February 27, 2015

The Dynamiter (2011)

Robbie Hendrick (William Patrick Ruffin) is a 14 year-old boy living in Mississippi. He's dirt-poor, and lives in an isolated run-down house with his senile grandmother and his young half-brother Fess (John Alex Nunnery). Caught stealing at school, he is tasked by his teacher with writing an essay over the summer - and it is through the drafting of this essay that we get an insight into Robbie's troubled life.

This is a 2011 drama directed by Matthew Gordon. It has 'indie' cred all over it: low budget, a lot of handheld camera work, a cast of non-professional actors, and a story that simmers with day-to-day activity rather than build towards an explosive climax. In the end the film is probably a little too low-key for its own good - particularly considering its title. There are several points where it seems events are about spill out of control, but each time Gordon carefully dials the action back and re-positions it back to centre. Alfred Hitchcock once said that 'movies are life with the boring parts cut out'. The Dynamiter, for better or worse, simply shows us life.

February 26, 2015

The Pull List: 18 February 2015

Last week's comic book reviews are late because a dog ate my homework, also my local comic shop only opened on Friday in their sensational and roomy new location. If you're in Melbourne, or are visiting some time, you should absolutely check out All Star Comics. They've even got this fabulous nook with child-appropriate comics and graphic novels, which something I often see people asking about.

Let's have a look at what I purchased last week, starting with the first issue of an all-new miniseries titled Plunder. Plunder follows a group of Somali pirates as they board a seemingly abandoned tanker ship and find unimaginable horrors onboard. It's pretty great. Our viewpoint character is Bahdoon, a teenager in way over his head. He doesn't know how to use a gun, he's surrounded by murderous bandits who aren't particularly warming to him, and the only reason he's been brought along at all is because he can translate with the foreign crews on any ships they hijack. As you might imagine, once they board their latest target the find its crew apparently missing - although there's certainly a lot of blood and weird goo on the deck.

This comic presents body horror of a style most popularly typified by John Carpenter's 1982 film The Thing, and if that is up your alley then this book will almost certainly appeal as well. I like that it features African protagonists, and the use of Somali pirates gives it a nice contemporary edge that helps it to stand out from the crowd. Skuds McKinley's artwork is a little cartoony but effective, and certainly he does a good job with this issue's moments of graphic gore and horror (of which there is quite a bit). (4/5)

Boom Studios/Archaia. Written by Swifty Lang. Art by Skuds McKinley.

Under the cut: reviews of The Autumnlands: Tooth & Claw, Batgirl, Batman and Robin, Batman Eternal, Batwoman, Black Widow, The Fuse, Lumberjanes, Miles Morales, Ms Marvel, Multiversity, She-Hulk and Silver Surfer.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Family Business"

It's 15 May 1995, and time for more Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

When a representative of the Ferengi Commerce Authority shuts down Quark's bar, he is forced to return home to Ferenginar to face accusations that his mother has been wearing clothes and earning profit. While Quark (Armin Shimerman) attempts to force his mother to confess and return the money, his brother Rom (Max Grodenchik) just wants his family to get along.

While I expect one or two light-hearted Quark-centric comedies per season on Deep Space Nine, I'm not sure I was expecting to find a third. It made me immediately apprehensive, because these episodes tread such a fine line between being amusing and being slightly irritating. This episode also sets off alarm bells with its premise: one of the hardest parts of the Ferengi to tolerate is their misogyny towards women, so the idea of an episode where Quark's goal is to get his mother back in enslavement where he thinks she belongs is a pretty appalling one.

February 25, 2015

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

Jupiter Ascending is a terrible, near-unwatchable film and you should probably avoid seeing it. It's a big-budget Summer blockbuster, produced by Warner Bros and Roadshow but then delayed from Summer 2014 to February 2015. I can see why they delayed it: if you know you've got a dead-cert dog on your hands, releasing it in January or February means you can shift its inevitable losses into next year's balance sheet and make your finances look better on paper. The shareholders are happier, and you've then got the next Summer to make up the losses with some more profitable, more tidily produced tentpoles.

The irony is that this is a disaster Warner Bros brought upon themselves: they asked the Wachowskis to write a direct and new ongoing science fiction franchise all the way back in 2009, and five years later the brother and sister filmmakers delivered what had been requested: a sort of sexier kind of Star Wars, replete with alien princesses, dashing space pilots and laser gun shootouts. The problem is that it's all gone horribly wrong. Jupiter Ascending successfully delivers beautiful production design and a nice Michael Giacchino musical score. Pretty much everything else has been cocked up.

This isn't simply the kind of movie that disappoints; this is the kind of movie that destroys careers.

Blake's 7: "The Way Back"

It's 2 January 1978 and time for the debut episode of Blake's 7.

In the far future, the human race has colonised countless planets across the galaxy. Humanity is controlled by the Galactic Federation, a totalitarian regime that keeps its population under control with a combination of narcotics, propaganda and police brutality. On Earth, an unsuspecting Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) is persuaded to attend a secret political rally. There he learns that he used to be a major political agitator on Earth, before the Federation forced him to recant his position and then altered his memories to remove any chance of him taking up his political causes again. When the rally is ambushed by Federation soldiers and its participants slaughtered, Blake is desperate to see justice done - only he's now under arrest, framed for crimes he didn't commit, and sentenced to be exiled for life to the penal colony planet Cygnus Alpha.

I have an inordinate fondness for Blake's 7, a science fiction drama created by Terry Nation and produced for four seasons by the BBC. It's an odd show in many respects. It replaced a police drama, and thus inherited its budget. BBC management was apparently unaware that science fiction action series required a much larger budget than an urban police series, and even when this was pointed out to them they refused to budge. As a result it's about as cheaply made as television drama tends to get. It also inherits much of the heightened performance styles and theatricality of 1970s British drama, and combined with the low budget that gives it a sort of slightly silly, rather camp charm. It also has a remarkable cynicism to it, and - thanks to its script editor Chris Boucher, who rewrote much of the dialogue - a very strong line in snarky wit. When I was a child, and even with much of the subtlety and cynicism of the series going completely over my head, Blake's 7 was my favourite television series in the whole world: more than Astroboy, more than Doctor Who, more than anything. Even today, nearly 40 years after it was first broadcast, it's still one of my absolute favourites.

February 24, 2015

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Explorers"

It's 8 May 1995 and time for more Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Commander Sisko (Avery Brooks) decides to re-construct an ancient Bajoran spacecraft to test the claims that it somehow travelled all the way from Bajor to Cardassia at sub-light speeds. Meanwhile Dr Bashir (Siddig el Fadil) anxiously awaits a visit from Dr Elizabeth Lense - the one student who beat him at Starfleet Academy.

"Explorers" is a bit of an odd episode really, since it's lacking in any serious sort of jeopardy or high stakes drama. In the one storyline you have Sisko hand-crafting an ancient Bajoran ship and using it to spend quality time with his son. In the other you have the always-competitive Bashir stressing out over meeting a doctor smarter and more qualified than he is. No one is at any real risk of death. No one's going to go to war. There's no struggle to make first contact with an alien species or a crisis threatening to destroy the station. There's just day-to-day life onboard Deep Space Nine. I kind of like that.

February 23, 2015

Nostalgia Time, 23 February 2015: Nightbreed, The Band Concert

Let's celebrate two pop culture anniversaries today: one turning 25 years old, and the other a sprightly 80.

25 years ago Clive Barker's dark fantasy film Nightbreed was released into American cinemas. The film was adapted from his own novel Cabal, and got pretty mercilessly cut and edited by Morgan Creek Productions before it saw released. A rediscovered director's cut has recently been released, and I look forward to checking it out. Even in its original compromised form I have always had a lot of time for Nightbreed. It's an imaginative, atmospheric movie with an early Danny Elfman score, some stunning prosthetic make-up work and an unexpectedly great turn by director David Cronenberg as the film's villain.

Some films you love because they're great. Some films you love because, despite all their flaws and compromises, you can see the great movie looking out from inside. Nightbreed is the second kind of film.

Birdman (2014)

Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is a former Hollywood mega-star, famous for starring as "Birdman" in a trio of big-budget superhero films. When he refused to make Birdman 4 his career stalled; now, 20 years later, he's invested his entire remaining money into a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Over the course of several nights of preview performances, and in the lead-up to his crucial opening night, Thompson struggles with his recovering addict daughter, his actress girlfriend's pregnancy, a difficult new co-star and his own developing insanity.

Birdman is one of 2014's most widely acclaimed feature films. It has received near-unanimous praise for Michael Keaton's central performance, and it's innovative photography that uses clever editing tricks and camera work to simulate a single 110-minute take. It has received nine Academy Award nominations - by the time you read this, you'll likely know how many it actually won. Sadly it's all smoke and mirrors: in truth Birdman is a facile and unimaginative bore. It's true that it boasts several outstanding performances, and it's also true that in many respects it's a technical marvel. It is all in service, however, of a terrible screenplay.