August 31, 2016

Star Trek: Voyager: "Emanations"

It is 13 March 1995, and time for another episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

The Voyager crew discover a series of alien burial grounds inside the rings of an uninhabited planet. A transporter accident sees Ensign Kim (Garrett Wang) swap places with one of the dead aliens. While she is successfully revived on Voyager, Kim wakes to find himself transported to another dimension - where a race known as the Vhnori use vacuoles in space to transport their dead to the afterlife.

"Emanations" marks a huge improvement in script quality for Voyager. This is an episode that is intelligent, sensitively portrayed, provocative and distinctive. It is easily the best episode of Season 1 thus far. It also finally gives the spotlight to Harry Kim, a likeable character who has been poorly served by the scripts since the series pilot.

The Jungle Book (2016)

The Walt Disney Company has been enjoying some remarkable success of late by remaking their range of classic animated features as live-action films. Robert Stromberg's Maleficent (2014) re-imagined Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of its villain, and Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella (2015) offered a pleasant but traditional take on the popular fairy tale. Now Jon Favreau has adapted Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book - and Disney's 1967 animated version - into an all-new CGI-heavy live-action feature and it's possibly the most satisfying production of the three.

Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a human child raised in the Indian jungle by a pack of wolves. When the jungle is visited by the human-hating and scarred tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba), the decision is made to take Mowgli to the nearest human village. Hijinks ensue along the way, as they do, involving the lazy bear Baloo (Bill Murray), the hypnotic python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and the giant ape King Louie (Christopher Walken).

August 30, 2016

The Last Panthers: Episode 1

It is 26 October 2015, and time for the first episode of The Last Panthers.

In the port city of Marsielles a jewel heist goes disastrously wrong. While the thieves get away with millions of dollars' worth of diamonds, one of them is injured and a child is killed in the crossfire between the gang and the police. While French police detective Khalil (Tahar Rahim) begins his investigation, he finds his efforts complicated by the arrival of Naomi (Samantha Morton), an English insurance investigator sent to recover the lost diamonds.

The Last Panthers is a bleak and uncompromising crime drama created and written by script writer and playwright Jack Thorne. It is a European co-production, told across multiple countries and in three different languages. It boasts an excellent international cast, including not just Rahim and Morton but also Goran Bogdan, Corinne Masiero and John Hurt. Upon its release late last year it gained a lot of publicty due to its theme music, which was composed by pop singer/musician David Bowie from his forthcoming single "Blackstar". While the music is a great fit for the tone of the series, it is far from its best selling point. This is a great first episode all round.

Three for the Show (1955)

When stage performer Julie (Betty Grable) loses her husband Marty (Jack Lemmon) during the Korean War, she moves on by marrying his former writing partner Vernon (Gower Champion). Two years later Marty turns out to have been marooned on an island all along, leaving Julie with two husbands at the same time. Rather than choose one over the other, she decides to keep both.

Three for the Show is a slightly bizarre Hollywood musical starring Betty Grable in her penultimate film role. As one career wound down, however, another picked up, with the film giving Jack Lemmon one of his key early roles as the competitive romantic Marty. The film is unusual in the way it aggressively skirts the line in pushing references to its characters' sex lives in such a mainstream studio fare. The Hays Code, which had rigorously policed movie standards in relation to sex and violence, was winding down by 1955 but it was certainly still there. I was slightly surprised at how enthusiastically Three for the Show seemed to enjoy prodding it.

August 29, 2016

Roadies: "Corporate Gig"

It's 21 August 2016, and time for the penultimate episode of Roadies.

Much to the road crew's chagrin, the Staton-House Band has been booked to play a corporate function for a rich rubber magnate. Shelli (Carla Gugino) returns just it time to get an unexpected offer from Tom Staton (Catero Alain Colbert). Kelly-Ann (Imogen Poots) ponders her life choices after receiving a hard drive of her teenage writing. Reg (Rafe Spall) continues to obsess over his own future, and the fate of the band.

It is frustrating when a television drama fails to come together. I think it is even more frustrating when a television drama does come together, but it does so too late. These last two episodes of Roadies have seen the series finally work out its rhythms and characters, but of course by now it is almost certainly too late for an audience to find it. Showtime have yet to make a formal announcement on the series' future, but for it to receive a second year at this stage - and with declining viewing figures - would be a big surprise.

The Green Inferno (2013)

A group of idealistic activists head into the Peruvian Amazon to save an indigenous tribe from an illegal logging operation - only to become targeted by the tribe itself.

I was a big fan of Cabin Fever, Eli Roth's bleak 2002 body horror film about a group of clueless college students who get infected with a flesh-eating virus while camping in the woods. It was a bold film, and remarkably graphic, but with a real visual and tonal flair that made it seem as if Roth was a really fresh talent to watch. I was much less impressed by his 2005 follow-up Hostel, which featured more gore but seemingly less flair. His 2007 sequel Hostel Part II was perhaps a little better, but the potential shown by that first feature did not seem to have led anywhere worthwhile.

The Green Inferno is Roth's fourth feature film as director, and sadly continues his downward trajectory as a filmmaker. The gore of his earlier works remains, but the flair and style seems to have entirely evaporated. This is a weakly developed, intellectually lazy and to be honest mildly offensive film that - for me at least - puts the nail in the coffin for Roth's long-term chances. His career started with merit, but wherever it goes from here I suspect I won't be following.

August 28, 2016

The Pull List: 24 August 2016, Part 2

1220 AD: Theo and Hugh are two young noblemen that have set off across France - and against their mother's wishes - to join the Holy Crusade. They are promptly set on a mission to the isolated village of Montaillou, more to get them out of their commander's way than anything else. Once there they discover not heretics but demonic invaders from another place.

This whole schtick of medieval-warriors-versus-aliens has been done plenty of times before. A recent Dark Horse miniseries by Dan Abnett and I.N.J. Culbard, Dark Ages, did a great job with it. It seems like this new Image monthly is going to have an excellent stab at it as well. The characters are archetypal but remarkably well realised, while the script is clearly well researched with a fascinating grounding in the Albigensian Crusade.

This is also a great value first issue, with 44 pages of story and a higher panel count per page to keep the story pushing along for an impressive length. Matt Smith's artwork is exceptional: realistic enough to have some weight behind it, but cartoonish enough to give all of the characters a rich sense of personality. This was a hugely enjoyable issue; I will definitely continue reading. (5/5)

Lake of Fire #1. Image. Written by Nathan Fairbairn. Art by Matt Smith. Colours by Nathan Fairbairn.

Under the cut: reviews of Generation Zero, ROM and Usagi Yojimbo.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Outcast"

It is 16 March 1992, and time for another episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Enterprise comes to the aid of the androgynous J'Naii, who have lost a shuttlecraft inside a previously theoretical area of space known as 'null space'. While Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) works with the J'Naii technician Soren (Melinda Culea), the begins to share a romance - once expressly forbidden by the customs of Soren's people.

Star Trek: The Next Generation executive producer Rick Berman once said: 'We thought we had made a very positive statement about sexual prejudice in a distinctively Star Trek way, but we still got letters from those who thought it was just our way of "washing our hands" of the homosexual situation.' Let's have a look into why the Next Generation production team might have received those letters.

August 27, 2016

Outbreak (1995)

After uncovering a 100 per cent lethal blood-borne virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, military virologist Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) demands for an immediate warning to go out to all American border controls and medical centres. His demands are ignored, and before long a deadly outbreak of the virus occurs in the town of Cedar Creek, California. While Sam and his team fight to contain and cure the virus, his US Army masters - personified by Major General Donald McClintock (Donald Sutherland) - are secretly working against him.

In 1994 Richard Preston's non-fiction book The Hot Zone became a publishing sensation, and Hollywood rushed to adapt it into a narrative feature film. It was 20th Century Fox that won the bidding war to the book's movie rights, and they quickly signed up Ridley Scott to direct and Jodie Foster and Robert Redford to star. Not to be left out of the opportunity, Warner Bros - which had failed to get the rights - simply developed their own virus-based medical thriller at breakneck speed. They hired Wolfgang Petersen to direct and, after failing to court Harrison Ford, cast Dustin Hoffman to star. So smoothly did the Warner Bros production Outbreak hit the script that The Hot Zone, despite being the earlier project, floundered and collapsed in pre-production and was ultimately never made.

August 26, 2016

The Pull List: 24 August 2016, Part 1

Blue Beetle is one of the DC superheroes that probably means something different for two separate sets of readers. For the readers of the 1980s he's Ted Kord, multi-millionaire turned costumed hero who eventually fell in with Booster Gold in the Justice League and become a long-running comic relief character. He eventually got shot in the head by Maxwell Lord because, well that was back when DC fans were not allowed nice things. Before then, however, he'd already effectively been replaced by teenage hero Jaime Reyes, who had the sorts of personal crises one gets in high school while simultaneously having an alien transforming scarab grafted to his back.

As part of DC's "give everybody what they want" Rebirth initiative, Blue Beetles has been revived starring not Reyes or Kord but both working together. Sadly it's not a great first issue. Keith Giffen's jokey writing style working excellently back in the 1980s, but the older his schtick becomes the less effective it is. This feels like a tired comic already, and it's not just beginning. Add in some fairly perfunctory art by Scott Kolins - never my favourite artists - and Blue Beetle Rebirth is just a flat-out redundant book. DC is doing too much excellent stuff at the moment to waste time on the mediocre books.

I do think Blue Beetle has potential; I don't think it's going to get realised in this book. (2/5)

Blue Beetle Rebirth #1. DC Comics. Written by Keith Giffen and Scott Kolins. Art by Scott Kolins. Colours by Romulo Fajardo Jr.

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Batgirl, and Detective Comics.

August 25, 2016

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Ethics"

It is 2 March 1992, and time for another episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Worf (Michael Dorn) is badly injured when a damaged cargo container falls on him, crushing his spine. Rather than spend the rest of his life as a paraplegic, Worf is intent upon committing ritual suicide. Hope may exist, however, in an experimental treatment offered by a Federation medical researcher - assuming Dr Crusher (Gates McFadden) allows the procedure to go ahead.

"Ethics" tackles a really complex issue for a science fiction series, so perhaps it is better to applaud its ambition than to criticise its execution. The problem with that approach is that while it is always good to see a television drama attempt to explore issues of disability, "Ethics" comes pretty close to doing every single wrong-headed thing with the concept that it can. Ambition and good intentions will only get you so far, and this episode winds up letting both its ideas and its characters down.

Penance: "Atonement"

It is 5 February 2012 and time for the final episode of Penance.

15 years ago Asako's daughter was assaulted and murdered her school gymnasium by a mysterious stranger. The murderer was never found by the police, and Asako was so incensed with her daughter's four friends - who could not describe the man - that she demanded they all pay penances for their failure. Now the fourth of those girls - now women - has given Asako the name and address of the man that killed her daughter, and offered her the long-awaiting chance for revenge.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa's five-part miniseries Penance saves the best for last with this crushing and masterfully claustrophobic finale. Each of the first four episodes showcased one of the four girls, and showed how the effects of Emili's murder effectively ruined their lives. Now it is Asako's own turn to see how badly her life has been destroyed, and the causes stretch way beyond her daughter's death and all but lay the blame for everything at her feet. This is not happy television.

August 24, 2016

Dragonheart (1996)

Bowen (Dennis Quaid) is an English knight tasked with educating and training Prince Einon, the son of a cruel Saxon king. When a peasant uprising kills the king and mortally wounds Einon, it is only the intervention of a local dragon that saves the boy's life. 12 years later Einon (David Thewlis) has grown up to become more of a tyrant that his father was, and Bowen has become a bounty hunter tracking down the very dragon whose spell corrupted Einon's heart. When he fails to kill one dragon, named Draco (voiced by Sean Connery), Bowen and the dragon team up on a scam to defraud the local peasantry of their money.

Dragonheart was released in 1996, with its publicity pretty much entirely riding on the sight of a computer-generated dragon flying around and speaking with Sean Connery's voice. The explosion of CGI in Hollywood following the release of Jurassic Park led to a bunch of these sorts of effects-driven, high concept films. Some were hits, some were flops. Most of them have, over the last twenty years, fallen by the wayside. Dragonheart feels like a sort of middle ground film. It has its fans for sure, and was successful enough for Universal Pictures to develop at least two direct-to-video sequels, but it never quite managed to grab the public imagination in any sort of long-term fashion. These days it seems half-forgotten.

Roadies: "The All-Night Bus Ride"

It is 14 August 2016, and time for another episode of Roadies.

The road crew spend the night awake and talking during an all-night bus trip. Phil reminisces about his first days as a roadie. Milo (Peter Cambor) regrets not expressing his feelings to Kelly-Ann (Imogen Poots) earlier. Reg (Rafe Spall) makes an unpleasant discovery about why he was hired to join the crew in the first place.

The calibre of talent involved in Roadies means that sooner or later the law of averages is going to result in a half-decent episode. It had happened once already earlier in the season, and it is a huge relief to see it happen again: "The All-Night Bus Ride" is an oddly strong episode whose only significant flaw is that it does not link up so well to the rest of the season. In some respects it is a glimpse into an alternate universe where Roadies does not suck.

August 23, 2016

Babylon 5: The Legend of the Rangers: "To Live and Die by Starlight"

It is 19 January 2002, and time for the first (and only) episode of Babylon 5: The Legend of the Rangers.

Human Ranger David Martell (Dylan Neal) orders a retreat during a pitched space battle, breaking a cardinal rule of the Rangers - to never retreat in the face of the enemy. Rather than get exiled from the order entirely, he is assigned the command of a decrepit and potentially haunted starship and give escort duty for a group of ambassadors on their way to a conference. The convoy is attacked, putting the lives of all the ambassadors in Martell's hands and revealing a new alien menace that threatens the entire galaxy.

Babylon 5 ran for five years 110 episodes. Its follow-up, Crusade, lasted only one season of 13 episodes. J. Michael Straczynski's third attempt for a Babylon 5 series lasted just under 90 minutes. I feel there is a law of diminishing returns to this franchise. The Legend of the Rangers was a 2002 TV movie produced as a pilot to an intended ongoing series for the Sci-Fi Channel, but of course no such series ultimately eventuated. Having watched its sole episode, I am not entirely surprised.

The Pull List: 17 August 2016, Part 3

When DC Comics published Batgirl and the Birds of Prey Rebirth, I was relatively unconvinced by it and suspected I would not bother picking up the series proper. I am glad that I did: this proper issue #1 is a much better and more tightly written affair, with good art and a really nice sense of humour to it. The premise is pretty simple: someone is masquerading as Batgirl's former identity Oracle and selling information to the highest bidder. Batgirl wants her shut down and has roped in best friend Black Canary to help. Their paths have now crossed with the Huntress, a vigilante on a crusade to rid Gotham City of its gangsters.

I couldn't tell you why the last issue fell slightly flat and this issue worked so well. Claire Roe's artwork for one feels a lot more accomplished. The script, by Julie and Shawna Benson, is much stronger and packed with a lot more story. If you are an old-school fan of Birds of Prey, I suspect this book will satisfy your nostalgia. If you're new to the team, this issue works as a perfect new origin.

DC Comics have really made this Rebirth scheme work. The New 52 was nowhere near this accomplished or of such a consistent quality. I figured I'd be sticking to a small number of titles going through this initiative, but instead I'm reading more DC titles than I was a year ago. It looks like I'll be reading this one too. (5/5)

DC Comics. Batgirl and the Birds of Prey #1. Written by Julie Benson and Shawna Benson. Art by Claire Roe. Colours by Allen Passalaqua.

Under the cut: reviews of Black Widow, Descender, Invader Zim, Poe Dameron, and The Wicked + the Divine.

August 22, 2016

Colditz: "Gone Away Part II: With the Wild Geese"

It is 25 January 1973, and time for the first season finale of Colditz.

With careful planning and plenty of luck, four British officers have successfully escaped the walls of Colditz Castle. Now for Captain Pat Grant (Edward Hardwicke) and Flight Lieutenant Phil Carrington (Robert Wagner) the real challenge begins: crossing Germany to reach Switzerland before the Nazis find them.

Colditz effectively comes full circle: it started outside of the castle, with officers sneaking their way desperately across enemy territory. This first season finishes that way too, with Grant and Carrington doing their best to masquerade as Flemish construction workers as they edge ever-closer to the Swiss border. It is a tense, wonderfully dramatic and hugely entertaining finale.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Power Play"

It is 22 February 1992, and time for another episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Enterprise investigates unusual life signs on a deserted, storm-wracked planet. When the away team returns to the ship, three of them - Data (Brent Spiner), Troi (Marina Sirtis) and O'Brien (Colm Meaney) have been taken over by alien entities intent upon taking over the ship.

"Power Play" is essentially Star Trek: The Next Generation as an action thriller: high on plot and tension but low on actual depth and character. It is also a 'bottle show', using only one set that isn't on the Enterprise and keeping the number of guest performers to a minimum. Within those two restraints it is a pretty entertaining hour of television.

August 21, 2016

The Pull List: 17 August 2016, Part 2

Grace Briggs is the middle-aged mother of three sons, and the wife of a racist, anti-government secessionist leader currently serving a life sentence in prison - and she has just told her husband that she is taking over his family business.

Briggs Land is the latest comic series from writer Brian Wood. It retains the very high quality of mature, intelligent writing I have come to expect from his work, which has included some great ongoing books including Rebels, Northlanders, Black Road and The Massive. If the quality of this book continues in the same way it goes with this first issue, I think Wood has another great book in the making.

It is provocative stuff in some ways, since he is basing his story around an extended family of anti-government isolationists, many of whom are openly racist and at least one of whom is a self-proclaimed and proud Nazi. Despite the challenge, he manages to isolate the more likeable characters within the group and make the story about them. Mack Chater's artwork is excellent and adds to the grounded, realistic tone. Lee Loughridge's colours are, as always, excellent. I'll be keeping up with this book as it goes: it has huge potential. (4/5)

Briggs Land #1. Dark Horse. Written by Brian Wood. Art by Mack Chater. Colours by Lee Loughridge.

Under the cut: reviews of Aquaman, Doctor Who, and Green Arrow.

August 20, 2016

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

With Spock (Leonard Nimoy) restored to life, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his crew prepare to return to Earth and face the consequences of their actions. Their return coincides with the arrival in Earth's orbit of a mysterious alien probe, one whose signals are destroying the Earth's atmosphere. It is seeking to communicate with humpback whales - a species that has been extinct for centuries. In a last-ditch attempt to save the planet, the former Enterprise crew travel back in time to retrieve two whales and bring them back to the 23rd century.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home effectively rounds off a trilogy of films that started with The Wrath of Khan and continued with The Search for Spock. It is easily the most distinctive and unusual of all the Star Trek films produced to date, as it deliberately sets itself to be as mainstream a crowd pleaser as possible, pushes for comedy ahead of drama, and - in something that always impresses me when a filmmaker pulls it off - lacks any kind of villain or antagonist. There is a probe threatening to destroy the Earth, certainly, but it is seemingly doing it out of ignorance rather than malice. The enemy of the film is instead simply the task at hand: travelling back to 1986, finding two humpbacks whales, and getting them transported back to the 23rd century in one piece. At the time of its release The Voyage Home was an unexpected smash hit, becoming the highest-grossing Star Trek film since the original in 1979. Its box office gross was not beaten until J.J. Abrams' Star Trek in 2009.

August 19, 2016

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is an internationally acclaimed actress of stage and screen. While on her way to accept an award of behalf of her one-time mentor and director Wilhelm Melchior she learns that Melchior has just died. Enders first became famous playing one of the lead roles in Melchior's famous play Maloja Snake, in which a manipulative young woman named Sigrid seduces her older, more fragile boss Helena. Now she has been offered the opportunity to perform in a remount of the play, this time playing Helena - and with a popular young Hollywood actress named Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz) playing Sigrid.

It is actually quite difficult to come up with a satisfactory synopsis of Clouds of Sils Maria, since while the storyline is relatively simple its treatment is complex, ambiguous and multi-faceted. It is a 2014 drama from French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, of whom I have been a fan ever since his excellently weird Irma Vep all the way back in 1996. I watched his latest film, Personal Shopper, two weeks ago, and having enjoyed it immensely finally got my act into gear to watch this - possibly his most widely acclaimed film ever. I was not disappointed.

Star Trek: Voyager: "Ex Post Facto"

It is 27 February 1995, and time for another episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

Voyager returns to collect Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) and Kim (Garrett Wang) from a planetary mission, only to discover Paris has been convicted of murder. His punishment: to have the final memories of his victim implanted into his brain, and to re-live them every few hours for the rest of his life. As the implanted memories begin to threat Paris' life, Lt Tuvok (Tim Russ) re-opens the case to prove his crewmate's innocence.

Sometimes you really have to wonder what went on in the Star Trek: Voyager writer's room. 'Here's an idea,' said one writer, 'how about we made one of those really stereotypical old-fashioned murder-mysteries, only instead of a trenchcoat-wearing detective we have a Vulcan chief of security, and instead of human film noir stereotypes we have bird-people film noir stereotypes?' I imagine at that point everybody in the room high-fived, laughed at their amazing ideas, and popped out for lunch. I also wonder if there was a point during the production of the episode when any of the writers and producers involved suddenly had a moment of clarity, falling to their knees screaming 'Oh God what have we done?' Serious, "Ex Post Facto" is that stupid an episode.

August 18, 2016

The Pull List: 17 August 2016, Part 1

After a few issues to get a run up, Tom King's Batman is finally delivering the goods, as Batman confronts the city's new and out-of-control hero Gotham. For just 20 pages of story it's surprising just how much King squeezes in to this climactic issue, both in terms of plot and varied tone. It is a wonderfully satisfying read.

So what do we get for our US$2.99? Alfred in disguise as Batman, which is an unexpected comic gift. Unexpected guest appearances by other DC Comics characters. A satisfying and deeply intriguing origin story for Gotham and his sister Gotham Girl. Character development for both of them and new Bat-apprentice Duke Thomas. Some great action beats. Some strong dialogue. Most striking of all is the end-of-issue narration that jumps forward some years and gives a few hints at the events to come in King's run.

This is one of those comics that does not simply feel like an improvement upon earlier issues, it actually improves those issues. Re-reading some of the odder parts of the last five issues, apparent inconsistencies - like the Gotham siblings' variable super-powers - now make perfect sense. Things are looking pretty positive for Batman in King's hands: I hope it all continues as well as this issue did. (5/5)

Batman #5. DC Comics. Written by Tom King. Art by David Finch, Sandra Hope, Matt Banning and Scott Hanna. Colours by Jordie Bellaire. 

Under the cut: reviews of Jackboot and Ironheel, Star Trek, and Superman.

Penance: "Ten Months, Ten Days"

It is 29 January 2012, and time for another episode of Penance.

Yuka (Chizuru Ikewaki) is one of four girls who witnessed their friend Emili get abducted and murdered by a mysterious man. 15 years later she works in a flower shop. When her sister Mayu (Ayumi Ito) - with whom Yuka has long held a deep resentment - marries the credulous Keita (Tomoharu Hasegawa), Yuka goes out of her way to destroy their marriage.

One of the most positive aspects of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's five-part TV series Penance is how varied the tone and content of the episodes have been. The set-up for the four protagonists has been identical: they witness a murder as children, fail to identify a suspect, and are subsequently warned by the victim's grieving mother Asako (Kyoko Koizumi) that they will have to one day pay a 'penance' for their failure. Each episode so far has effectively ended in failure for its protagonist - two murders and one accidental death - but the tone and narrative of each episode had been quite different. "Ten Months, Ten Days" follows in much the same fashion. Once again there is a body count, and once again the tone and narrative is distinct from all of the others.

August 17, 2016

Office (2015)

The massive Hong Kong corporation Jones & Sunn is about go public. CEO Winnie Cheung (Sylvia Chang) is set to become a major shareholder after being a mistress to Chairman Ho Chung-Ping (Chow Yun-Fat) for twenty years. At the same time Winnie has been secretly romancing one of her executives, David Wong (Eason Chan) - and he has been secretly stealing company funds to play the stock market. New recruit Lee (Wang Ziyi) arrives eager to impress, and immediately falls for fellow new employee Kat (Lang Yueting), not knowing that she is actually the Chairman's daughter. This tale of corporate intrigue and romance plays out on a stylised set the size of an aircraft hangar, is shot in 3D, and is a musical. That certainly makes it one of the stranger Hong Kong film productions of recent years.

The film is directed by Johnnie To, my personal favourite filmmaker, and of course that means I arrived at the cinema with extremely high expectations. That may have been a mistake: it is a disappointing film compared to To's best, but it admittedly still a well-staged and often inventive musical - and how many musical films do you see coming out of Hong Kong anyway?

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)

Following the creation of the Genesis Planet and the death of Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy), the Enterprise limps back to Earth for repairs - and for its crew to come to terms with their loss. When Kirk (William Shatner) learns that Spock's 'katra' - or soul - has been transplanted into the mind of Dr McCoy (DeForest Kelley), he and his command crew steal the Enterprise from Spacedock and return - against orders - to Genesis. There a rogue Klingon commander (Christopher Lloyd) is already attempting to capture the Genesis project to use it as a weapon.

Released two years after The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock was a direct sequel. The story picks up right after where Khan left off, and continues the narrative with a greater sense of serialisation than even the television of the time did. This contributes in no small way to the overall sense that of the first three Star Trek films The Search for Spock is the one that far and away feels the most like the television series upon which it is based.

August 16, 2016

The Shannara Chronicles: "Chosen"

It is 5 January 2016, and time for The Shannara Chronicles.

When I was a child I was relatively obsessed with epic fantasy fiction. I had read The Hobbit, but found The Lord of the Rings too slow and full of interminable descriptions of mountain ranges and Middle Earth pre-history. I read a lot of the popular series of the time, enjoying some more than others, but the books I really embraced and grew to adore were Terry Brooks' Shannara novels. At the time there were three: The Sword of Shannara, which was a brazen Lord of the Rings remake styled for short-attention-span readers like myself, its sequel The Elfstones of Shannara, and the third volume The Wishsong of Shannara. I always wished that someone would adapt the novels into a movie or TV series. Now, decades later, Elfstones has received a screen adaptation in the shape of MTV's television drama The Shannara Chronicles. Ten year-old me would be tremendously excited. Forty year-old me is a little more cautious. MTV making a fantasy drama? What on Earth would that be like?

Roadies: "Carpet Season"

It is 7 August 2016, and time for another episode of Roadies.

The Staton-House Band tour moves to Seattle. Phil (Ron White) returns to the crew, and joins Bill (Luke Wilson) and Reg (Rafe Spall) on a mission to retrieve stolen property from super-fan Mike Finger. A world-famous rock photographer (Roseanne Arquette) arrives to take a picture of the band, running both Shelli (Carla Gugino) and Kelly-Ann (Imogen Poot) up the wrong way.

The previous episode of Roadies, "Longest Days", marked an unexpected upswing in quality towards something that actually seemed rather good and entertaining. With "Carpet Season" the quality crash right back down again. It forms itself around plot beats that the audience has already seen, and it introduces yet another immediately unlikeable and deeply exaggerated guest character too. One previous episode showcased an arrogant and vain music critic. This episode effectively does the same thing that the earlier episode did to critics, only this time it is rock photographers in the series' sights.

August 15, 2016

Crusade: "Each Night I Dream of Home"

It is 1 September 1999, and time for the final episode of Crusade.

The Excalibur is ordered to return to Earth to participate in a vital experiment, run by former Babylon 5 medical officer Dr Stephen Franklin (Richard Biggs). On the way they pick up current Babylon 5 commanding officer Dr Elizabeth Lochley (Tracy Scoggins). They are then attacked by a group of Drakh vessels, intent on preventing the experiment from taking place.

Crusade comes to its ignoble end, not with a bang or a whimper but with an hour of profound and slightly muddled mediocrity. Things happen, characters have conversations, the over-arching plot of the series is advanced, but it all feels too weakly developed to have any kind of effect. It almost feels like the whole of Crusade in miniature: the ideas are too derivative to grab the viewer's attention, the characters are lacklustre and stereotypical, and too much of the dialogue is poorly written and uninteresting.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) chafes against his new life of administration in Starfleet Command, while his beloved starship the USS Enterprise falls under the command of his former first officer Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy). Halfway across the galaxy a search for a test site for the Federation's latest technology brings Commander Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) face to face with the long-forgotten tyrant Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), whose thirst for revenge leads to a bloody confrontation in space.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is generally regarded as the best of the 13 Star Trek feature films, and it is as assessment with which I wholly agree. Tightly edited and wonderfully shot, and based on a pitch-perfect screenplay, it represents cinematic Star Trek at its very finest. This film does not feel like a more expensive and lengthier episode of the TV series - despite being a direct sequel to the episode "Space Seed". The stakes are higher, the drama is more intense, and the cost to the characters is far, far dearer. This is one great film.

August 14, 2016

Phase IV (1974)

Saul Bass is a legend of American cinema. As a designer of opening title sequences and promotional posters he worked with some of the very best filmmakers Hollywood ever had: Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and Robert Wise, to name just a few. In the field of title design he was pretty much unparalleled, yet despite his decades-long career in film he only tried directing one. That one film was the 1974 science fiction thriller Phase IV.

In Phase IV, an unidentified stellar phenomenon has affected the ant population of the Earth, and caused them to rapidly evolve and develop a unified hive mind. Investigating this worrying phenomenon are scientists James Lesko (Michael Murphy) and Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport), who set up a research station in the Arizona Desert. When the advancing ants destroy a nearby farm - with one survivor - Lesko begins working on a plan to communicate the ants directly while Hubbs attempts to destroy the colony completely.

Tokyo Story (1953)

An elderly couple, Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama), take the train up to Tokyo to stay with their adult children. To their busy children they are a mild irritant, and they do their best to fob them off upon one another before paying for them to stay at a relaxation spa out of town instead. The only member of the family to offer them much attention or hospitality at all is Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the widow of their son who was killed during the war.

Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story came to this year's Melbourne International Film Festival as a beautifully remastered print and as part of a special retrospective on legendary Japanese actress Setsuko Hara. I had already watched one film in the series (Kimisaburo Yoshimura's A Ball at the Anjo House, reviewed here) but the opportunity to watch Japan's most widely acclaimed feature film on the big screen was too good to miss.

August 13, 2016

The Pull List: 10 August 2016, Part 2

A new story arc is kicking off in A&A, so now seems a good time to drop into this Archer and Armstrong monthly and see how things are faring. For those who have never read the book: Archer is a young martial artist and trained assassin who was raised by a religious cult to murder the devil. The devil, in their case, turned out to be Armstrong - a 6,000 year old shambolic drunkard. Together they now have adventures.

This is a great comedic riff on the superhero genre, with Archer and Armstrong currently on a quest to relocate the wife that Armstrong accidentally forgot about 3,000 years earlier. They are challenged in a diner by a gang of circus-themed criminals, and attend a circus performance with every expectation that it is about to explode into an all-out brawl.

Rafer Roberts has a good line in snarky dialogue, and he keeps the narrative moving along at a brisk pace. Mike Norton does a stunning job with the artwork. I am a huge fan of his work on Revival, and it is nice to see him relax into something a lot more light-hearted and breezy. This is a really fun book. Some of the finer details will obviously fly over new readers' heads, but none of them seem necessary to enjoy the story and the funny characters. Once again Valiant produce a readable, wonderfully entertaining book. (4/5)

A&A: The Adventures of Archer and Armstrong #6. Valiant. Written by Rafer Roberts. Art by Mike Norton. Colours by Allen Passalaqua.

Under the cut: reviews of The Black Monday Murders, Daredevil, Darth Vader and Ringside.

Train to Busan (2016)

Seok-woo is an office-bound Korean workaholic in the middle of an unpleasant divorce from his wife. Seok-woo's daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) is not handling the separation well, and for her birthday persuades him to escort her on the train from Seoul to Busan. On the same day a virulent zombie outbreak spreads across Korea - including onto the train. Now Seok-woo, Su-an and a shrinking group of passengers must fight to stay alive until the train reaches its final destination.

Generally speaking, Asian films do not go too well with English-speaking audiences. Occasionally a film will break out and actually get a theatrical run in the USA, or the United Kingdom, or Australia. These outliers are usually representative of the most effective and crowd-pleasing films the continent has to offer, including films such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hero, Shall We Dance, or The Host. Yeon Sang-ho's new zombie thriller Train to Busan is the latest film to join that list. It has already been a massive hit in its own country, and is receiving a proper cinema release in both the USA and Australia. If you are not a fan of zombies, then this is categorically not a film for you. If you are an enthusiast for all things undead and hungry, then rest assured this is the best zombie film in years; probably the best since Danny Boyle remixed the genre with 28 Days Later.

August 12, 2016

Our Huff and Puff Journey (2015)

Four high school students in Kita-Kyushu decide to travel by bicycle to Tokyo - a journey of 1,000 kilometres - to see their favourite pop group Creephyp in concert. Their adventures takes them by bike, bus and car, taking in Hiroshima, Okayama and Kobe along the way.

Our Huff and Puff Journey is not a great movie. It comes saddled with a lot of problems and faults, and together they do ultimately derail the film as a whole. While there are plenty of little highlights - a nice bit of acting here, a funny line of dialogue there - those highlights simply cannot outweigh the general issues that sink the whole enterprise. The film is only 91 minutes long, but feels a hell of a lot longer than that at the time.

Daigo Matsui presents the story through a combination of handheld video footage recorded by the girls as they document their journey, and higher-grade handheld footage that presents them from a third-person point of view. The visual similarities between the girls' own footage and the broader scenes makes that a slightly muddled creative choice, albeit one that Matsui openly embraces by the film's final shot. Clever on one level, and vaguely tedious on another. That last sentence is arguably a good summation of the film in general.

Crusade: "Visitors from Down the Street"

It is 25 August 1999, and time for another episode of Crusade.

The Excalibur picks up a damaged alien escape pod. Inside they find two aliens dressed in late 20th century human suits. They seem to believe their planet has been visited numerous times by humans - despite the two races having never met before - and accuse Captain Gideon (Gary Cole) of participating in a decades-long conspiracy to subjugate and manipulate their world, with the assistance of their own government.

I have always been ambivalent about Babylon 5: I gave it a good shot when it was first broadcast, but a growing number of irritants in the series - mainly the dialogue and acting - eventually drove me away partway through. I completed a beginning-to-end viewing of the series on this blog, and while I came to appreciate the series a lot more the second time around it remains a regularly mediocre show. I had never seen its spin-off Crusade at all, but having finished Babylon 5 itself it did not seem too onerous a task to watch the small number of sequel TV movies and Crusade just to cover the entire franchise from beginning to end. That attempt just got really onerous. I am not sure if "Visitors from Down the Street" is the worst episode of the franchise ever, but it is certainly floating down at the bottom of the barrel.

August 11, 2016

The Pull List: 10 August 2016, Part 1

Immediately prior to their launch of the New 52, one of DC Comics' best titles was Detective Comics, under the control of writer Scott Snyder. When the New 52 hit he shifted over to Batman, telling a string of high concept 'blockbuster' story arcs that not only made it DC's best-selling book but also managed to sell in excess of 100,000 copies per issue for its entire 52-issue run. With the launch of DC Rebirth, Snyder announced his retirement from Batman, handing the reins over to new writer Tom King.

You would think after more than five years writing for the character that Snyder would be a little tired of Batman, yet here is at the helm of a relaunched All-Star Batman. The title was previously used for Frank Miller and Jim Lee's incomplete alternative take on the character. Here it is used to team Snyder up with a string of high-profile artists for a limited series of story arcs. The first, featuring art by industry stalwart John Romita Jr, sees Batman taking Two-Face out of Gotham on an as-yet unexplained road trip - with every mercenary, assassin and super-villain in America hot on their trail.

It is a stunning first issue, packed with action and character, and utilising a clever non-linear narrative to slowly reveal the story as the issue goes on. Snyder's writing a different kind of Batman as well, and he is backed up with a different kind of sidekick: We Are Robin star Duke Thomas, now wearing a fresh superhero suit but as yet without a superhero name. This is top-notch Snyder at work here, opening a mystery but giving plenty of story at the same time. Romita's artwork keeps everything fresh and distinctive, with a great new look for Two-Face and a great sense of motion and action throughout. If you're a Batman fan, this book looks set to be a must-have. A short back-up serial adds more background to Duke's new partnership with the Dark Knight, as they investigation a grisly murder. It's a nice change of style, with art by Declan Shalvey, and helps justify the book's slightly higher price tag (US$4.99). DC readers be aware: this is one hell of a great comic. (5/5)

All-Star Batman #1. DC Comics. Written by Scott Snyder. Art by John Romita Jr and Danny Miki. Colours by Dean White. Backup art by Declan Shalvey. Backup colours by Jordie Bellaire. And congratulations to Shalvey and Bellaire on their engagement: American comics just got a new creative power couple.

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Detective Comics and New Super-Man.

Where Are You Going (2016)

Always push your viewing habits. I am not demanding that you do so constantly, but always make sure you push a little on your comfort zones. If you only ever watch science fiction, go watch a straight drama. If you only watch Hollywood, go watch an independent film. If you watch a lot of films from Europe, watch one from Africa. I think it's a valuable exercise for any regular moviegoer to occasionally explore new territory, and I certainly try to do so from time to time. It cannot all be Johnnie To action thrillers and 1970s BBC science fiction episodes.

Where Are You Going is a new arthouse film by Chinese filmmaker Zhengfan Yang. Yang live in Hong Kong for five years, and it was clearly an experience that resonated with him because he returned there to showcase it in his new work. The film is a series of taxi rides through the city, each announced with a bilingual title card. Some of the journeys take place in silence. Some of them contain awkward, hesitant conversations between the taxi driver and his passenger. Some feature lengthy, in-depth conversations about life in Hong Kong and how the city is changing. The camera never moves, and it is not even pointed at the actors. Instead it's fixed straight ahead from the roof of the taxi: it makes Hong Kong itself as much of a character as the people inside the taxi.

August 10, 2016

Colditz: "Gone Away, Part I"

It is 18 January 1973, and time for another episode of Colditz.

When an opportunity suddenly presents itself, Carter (David McCallum) makes a spontaneous escape attempt. While his attempt fails, and results in a broken ankle as well as solitary confinement, the intelligence he gains in the process makes a previously dismissed escape strategy the British contigent's best chance ever to get out of Colditz.

"Gone Away" is a two-part finale to Colditz's first season, and brings with it a suitably climactic storyline. In many ways it feels like a culmination: after several failed escape attempts over the course of the year, this final opportunity allows four characters to break out of Colditz at the same time - at least they will if their plans are not foiled by the increasingly suspicious Hauptmann Ulmann (Hans Meyer).

The Pull List: 3 August 2016, Part 3

The 4001 AD miniseries has not only been a critical smash for Valiant, it has also enabled them to expand their roster of characters. This special one-shot by Fred Van Lente and Tomas Giorello introduces War Mother. When a huge piece of technology crashes out of orbit, the scavenger community known as the Grove sends out War Mother to collect anything of value.

This is a wonderful blend of 2000 AD and Metal Hurlant, with some absolutely great art and design by Giorello. If you are looking for a pretty comic book for the week, this is a fine contender. It is also pretty much self-contained. Anybody reading 4001 AD can see where things fit in, but knowing that background information is absolutely no requirement to enjoying the comic.

Van Lente tells a brisk and action-packed story of rival salvagers and mutated deadly creatures. It is clearly a set-up for an ongoing series, but based on the entertaining story and beautiful artwork I'm pretty happy to see that happen. This one-shot is your opportunity to get in on the ground floor. (4/5)

4001 AD: War Mother. Valiant. Written by Fred Van Lente. Art by Tomas Giorello. Colours by Brian Reber.

Under the cut: reviews of Aquaman, Batman and Green Arrow.

August 9, 2016

Seven Psychopaths (2012)

Marty (Colin Farrell) is a Hollywood screenwriter struggling to begin his latest screenplay. He has a title - Seven Psychopaths - and he has an agent desperately badgering him to finish, but he is yet to even beginning writing the first draft. His best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is an unemployed actor who runs a sideline in kidnapping dogs with his friend Hans (Christopher Walken). When Billy and Hans accidentally kidnap the pet of violent criminal Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), Marty begins to get all of the research material on psychopaths that he needs.

Seven Psychopaths - the actual film, not Marty's unwritten screenplay - is a wonderfully idiosyncratic black comedy from writer/director Martin McDonagh. It combines a pile of great elements: a knowingly ridiculous plot, wonderfully dark and unexpected humour, and a string of great performances by some of Hollywood's best male actors. If there is a key criticism of the film to be made from the outset, it is that it is an overwhelmingly male film. There are essentially three female roles in the whole piece, and they're all girlfriends or wives to the male stars. McDonagh's script even calls it out, with Hans warning Marty he cannot write female characters to save his life. That may be true of the character, but wryly admitting the faults in the actual screenplay to the audience does not actually excuse those faults. It almost feels smug.

The Handmaiden (2016)

In 1930s Korea a pickpocket named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is persuaded by the deceitful Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to masquerade as a maid to a rich, disaffected heiress named Hideko (Kim Min-hee), in order to help him defraud her of her fortune. Fujiawara's master plan hits a snag, however, when Sook-hee and Hideko begin to fall in love.

In many respects, The Handmaiden is a wonderful oddity. It is the latest film by the internationally acclaimed filmmaker Park Chan-wook, whose previous films - including Oldboy, JSA: Joint Security Area, and Sympathy for Mr Vengeance - have established him a major creative force in his own country and a cult favourite internationally. This new film is an adaptation of the similarly acclaimed English-language novel Fingersmith, by Welsh author Sarah Waters. While the novel was set in 19th century England, Park has relocated the action of 1930s Korea: a country occupied by the Japanese, and where aspiring rich aesthetes seem more interesting in adopting Japanese language and culture than in defending their own heritage.

This film is a genuine surprise, in fact it is one of those films best viewed with as little knowledge about its storyline as possible. What I can say is that it is one of the best films I have seen this year, and showcases one of the world's most talented directors at the height of his powers.

August 8, 2016

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

After escaping from a Chinese gangster in Shanghai, archaeologist Dr Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) makes a crash-landing into India. There he finds a remote village whose sacred stone has been taken and their children kidnapped en masse. With kid sidekick Short Round (Ke Huey Quan) and lounge singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) in tow, Indy investigates a nearby palace and the diabolical 'temple of doom' beneath it.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was the second Indiana Jones film, released four years after Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1984. It has generally been regarded as the weakest of the original three films. with many viewers disliking the misplaced combination of slapstick comedy and horror, the introduction of a child sidekick, and the gratingly irritating romantic lead Willie Scott. Generally speaking the mass opinions are correct: quality-wise Temple of Doom sits a solid distance down the heap from either Raiders or The Last Crusade, and debates over whether Temple of Doom is better or worse than late series entry Kingdom of the Crystal Skull probably don't really have a viable conclusion to them. This is one hell of a creative misjudgement. That said, this is not a complete disaster of a film but more of a curate's egg. There is a lot of good material in Temple of Doom, generally buried into the back half where most of the audience has already written the movie off.

The Pull List: 3 August 2016, Part 2

The hunt to take down Abu Rahim nears its final stage, as Chris, Sofia and Nassir meet with the American intelligence operatives that are preparing to make it happen. This issue is an increasingly tense build from page one, and continues Tom King and Mitch Gerads' faultless track record with this remarkable book.

Let us be honest: DC Vertigo is an imprint that has seen better days. Basically all of the books you would think would be a perfect fit for the Vertigo brand now seem to be cropping up over at Image, and even Boom Studios. Vertigo is seemingly left with nostalgic revamps - Lucifer is one recent example - or short-run books that simply fail to grab anybody's attention. Wedged into this slowly fading mass of books is The Sheriff of Babylon. It's a complete outlier, because not only is it the best Vertigo title getting published at the moment, it is hands-down one of the best series that Vertigo has ever published.

This issue showcases outstanding character work. It isn't just that King's script pushes his three protagonists up against some really unlikeable and unpleasant characters - Chris, for example, comes face to face once again with the man who had Nassir's wife shot dead, and cannot do anything about it. The bigger asset this issue is just how exceptional Gerads is at capturing subtle and slightly hidden emotions in his characters. It transforms them. It makes them seem so real. (5/5)

The Sheriff of Babylon #9. Written by Tom King. Art and colours by Mitch Gerads.

Under the cut: reviews of Daredevil, Giant Days and Superman.

August 7, 2016

Penance: "Brother and Sister Bear"

It is 15 January 2012, and time for the third episode of Penance.

15 years ago, four schoolgirls watched their friend get taken away and murdered by an anonymous killer. Today one of those girls, Akiko (Sakura Ando), is a 'shut in'. She still lives with her parents. She does not have a job. She spends most of her life safe in her bedroom, reading manga and playing videogames. When her brother Koji (Ryo Kase) returns home after years away in Tokyo, Akiko is over-joyed. Then she begins to suspect that something has gone terribly wrong with her brother, and begins to suspect he is abusing his young step-daughter.

Another episode means another change in protagonist, as this five-part Japanese miniseries works its way through the four schoolgirls one by one. It makes for an odd series in many respects: after the assault and murder of a girl back in the first episode I wanted to see the killer tracked down and the open wound resolved, but in fact open wounds are all that Penance deals in. It is effectively an anthology series. A terrible thing has happened, and the series jumps forward 15 years to showcase the various ruined lives it left in its wake.

Beware the Slenderman (2016)

In May 2014, two 12 year-old girls led one of their friends out into the woods near Waukesha, Wisconsin, and attempted to murder her. When questioned by police they claimed they did it to please the Slenderman - a fictional horror character created on the Internet to simulate an urban myth. The criminal case is still ongoing at the time of writing, yet the murder attempt is now the subject of a new documentary from Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Irene Taylor Brodsky (The Final Inch).

It is an immediately arresting subject for a film, since it is not only extremely horrifying but it sits at a nexus point between impressionable youth, school bullying, debates over media consumption, and how urban myths develop and operate.

Sadly, while Brodsky has selected a potent and quite disturbing subject matter, her documentary is only partially successful. Beware the Slenderman is a deeply flawed film: it is too long and repetitive, its focus and structure are a little messy, and it egregiously fails to cover all required angles of its story. The end result is a documentary that was certainly watchable, but not actually good enough to recommend to others.

August 6, 2016

Five Doctor Who serials to remake

The BBC has just released publicity stills for their Lost Sitcoms project. It's a great idea. Basically, over the 1960s and 1970s the BBC Archive became over-stuffed with recordings of the broadcaster's television and radio programs and had to make room. Repeats of old programs were comparatively rare, and rights-wise they were complicated to approve, and on top of matters home video was not really a commercial concern of any kind. Seeing no great worth in keeping everything, the BBC started junking old recordings to make space.

The result of this action is that today, when historical television programs are highly valued, there are numerous gaps in old and well-loved shows. What The Lost Sitcoms is doing is remaking select episodes of famous BBC sitcoms with entirely new casts and crews but retaining the original scripts verbatim. Series featured include Hancock's Half Hour, Steptoe and Son, and Till Death Do Us Part.

Of course the thing is that if the BBC can undertake this project with their old sitcoms, there is every chance they could undertake it with dramatic works as well - and what BBC drama series is more famous, or has more notable gaps in its history than Doctor Who? So let us assume the BBC gives that a go, and remakes a single 1960s Doctor Who serial with the original script but a new cast: which serial would we nominate to return? Here are my top five picks.

Roadies: "Longest Days"

It is 31 July 2016, and time for another episode of Roadies.

The Staton-House Band prepares for its second Denver concert. Christopher (Tanc Sade) continues to obsess over his ex-girlfriend Janine (Joy Williams), not knowing that Reg (Rafe Spall) is already romancing her behind his back. Bill (Luke Wilson) and Shelli (Carla Cugino) struggle to sustain their status quo after spontaneously having sex. Alcoholic bass player Rick (Christopher Backus) flies in his sobriety sponsor from Los Angeles: comedian Marc Maron (himself).

"Longest Days" is a bit of a surprise: it's a genuinely enjoyable and solid episode of Roadies. I watched the first episode because of its behind-the-scenes talent: Cameron Crowe, J.J. Abrams and Winnie Holzman. I kept watching because I became fixated on how so many talented people could come together to make something so ham-fisted, weakly written and incomprehensibly smug. Now I have hit the sixth episode and suddenly, possibly momentarily, everything seems to click together for a week and create something that's entertaining.

August 5, 2016

The Pull List: 3 August 2016, Part 1

Imagine if all of the animals in the world suddenly developed the ability to talk to humans, and then went on a murderous rampage against us. That is the premise of Animosity, a new comic book by Marguerite Bennett and Rafael De Latorre. Its first issue was published this week by Aftershock Comics, who have been publishing a fast-growing range of interesting books. This is yet another one.

The premise has a wonderful Hollywood vibe to it - I wouldn't be surprised if it gets picked up by one of the studios very soon - assuming it hasn't been already. It is essentially The Birds writ-large, with some added weirdness from all of the talking animals. There are also some nice surprises in the issue itself: not every animal is out to kill humans, just the majority. Our protagonist, for example, is actively defended by her now-talking dog.

Rafael De Latorre's artwork is strong, and very nicely coloured by Rob Schwager. The whole book has a sort of DC Vertigo vibe, in the best possible way. My only real criticism is the length. While the book has the now industry-standard 20 pages of art, its use of large panels and particularly an impressive six-page sequence showing the mysterious event occurring in the first place mean that there's precious little room for story. All we're really getting here is a hook, and while it's a neat hook it really needed to come with a solid chunk of narrative to seal the deal. There's promise here, but we need more each issue to make it worth the cover price. (3/5)

Animosity #1. Aftershock Comics. Written by Marguerite Bennett. Art by Rafael De Latorre. Colours by Rob Schwager.

Under the cut: reviews of Bounty, Doctor Strange, and The Fuse.

Kaili Blues (2016)

The following synopsis is going to severely under-sell Kaili Blues, but here goes: Chen (Yongzhong Chen) is a reformed ex-con living in China's Guizhou province. He operates a small medical clinic with an elderly colleague, although of late he has become concerned about how his disreputable brother is treating his nephew Weiwei (Feiyang Luo). When he learns his brother has sent Weiwei away, and has even discussed selling the boy, he heads off to recover Weiwei and bring him home. He also finds himself roped in to returning a cassette tape of pop music that was given to his colleague by a lover many years earlier.

'Arthouse' is a term that gets thrown around in film criticism in a manner that often suggests that the critic has simply run out of better words to use. It can indicate all manner of things to all manner of writers. For some it will mean experimental narratives, editing or photography. For others it will signify a lack of narrative at all. For yet more writers it is simply a shorthand for directorial pretence. The word has been thrown at Kaili Blues an awful lot, in this case because the first time around the film really is remarkably impenetrable, and it is only once out on the other side that its immense merits become clear.