July 30, 2016

The Pull List: 27 July 2016, Part 2

James Tynion IV's re-envisaging of Detective Comics as a team book has not particularly worked for its first few issues. It all felt a little messy and fractured, and seemed to suffer the most from sidelining Batman in his own book. That all appears to stop with this latest issue, #937, as both Batman finally gets some of the spotlight back, and Tynion's team - consisting of Batwoman, Red Robin, Spoiler, Orphan and Clayface - finally appears to click together.

The premise of this storyline's threat is a pretty great one: essentially an attempt to co-opt Batman's methods and technology and to militarise it for the United States government. There is a personal element in that the mastermind of this group - known as the Colony - is Kate Kane's father, and as a result also Bruce Wayne's uncle. It was a clever move to make Jacob Kane the antagonist, because it piles a personal element on top of a relatively impersonal enemy. It raises the stakes wonderfully.

Early scenes really showcase Batman's skill in escaping capture and turning the tables on his captors. The issue's middle section continues to define and showcase his assembled team. Red Robin in particular is highlighted this time around, which pleases me as a big fan of the character. At the climax both threads come together: issue #938 looks set to be pretty action-packed. Hopefully this newfound quality continues in the coming weeks. If it does this may well become one of DC Rebirth's must-reads. (5/5)

Detective Comics #937. DC Comics. Written by James Tynion IV. Art by Alvaro Martinez and Raul Fernandez. Colours by Brad Anderson.

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Batgirl, Ms Marvel and Nightwing.

July 29, 2016

Roadies: "Friends and Family"

It is 24 July 2016, and time for another episode of Roadies.

The Staten-House Band returns to their home town of Denver, Colorado, for two special shows. Immediate complications ensue: Janine, the subject of Christopher House's tortured affections and one of the band's most famous songs, turns up to watch the concert. Kelly-Ann (Imogen Poots) struggles with the rumour that she and Reg (Rafe Spall) are a romantic item. Shelli (Carla Gugino) is desperate for sex with no one to have it with. Bill (Luke Wilson) is inspired to finally make amends to his ex-wife Lorraine.

This episode brings big changes for the lives of several regular characters, but because these characters have been developed so stereotypically and thinly it is difficult to actually feel any sort of emotional effect. What's more, the time spent pushing those particular hamster wheels in circles prevents the episode from spending more time on the characters that do work.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Masterpiece Society"

It is 10 February 1992 and time for more Star Trek: The Next Generation.

While monitoring a rogue stellar fragment, the Enterprise detects a previously unknown human colony on a planet in the fragment's path. When the crew attempt to warn the colonists of the danger, they discover a carefully orchestrated civilisation where every individual has been genetically engineered for a specific place in society. Before long the Enterprise crew's presence among the colonist causes a disruption in their society - one that might not be possible to repair.

"The Masterpiece Society" is a flawed episode rich in strong and intriguing moments. It is these moments that ultimately save it, and give it a depth that the fairly dull premise fails to provide on its own. It also gives some nice material to Troi (Marina Sirtis) and La Forge (LeVar Burton), the latter of whom has been in sore need of a decent storyline for some time.

July 28, 2016

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Some times you can't go back again. I think pretty solid proof of that sentiment is Steven Spielberg's 2008 sequel Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It is a film made with the best of intentions, and certainly by a lot of talented people. It continued the Indiana Jones movie franchise that had - a relatively unpopular TV spin-off aside - seemingly wrapped up with The Last Crusade in 1989. Suddenly, 19 years later, there was a new instalment with a 66 year-old Harrison Ford returning as the titular archaeologist. The same creative team by-and-large reunited to make the film, yet the results seems to fall far short of The Last Crusade. While box office takings were huge, the audience response was fairly ambivalent. Crystal Skull rapidly became one of those Hollywood blockbusters - like Prometheus and Batman v Superman - that it was uncool to defend.

Certainly I cannot defend it. I can defend parts of it, but individual sequences and characters are not capable of saving an entire film. What is particularly striking to me about Crystal Skull is that it is broadly pretty great for its first half, and then weirdly derails as soon as it hits the jungle. After that it becomes a real head-scratcher: why those story choices? Why that kind of visual effect? Why those kinds of attempts at comedy? In the end it seems to leave the Indiana Jones series with two kinds of film: the slick, non-stop adventure of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, and the messy 'curate's egg' attempts of The Temple of Doom and The Crystal Skull.

The Pull List: 27 July 2016, Part 1

ROM was an electronic robot toy, released by board game manufacturer Parker Bros in an attempted expansion to produce action figures. To promote the toy the company partnered with Marvel Comics to create a tie-in comic. ROM #1 was published in 1979 with a script by Bill Mantlo and art by Sal Buscema. The toy was a commercial flop. The comic lasted for 79 issues, including four extra-length annuals, and finally wrapped up in 1986.

The weird thing about the ROM comic book was that for a toy promotion it was really good. Mantlo incorporated ROM, the cyborg alien with a penchant for killing interstellar Dire Wraiths, into the Marvel Universe itself. Characters such as the Hulk, Sub-Mariner and the X-Men would guest star in issues of ROM. The character developed a firm cult following that continued to praise the character long after the book had wrapped up and the character rights had reverted to Parker Bros. Now, 30 years after Marvel called it quits, IDW has licensed the property from Hasbro (who bought out Parker Bros some years back) and is launching an all-new monthly series of ROM.

This first issue is clearly produced with an enormous amount of love for the original comic. It follows ROM's arrival on Earth, and as with the Marvel edition he finds the Earth overrun with the shape-shifting diabolical Dire Wraiths. That said, this is an issue that definitely plays things safe. It tells an entertaining story but nothing more. It does not push any boundaries, it does not try anything innovative and new. David Messina and Michelle Pasta's artwork is solid but conventional. Any readers looking for a straightforward science fiction story about an alien coming to Earth and meeting a human woman might find this satisfying. Long-term fans of the character will get a kick out of seeing his origin remixed a little.

Under the cut: a slightly more spoilerific comment on ROM, plus reviews of The Autumnlands, Doctor Who, 4001 AD, and Mechanism.

July 27, 2016

Batman v Superman: Ultimate Edition (2016)

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice opened into cinemas earlier this year with a storm of publicity and a huge amount of negative feedback. Most critics were relatively unkind, and audiences - particularly the ardent comic book fans - seemed to generally hate the film. I did not mind it myself, although it is a movie with an enormous number of flaws. Back in March I called it "a poor film with outstanding pieces in it", which still seems to be a pretty fair assessment.

Batman v Superman has now come to home video with a so-called "Ultimate Edition": an extended cut of the film that adds an additional 30 minutes of footage. That brings its running time to a gargantuan three hours and makes it the longest superhero movie of all time. People who found the film too bloated and long back in March are likely running for the hills already.

There are basically three kinds of extended editions. The first is the simple cash-grab: a studio re-releases a film on home video with a couple of minutes of trimmed footage thrown back in and hopes all of the fans re-purchase it. The second is a more creative extended cut, as typified by Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings movies, or James Cameron's Aliens. The film released in cinemas was in effect the director's cut, and the additional footage is inserted purely to give the fans a lengthier and oftentimes more satisfying alternative experience. The third kind, which is the one that interests me the most, is the genuine director's cut: the version of the film that the director wanted to release into cinemas the first time around, but which was nixed by the studio. Batman v Superman: Ultimate Edition is that kind of extended cut.

Penance: "Emergency PTA Meeting"

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

As a child, Maki and her three friends watched Emili be taken away by a strange man, and subsequently discovered her raped and murdered body in the school gymnasium. When all four surviving girls failed to describe what the murderer looked like, Emili's mother Asako (Kyoko Koizumi) demanded all four girls pay a penance - one which Asako would approve - in return for their failure. 15 years later Maki (Eiko Koike) is a tightly-wound, ruthlessly strict school teacher, and crosses paths with Asako again.

As I noted in my review of Penance's first episode, this is a five-part television drama by noted Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa and based on the novel by Kanae Minato. The first episode, "The French Doll", was a bleak and unsettling character piece. The second, "Emergency PTA Meeting", strikes quite a different note. It is an unexpected satire about a school desperate not to displease its student's parents, and about how right and wrong behaviour can boil down to a difference of perspective.

July 26, 2016

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

So last week my father died. It was a fairly long time coming, and Dad prepared us all incredibly well - much more than I would have anticipated a week earlier. Despite that it was, and still is, a terrible shock. When something dreadful happens my viewing habits tend to retreat towards comfortable territory: films I have seen many times before, ones where I can talk over the action to discuss particular shots, or lines of dialogue. Last week one of the films I homed in on very rapidly was Steven Spielberg's 1989 sequel Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It was only while watching the film that I realised I had unconsciously gravitated to a film about the relationship between a son and his father.

This third film in the Indiana Jones series sees the titular archaeologist (Harrison Ford) sent on an episodic chase across Europe and the Middle East to rescue his father Dr Henry Jones (Sean Connery) and to prevent the Nazis from obtaining the Holy Grail - the specific cup that caught the blood of Christ upon the cross. I am going to be immediately upfront and say that this is my favourite of the four Indiana Jones films. I do not think it is necessarily the best - that remains 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark - but The Last Crusade continues to have a strong effect on me. It is a film to which I can return over and over again and never tire of watching it.