk and rock to give themselves a particularly distinctive and artful sound.

Great Discovery (Dai Hakken) was Tokyo Jihen's fifth and final studio album, released in June 2011. It captures the band at what is arguably their most commercial, pulling back a little on their more avant garde sounds in favour of a set of broadly populist tunes. The strategy clearly worked in Japan, with Great Discovery peaking at #1 on the Oricon Weekly Albums Chart and finishing 2011 as the 48th highest-selling album of the year. It is a great pop album, presenting immensely enjoyable tunes with an idiosyncratic edge. The standard is high enough that, when played beginning to end, even the occasional weaker track is supported by stronger works at either end.

N64:20 #8: Perfect Dark (2000)

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.

When Rare's first-person shooter GoldenEye 007 became an unexpected smash hit, the development studio fully expected to develop a second shooter based on the film sequel Tomorrow Never Dies. When Rare was outbid on the adaptation rights - and by a reportedly huge margin at that - the nascent sequel was taken back to the drawing board and redeveloped as an original science fiction game. That game was Perfect Dark.

May 20, 2016

The Assassin (2015)

Yinniang (Shu Qi) was taken from her home at the age of ten and trained to become a master assassin. Now an adult, she fails to undertake her latest mission when she sees her target cradling his infant son. As penance she is ordered to the distant province of Weibo to kill its chief minister Tang Ji'an (Chang Chen) - a man to whom she was once betrothed.

Every few years a wuxia film breaks out internationally and becomes a critics' darling across Europe and North America. It started with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon in 2000, which was soon followed by the likes of The House of Flying Daggers, Hero and The Curse of the Golden Flower. Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin is the latest such acclaimed film, having been awarded Best Director at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. It is also the first new feature film from Hou in eight years, which has led to much pent-up demand for new work from one of Taiwan's most beloved directors.

The Assassin is an excellent film but, I suspect, a divisive one. Certainly anybody tempted in its direction by the promise of another Crouching Tiger is going to walk away deeply disappointed. It approaches the wuxia genre on its own terms, and tells its story in its own way.

Wolf Hall: "Master of Phantoms"

It is 25 February 2015 and time for the final episode of Wolf Hall.

The King (Damian Lewis) wants Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) out of the picture. He has assigned his advisor Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) to undertake this task by any means necessary. As Anne's allies abandon her, Cromwell spins a trap to capture not only the Queen but her suitors who so offended Cromwell so many years ago.

Everything comes full circle in "Master of Phantoms". Wolf Hall commenced with Thomas Cromwell faithfully serving Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce), only to see him betrayed and disgraced. After Wolsey's death Cromwell watched with disgust as four noblemen performed in a garish masque depicted Wolsey's soul being condemned to hell. Now the tables are turned: Wolsey is the second-most powerful man in England and those same four noblemen lie directly in his sights.

May 19, 2016

Star Trek: Voyager: "Parallax"

It's 23 January 1995 and time for the second episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

Voyager is thrown out of warp by a rogue singularity in space. They can see another starship trapped just beyond the event horizon, but attempts to rescue it just drag Voyager closer to the horizon itself. Meanwhile B'Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) struggles to control her rage when working with Starfleet officers.

"Parallax" is a generally poor episode, although to its credit there are some decent moments and scenes scattered through it. It is a 'bottle show', in that it only uses the series' regular cast plus a few supporting players, and the entire episode is shot on the standing Voyager sets. We usually get these kinds of episodes once a series has run through its budget - one wonders if the production problems that beset "Caretaker" required an immediate cost-saving exercise (lead actress Genevieve Bujold quit a few days into the shoot, necessitating reshoots with her replacement Kate Mulgrew).

The Pull List: 18 May 2016, Part 1

William Gibson has been a prominent and hugely successful science fiction author since the 1980s. While his Hollywood career has not been anywhere near as prominent - an X Files episode here, a disastrous adaptation of Johnny Mnemonic there - he is now expanding into yet another medium with his four-issue comic book miniseries Archangel. It launches this week thanks to IDW.

Villainous forces from a dystopian 2016 travel back in time to 1945 to change the course of history. Over in occupied Germany, a British officer and an American OSS agent are drawn into the investigation of a mysterious plane crash. The plane itself is of no design previously seen. Its crew are unlike any pilots either officer has seen before.

This is a great opening issue that introduces the storyline and the key characters in a wonderfully dramatic fashion. Gibson's dialogue feels naturalistic and smart, and it is brought to life by Butch Guice's excellent artwork (inked with Tom Palmer). Archangel started life as a television project, so it's no surprise to find it is a very filmic sort of a work. Fans of time travel, good science fiction or William Gibson should be running to grab themselves a copy of this one. (5/5)

Archangel #1. IDW. Written by William Gibson. Art by Butch Guice and Tom Palmer. Colours by Diego Rodriguez.

Under the cut: reviews of The Shadow Glass, Spider-Man and Superman/Wonder Woman.

May 18, 2016

Wolf Hall: "Crows"

It is 18 February 2015 and time for the fifth episode of Wolf Hall.

Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) seems incapable of giving Henry (Damian Lewis) the son he desires, and so his attentions shift to the young Jane Seymour (Kate Phillips). Queen Katherine (Joanne Whalley) finally dies in confinement. Between all of them Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) struggles to guide England's future safely onwards.

There are two lesson in this fifth and penultimate episode of Wolf Hall. After bending over backwards for years to give Henry VIII what he wants, Cromwell now discovers that the King wants something else. It is an inevitable development for the series, and not a surprise. If there is one thing a general audience knows about Henry it is his six wives, and as he is currently on wife #2 it does not take a lot of imagination to see where Anne Boleyn's story is headed.

Star Trek: Voyager: "Caretaker"

It is 16 January 1995 and time for the first episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

When the USS Voyager is dispatched to track down a rogue starship a mysterious energy wave throws it 70,000 light-years across the galaxy. The crew soon discovers an immensely powerful alien intelligence that brought them there, as well as a fragile underground civilization - the Ocampa - who rely entirely on the protection of their 'caretaker' to survive.

In 1994 Paramount wrapped up their immensely successful syndicated series Star Trek: The Next Generation, and pushed its cast into a series of feature films. At the same time the studio was finalising plans to launch its own television network UPN. With spin-off series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine successfully running in syndication the opportunity rose to launch UPN with an all-new Star Trek television series to take The Next Generation's place and act as the network's flagship programme. "Caretaker" was its 90-minute premiere episode.

May 17, 2016

21 Jump Street (2012)

Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) hated each other in high school, but eight years later they have teamed up as police officers. They are both assigned to the revamped "Jump Street" division, and are placed undercover in a high school to track down a teenage drug trafficking syndicate.

21 Jump Street is a huge surprise. On paper it seems a textbook method of making a film damn-near unwatchable. It is a comedy remake of a 1980s television drama in which young police officers go undercover in high schools to track down teenage drug dealers and car thieves. Today the series is best known for launching Johnny Depp's career, and is otherwise derided as one of the sillier 1980s TV shows without much in the way of longevity.

In practice 21 Jump Street is one of the funnier Hollywood comedies of recent years. It is packed with great jokes, huge helpings of satire and parody, and unexpectedly likeable and interesting characters. It undertakes an impressive tight-rope act of indulging in clichés while simultaneously mocking them. It is that magical kind of comedy that will appeal to the market that would typically enjoy what is advertised on the poster, but likely to appeal to a whole raft of viewers beyond that. This sort of thing is rare.

Wolf Hall: "The Devil's Spit"

It is 11 February 2015 and time for the fourth episode of Wolf Hall.

Newly crowned Queen Anne (Claire Foy) fails to deliver her King (Damian Lewis) a son. Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) works to quell outrage and sedition against the King, leading to one final confrontation with Thomas More (Anton Lesser) - who continues to refuse to support King Henry's appointment as head of the Church in England.

The last episode of Wolf Hall seemed intently focused upon ambition and gains in power. This fourth instalment moves onto the next logical step: what happens when that rise to fame and authority begins to falter? An increasingly brittle Anne struggles to give her husband an heir, with a growing knowledge that should she fail to do so her time on the throne will quickly end. At the same time Cromwell continues to serve the King's desires around court, with his own growing knowledge that he is only being used and not in any way genuinely favoured.

May 16, 2016

Office Space (1999)

Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) is a bored office worker at an American technology firm. After a mishap involving a dying hypnotherapist, Peter finds himself uninterested in continuing to pointless work in his repetitive job: he still turns up, he still collects a pay cheque, but he has simply stopped doing the work. His inaction has unexpected roll-on effects for his friends Samir (Ajay Naidu) and Michael (David Herman) and new girlfriend Joanna (Jennifer Aniston).

Mike Judge's 1999 comedy Office Space was not a success upon its theatrical release, but like all great movie comedies it has since found its audience and become a widely loved cult favourite. It does this through two main methods: iconic characters and a hugely identifiable setting. Anyone who has worked in a cubicle-style office environment will find characters and situations that they recognise. More than any other film I can remember Office Space nails the tedium, petty bureaucracy and soul-destroying busy-work of the modern day office environment.

May 15, 2016

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "To the Death"

It's 13 May 1996 and time for another episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

After a group of rogue Jem'Hadar make a surprise attack on the station, Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks) is forced to temporarily unite with the Dominion to track the rogues down and stop them from taking control of an Iconian gateway.

"To the Death" is very much less than the sum of its parts. On the one hand it provides a fresh perspective on the Jem'Hadar and their culture, it introduces a new recurring character who will prove to be a fan-favourite, it brings back a story element from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and it continues the long-running story arc regarding Odo's angst-ridden relationship with the Founders of the Dominion. On the other hand it simply comes up a little ordinary. There is nothing here that grabs the attention enough to make the episode worthwhile, and too much of it feels like things we have seen many times before.

May 14, 2016

Wolf Hall: "Anna Regina"

It is 4 February 2015, and time for the third episode of Wolf Hall.

Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) continues to expand his power and influence at court. King Henry (Damian Lewis) battles to convince the Parliament to make him - and not the Pope - the head of the church in England, all in aid of his quest to replace Queen Katherine with the ambitious Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy).

There is a marvellous sense of rising dread in Wolf Hall. Both Thomas and Anne are boldly ambitious people, using every opportunity available to them to rise in status and power. They are, not surprisingly, making a lot of enemies on their way. The question is - and anyone with a knowledge of English history will already know the answer - how far can each of them go before they are in over their heads and in serious trouble?

The Astrocytes: Because I'm Really Not Sorry (2012)

The Astrocytes were an independent rock band based in Hong Kong. I bought their debut CD Because I'm Really Not Sorry while in the city in 2012, but to be honest have not heard anything from them since. I suspect like most independent groups they have long since separated and gone their separate ways. Their website does not even mention this album, and its only link is to an empty Myspace page. Lead singer Helena Angwin appears to be working as a professional model these days. Guitarist Joe Ashley Cheng is apparently a professional songwriter.

Because I'm Really Not Sorry is a weirdly retro album, stylistically speaking. More than once I am reminded of the sorts of mid-1990s grunge and independent British pop-rock that I listened to as an undergraduate student. It also boasts that near-trademark stark, simple sound that typifies an independent low-budget CD release. There is not really anything original or attention-grabbing about this album, but it does have a lot of straight-up energy and heart to it. I hope the four members of the band have moved on to better and more successful things.

May 13, 2016

The Martian (2015)

While there have been many better directors making films over the past century or so, I will always have a soft spot for Ridley Scott. This British director has been making visually stunning and artful movies since the 1970s, sometimes to great critical and commercial success and sometimes to the sound of critic's disinterest and crickets in the theatres. Several of my all-time favourite films are directed by Scott: Blade Runner (probably my favourite), Alien, Kingdom of Heaven, Thelma and Louise and The Duellists. At the same time he has occasionally managed a misfire: Prometheus, A Good Year and White Squall all come to mind, each for different reasons.

To a large extent Scott seems a slave to his screenwriters. Whatever he directs will look stunning, but there is no predicting how good or bad the script he is directing will be. The result of this tendency is a resume packed with films that are as consistent in their aesthetic as they are inconsistent in their ultimate quality.

The latest roll of the dice on Ridley Scott - his 2015 science fiction drama The Martian - turns out very happily indeed. It is a fabulous film packed with beautiful vistas, which are to be expected, and tremendous emotional warmth, which is perhaps its biggest surprise. I cannot remember the last time Scott directed a film this lively and humorous. I am uncertain if he ever has.

N64:20 #9: Super Smash Bros (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.

When Nintendo announced that it was releasing a fighting game based around its various corporate characters it seemed a difficult announcement to believe. While fighting games had become a remarkably popular genre of videogame through such franchises as Street Fighter, Tekken and Virtua Fighter, that sort of game seemed fundamentally incompatible with the bright, child-friendly stable of Nintendo heroes include Mario and Luigi, Kirby and Pikachu. In typical Nintendo fashion, however, Super Smash Bros took the basic concept of the fighting game and then re-fashioned it into something distinctive, family-friendly and packed down to the bone with a charming Nintendo identity.

May 12, 2016

Wolf Hall: "Entirely Beloved"

It's 28 January 2015, and time for the second episode of Wolf Hall.

While Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) sits out his exile in the north, Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) fights for his favour in the English court - and grows closer to King Henry VIII (Damian Lewis).

With this second episode, and with the main players now set up and well established, Wolf Hall is able to enter deeper, richer and somewhat darker territory. The story is gradually growing more complex as Cromwell is led towards jumping ship from his slavish devotion to Wolsey to the greater fortune - although riskier landscape - of following Henry VIII directly. Events gradually become more complex, as Cromwell is not only drawn into the orbit of the ambitious and aggressively combative Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) but continues to fend off the antagonistic Duke of Norfolk (Bernard Hill) and spies sent by court rival Stephen Gardiner (Mark Gatiss).

The Pull List: 11 May 2016

In the future a massive satellite orbits the Earth, containing 75,000 different aliens. One human lives among them: Lilly, a bounty hunter still mourning her girlfriend's death some months previously. After getting too close to one of the police officers, Lilly finds herself blackmailed into helping out on an undercover sting operation.

Satellite Falling is a smart, engaging science fiction series, which seems ready to sit quite comfortably alongside the likes of The Fuse and Copperhead. In this case it's perhaps just a little bit more adult, with sex, violence, people trafficking and drug dealers, but it's all handled in a smart and engaging fashion. Stephen Thompson's artwork is stunning, and pretty much seals the deal. I am definitely going to be reading the second issue.

It is also great to see IDW continue to expand its line-up with more of these original titles. I remember when the publisher first started it was a hotbed for hot new artists and writers, with all manner of exciting projects. Somewhere along the line market forces pushed it into a publisher of media tie-ins and spin-offs. While some of those have been perfectly enjoyable, their best work always seems to be where the ideas are the most original. (4/5)

IDW. Written by Steve Horton. Art by Stephen Thompson. Colours by Lisa Jackson.

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Batman, Darth Vader, Gotham Academy, Invader Zim, and The Massive: Ninth Wave.

May 11, 2016

Doctor Who: "A Change of Identity"

It's 22 August 1964, and time for another episode of Doctor Who.

In this third episode of "The Reign of Terror", Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) and Susan (Carole Ann Ford) are scheduled to be executed by the guillotine. Ian (William Russell) remains trapped inside the Conciergerie. The Doctor (William Hartnell), presumed dead by his companions, finally arrives in Paris in the hope to rescuing them all.

There is a weird tension going on in "The Reign of Terror". Part of the serial is an obvious and - to be honest - fairly unenthused pastiche based on Emma Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel. It is regularly peppered with comedic interludes, however, such as the Doctor's adventure with the road gang in the last episode or his encounter with a Parisian tailor here. The two styles do not gel together very well, and the effect is a little like watching two different episodes simultaneously. There are enjoyable parts to the episode, but overall it feels somewhat tiresome and awkward. This is not Doctor Who at its best.

Wolf Hall: "Three Card Trick"

It's 21 January 2015 and time for the first episode of Wolf Hall.

A change of genre, then: this blog is primarily devoted to reviewing old episodes of science fiction and fantasy television, and a few exceptions aside - The West Wing, for one - I have kept much of my non-SF viewing off the website. Having just started the BBC's six-part miniseries Wolf Hall, however, and being enormous impressed with its first episode, I figured it was well worth expanding the remit and giving this exceptional drama a closer examination.

It is 1529. England's King Henry VIII (Damian Lewis) demands an annulment from his Queen Catherine of Aragon, as she has failed to produce him an heir. The King's once-trusted advisor and confidante Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) has failed to draw this annulment from Rome and has been exiled from court. Wolsey's doggedly loyal lawyer Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) continues to fight for his master's cause despite vicious opposition in the English court.

May 10, 2016

Crusade: "Racing the Night"

It's 4 August 1999, and time for another episode of Crusade.

An Excalibur crew member is killed while surveying a long-dead planet, leading Gideon (Gary Cole) and his crew to discover that the planet is not as dead as they had been led to believe. Its inhabitants may hold the cure to the Drakh plague - if only Gideon could find them.

A bit of production history is needed to better explain "Racing the Night". After the first few episodes of Crusade had been shot, broadcaster TNT demanded some changes and retooling of the series in return for a modest budget increase. They also wound up taking those early episodes - which TNT executives did not particularly like - and shifted them back to the second half of the series. The result was that there's a lot of Crusade that simply doesn't make a lot of sense, because characters occasionally refer to things that have not happened yet, or their interpersonal relationships shift from hot to cold and back on an episode-by-episode basis. "Racing the Night" was shot with the expectation that it would be the second episode broadcast, but instead it was presented as ninth.

Banks: Goddess (2014)

Jillian Banks, who simply performs under the stage name Banks, is an American singer-songwriter. Her debut album Goddess was released in 2014 and peaked at #12 in the USA Billboard charts. I have to admit I had not heard of Banks - although I had heard one of her songs quite a lot without knowing who was performing it - and only encountered a copy because my wife purchased it in error (I cannot remember what band she had misread the slightly ornate cover copy as).

The most striking thing about this album is how homogeneous it is: Banks has a very specific musical style, broadly categorised by the music press as either alternative R&B or trip hop. Her songs all seem to have the same combination of low, electronic tones and syncopated percussion. They have a slow, haunting quality to them. Liking Goddess almost entirely requires the listener to be a big fan of this sort of slow, Portishead-like musical style, because there really is nothing else that Banks presents here. It's great at what it is, but essentially that is all that it is.

May 9, 2016

Running Out of Time (1999)

A robber (Andy Lau) holds a Hong Kong finance company at gunpoint, but when police detective Ho Sheung-Sang (Lau Ching-wan) the thief seems more interested in playing a game of cat and mouse than in getting away with his money. Over the next 72 hours the game progresses, with Ho always one step behind the thief while slowly piecing together the truth behind his motives.

1999 was a great year for Hong Kong director/producer Johnnie To. His production company Milkyway Image, which he founded three years earlier, had suffered a string of commercial and critical failures. In 1999 To's one-two punch of The Mission (shot in 18 days) and Running Out of Time (shot intermittently over two years) revived Milkyway's fortunes and re-established his career as one of Hong Kong's finest and most idiosyncratic feature film directors. They cemented a specific house style for Milkyway's crime flicks and thrillers, one that highlights small moments of character and embraces the absurd in among all of the plot twists and shoot-outs. Running Out of Time specifically also re-directed the career of co-star Andy Lau, then a popular but critically unappreciated star of romantic comedies and dramas. Under To's direction Lau stretched himself considerably, and earned a Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actor as a result.

The Pull List: 4 May 2016, Part 3

I have been praising the merits of The Sheriff of Babylon for several months now, and every new issue released reminds me all over again just how strong and dramatic a series it is. Over the past month DC Vertigo has undergone a shake-up, with senior editor Shelley Bond - who oversaw this book's release - let go, and the line falling under the creative control of DC Comics proper. I am not overly confident we are going to see books of this style and calibre in the coming years, so this may wind up being the last hurrah for a once-great publishing imprint.

This book has a phenomenal sense of panel-to-panel timing. One scene in this issue in particular is one of the most intense and harrowing sequence I have read in a long time, and the manner in which the events play out is striking and immensely dramatic. Mitch Gerads' artwork has a phenomenal sense of gritty realism to it, and that realism makes each issue's more violent moments even more effective than one would normally see. Tom King's plot is developing wonderfully as well, taking its time and ensuring there is a strong sense of place and a deeply effective tone that both run hand in hand with the narrative.

This is the best American comic book in publication at the moment. Tom King, who has also impressed me deeply with his work on The Omega Men and who is about to take over Batman in June, is a writer to watch and follow. (5/5)

The Sheriff of Babylon #6. DC Vertigo. Written by Tom King. Art by Mitch Gerads.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman Superman, Poe Dameron and Rat Queens.

May 7, 2016

Crusade: "Appearances and Other Deceits"

It's 28 July 1999, and time for another episode of Crusade.

While a pair of Earth government propagandists fuss over how to make the Excalibur more appealing to the general public, the ship stumbles upon a derelict alien spacecraft. Its entire crew is dead, save for one alien held in cryogenic stasis. When the alien is brought back to Excalibur to be revived, a dangerous unearthly force is released onto the ship - placing the entire crew in grave peril.

A few quibbles aside, "Appearances and Other Deceits" is possibly Crusade's first genuinely great episode. It has a fast pace, and its narrative is based around a smart and intriguing concept. It remains imperfect due to one guest character in particular, but if you can put him to one side the remainder is a clever, tense and broadly enjoyable hour of science fiction television.

May 6, 2016

The Pull List: 4 May 2016, Part 2

Black Widow has been unwillingly forced to work for a villain while on the run from SHIELD. Her mission takes her back to Russia where she is forced to confront her own past-

-and I'm going to stop the synopsis right there, because already it's showing off a real problem with Black Widow. Natasha is always confronting her past. She wallows in it. Everything in her adult life seems to refer back to or directly involve her childhood and adolescence as a trained Russian assassin. I used to think that Daredevil was the most self-obsessed and regretful superhero in America, but I think Natasha has taken the crown. I think there are only so many times a character can revisit the same emotional beats before it gets tiresome. Not even Bruce Wayne has wallowed in his tragic past this much. It is tiresome.

That's a shame, because Samnee, Waid and Wilson are a stunning creative team, and on a panel-to-panel basis their storytelling is second-to-none. After their sensationally inventive and bright Daredevil run I was hoping for something just as inspiring from their Black Widow. We're three issues in and thus far we simply are not getting it. Great plotting, great art, but so annoyingly derivative. (3/5)

Black Widow #3. Marvel. Written by Chris Samnee and Mark Waid. Art by Chris Samnee. Colours by Matthew Wilson.

Under the cut: reviews of Detective Comics, Revival and The Wicked + the Divine.

May 5, 2016

L'Arc en Ciel: Ark (1999)

L'Arc en Ciel is a Japanese rock band. They formed back in 1991 and, a bunch of member changes notwithstanding, continue to produce music today. While they started off as a visual kei group (a sort of Japanese off-shoot of glam metal) they soon shifted over to becoming a fairly light rock/pop outfit. They are tremendously popular in Japan with more than 40 million albums sold over the past 25 years. In 1999 the band simultaneously released their sixth and seventh studio albums, Ray and Ark. I figured I would take a listen to Ark and see how it went.

The biggest issue facing L'Arc en Ciel is just how blandly inoffensive they sound. It's that sort of generic upbeat pop-rock that seems guaranteed to find a fan base without actually contributing anything fresh or new to popular music. They do have a generally Japanese flavour to their music, and that might attract some fans of Japanese popular culture, but there are better and much more interesting bands out there to sample. This album sounds about as mainstream a collection of songs as you could find, and that lets it down pretty badly.

N64:20 #10: Blast Corps (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.

Here we are, with yet another Rare videogame for the Nintendo 64. Aside from Nintendo itself Rare was easily the most critically important developer for the console, generating a wave of hit titles including Banjo Kazooie, Perfect Dark, Conker's Bad Fur Day, Donkey Kong 64 and GoldenEye 007. Blast Corps was their first major N64 game, and while it actually sold below expectations it was widely acclaimed and remains an exceptional videogame today. Quite why it has never been reworked or revived in the past two decades is beyond me: it deserves the exposure.

May 4, 2016

The Pull List: 4 May 2016, Part 1

One of the best titles Valiant has published in recent years has been Rai. Matt Kindt and Clayton Crain have done an outstanding job showcasing the far-future technological dystopia of New Japan. This week they take the opportunity to expand beyond New Japan and showcase the entire planet Earth of the 41st century in 4001 AD, an all-new four-issue miniseries.

It is a phenomenal opening chapter, with an epic scale and a strong introduction to orient and inform new readers. The real star, however, is the painting artwork. It is as if the book is composed of science fiction paperback covers, each evocative and thrilling, with vivid colour and an outstanding sense of size and movement.

Thankfully Kindt's script is up to the challenge of matching the artwork, and 4001 AD successfully works as both a science fiction story and as a look into the far future of the Valiant superhero universe. Everyone is entertained: this is a great book. (5/5)

4001 AD #1. Valiant. Written by Matt Kindt. Art by Clayton Crain and David Mack.

Under the cut: reviews of Amazing Forest, Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow of the Vampire, and 3 Devils.

The End of Summer (1961)

For international audiences it is generally thought that Akira Kurosawa is Japan's greatest-ever film director. In Japan, however, the overwhelming consensus gives that honour to Yasujiro Ozu. Between 1927 and his death in 1962 Ozu directed numerous comedies and dramas, each of which seemed to perfectly capture the changing landscape of Japanese domestic life. His films are tonally and visually distinctive, making extensive use of low static camera angles, direct address to camera, and rigid geometric editing.

The low angles made sense, since his films were almost universally set inside traditional Japanese homes. The camera sits inevitably at the height of an observer sitting upon a tatami mat, giving the viewer the sense of sitting in the room and observing the action. Ozu also disliked excessive drama, and was known for cutting entire scenes out of his films if he felt they were making events feel too melodramatic. He also regularly broke his scenes up with what the critic Nöel Burch called "pillow shots": small triptych sequences dividing moments in time that would give an abstract sense of place or emotion. The much-vaunted "180 degree rule", in which camera angles from one edit to another must generally point to the one side of a room, Ozu freely ignored.