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.