February 27, 2015

Blake's 7: "Space Fall"

It's 9 January 1978 and time for the second episode of Blake's 7.
While en route to the penal colony Cygnus Alpha, political rebel Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) gets to know some of his fellow prisoners: the smuggler Jenna Stannis (Sally Knyvette), the thief Vila Restall (Michael Keating), the hulking and muscular Olag Gan (David Jackson), and the acerbic, self-interested computer hacker Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow). When the chance to overthrow their captors arrives, Blake and his companions are quick to grab it - but events do not quite transpire as they have planned.

Watching "Space Fall" immediately after "The Way Back" causes some mild confusion. That was a largely self-contained political thriller based around a single character. "Space Fall" is more like the Blake's 7 I remember. Firstly it's much cheaper looking. Secondly it has a wider spread of characters and a sudden and very strong line in biting wit. This is critical to the series' success. You don't watch Blake's 7 for the visual effects or the sets; the series had a lower budget per minute than even Doctor Who. You also don't often watch it for the plots; they're often rather generic and stereotypical, as they are in this episode. You watch it for the distinctive characters and the sharply written dialogue.

Okay, so you watch it for Avon and Vila.

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.

February 22, 2015

The Boy Who Saw the Wind (2000)

Amon is a young boy who possessed the power of the long-lost "wild people": he can create glowing light and energy with his hands, and can fly through the air like a bird. When the Golden Snake Empire tries to force Amon's scientist father to exploit his powers and generate a super-weapon, his father refuses and is killed. Amon escapes, and heads on a journey that leads him to fighting the Empire himself.

The Boy Who Saw the Wind is a 2000 anime feature directed by Kazuki Omori and based on the novel by Welsh author C.W. Nicol. Omori is best known as a director of early 1990s Godzilla movies, but here he tries his hand - and with some success, it must be said - at directed animation instead. This is a nicely written and competently directed anime, although to glance at it you would expect it was released some years earlier than 2000. If it has a major fault, it is that it owes an enormous debt to Hayao Miyazaki. In some sequences and themes the film seems so indebted to Miyazaki's works that it's like watch some weird inferior copy: Laputa: Spirited Away in the Valley of the Wind.

February 21, 2015

The Babadook (2014)

Amelia (Essie Davis), a widowed nurse working in an old people's home, lives alone with her troubled son Samuel. He believes that monsters are under his bed, but unlike most children he's taken his fear one step further: constructing genuinely dangerous traps and weapons with which to fight his imaginary predators. One night Samuel finds a mysterious hand-made pop-up book on his shelf titled Mr Babadook. The problems with monsters in the night only get worse from there.

The Babadook is a South Australian horror film written and director by Jennifer Kent. It was a small cult success in Australia, but subsequently gained enormous critical acclaim as it toured film festivals around the world. It recently was co-winner of this year's AACTA Award for Best Picture, and also won Jennifer Kent Best Director and Best Screenplay. If you like to keep up with the world's most acclaimed horror films - and I certainly do - then The Babadook is the clear must-see movie from 2014.

February 20, 2015

A Town Called Panic (2009)

A Town Called Panic is a 2009 stop-motion animated film directed by Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar. It is a spin-off from the popular Belgian TV series of the same name, which was produced in 2000. There are a lot of other animated and comedy shows I recognised in A Town Called Panic. It felt a bit like The Magic Roundabout, also The Mighty Boosh, South Park, and that plasticine-based cartoon from the late 1970s, The Red and the Blue. It reminded me of a lot of other things, but more than that A Town Called Panic also felt kind of unique. It’s like those other shows in that strange way in that each of those shows don’t feel like any other shows. Does that make a lot of sense? Probably not. That’s OK, however, because neither does a A Town Called Panic.

Horse, Cowboy and Indian – they’re played by small children’s toys of a horse, a cowboy and an indian – live together in a house in the two-house village of Panic. The other house is owned by a farmer who shouts all the time with a herd of animals who take music lessons from another horse who lives in the next town. When Cowboy and Indian discover it is Horse’s birthday, they decide to build him a brick barbeque as a present. They order bricks over the internet, and an unfortunate typo sees them accidentally receive 50 million bricks. They try to hide them from Horse by balancing them on the roof, which only serves to demolish their house, and when Horse tried to rebuild the house, he finds the walls keep getting stolen by fish people.

That’s about the first 20 minutes. There’s another 50 minutes after that, which involve journeys to the centre of the Earth, more fish people, parallel universes, mad scientists and snowball-throwing giant robots shaped like penguins. If that doesn’t sound like your kind of movie, I think you need to loosen up a little in your life and watch a wider range of movies.

February 19, 2015

Sadako (2012)

I'm going to try and make this as clear as possible: in 1991 author Koji Suzuki wrote a horror novel titled Ring. It was a huge commercial hit in Japan, and was translated first into a television series and subsequently as a 1998 feature film directed by Hideo Nakata. Suzuki also wrote a sequel novel, Spiral, and Toho Studios actually produced an adaptation of that novel simultaneously with Ring. While the film of Ring was a huge success - it's still the most successful Japanese horror movie ever made - the film of Spiral was not well received, and Toho ultimately produced an entirely unrelated Ring 2 as well as a prequel Ring 0 based on the Suzuki short story "Birthday".

Now that's where the Japanese Ring franchise ended, although Suzuki continued to write novels. The third Ring novel was Loop, and the fourth (published in 2012) was S. In the same year Kadokawa Shoten adapted this fourth novel into an all-new feature film: Sadako, directed by Tsutomu Hanabusa. I say all of this because it's important to realise that Sadako (released in cinemas as Sadako 3D) is not Ring 3, since it doesn't follow on from Ring 2. Instead it follows on from the novel of Spiral, whose own film adaptation was ignored by the makers of the original Toho movie franchise. The Ring saga is a complicated set of films of which to be a fan; and I haven't even mentioned the American and Korean adaptations.

February 18, 2015

Mission to Mars (2000)

2020: a human mission to Mars turns disastrously wrong when the team of astronauts uncover and activate an alien structure. It sweeps them into a vortex and kills all but one of the crew. A rescue mission is dispatched from Earth, commanded by Woody Blake (Tim Robbins) and Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise), but they sooner encounter crises of their own.

Mission to Mars is a textbook lesson in the importance of a good screenplay. This film has a very talented director, Brian De Palma, and an excellent cast that includes Robbins, Sinise, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen and Armin Mueller-Stahl. Its orchestral score was composed by screen legend Ennio Morricone. Its cinematographer, Stephen Burum, worked on The Untouchable, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Carlito's Way and The Outsiders. The sets are fantastic, including a brilliant 2001-inspired rotating spacecraft that De Palma and Burum shoot brilliantly. And all of that skill and talent is hopelessly wasted, because the underlying screenplay (credited to Jim Thomas, John Thomas and Graham Yost) is so utterly facile.

February 17, 2015

Claustrophobia (2008)

Claustrophobia, a 2008 Hong Kong drama by writer/director Ivy Ho, is a difficult film to summarise. Certainly it's impossible to write about without spoiling the story, since what story it has is extremely slight. Let's just run through its lengthy opening scene. Five co-workers pile into a car and travel one, each being dropped off one by one until only two remain: the stoic, deadpan manager Tom (Ekin Cheng) and the awkward and quiet Pearl (Karena Lam). When the time comes for Pearl to get out of the car, Tom gives her a friend's business card and tells her to call him for a job - otherwise he is going to have to fire her. An incensed Pearl refuses to take the card, demanding he fire her instead.

There's clearly a world of unresolved issues between the two. Rather than show what happens next, Ho jumps back - first by a week at a time, then months, until the film's final scene is set a year before the end of the story. It makes for a very impressive and interesting film. It also makes for a very frustrating one.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "The Die is Cast"

It's 1 May 1995, and time for more Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Elim Garak (Andrew Robinson) has elected to reunite with Tain, the Cardassian spymaster who exiled him to Deep Space Nine, and subsequently tried to have him killed. Together they are participating in a massive secret strike: a combined fleet formed by the Cardassian Obsidian Order and the Romulan Tal Shiar to destroy the Founder's home world and eliminate the Dominion threat before it can reach the Alpha Quadrant. Only Odo (Rene Auberjonois) can convince Garak not to go through with the plan - but Garak has orders to torture Odo for everything he knows about his people.

"The Die is Cast" is a large-scale epic climax. It begins with an unprecedented sight: a massive fleet of Cardassian and Romulan starships flying past Deep Space Nine and into the Bajoran wormhole. It ends with an entire section of the Star Trek universe irreperably changed. In the middle there is the single-largest starship battle seen in Star Trek up to this point. Some episodes are more significant than others: this is one of Deep Space Nine's most critical episodes ever.

February 16, 2015

The Sacrament (2013)

Two journalists accompany a fashion photographer to a reclusive religious commune named Eden Parish, where his sister - a recovering addict - has made a new life for herself. At first it seems a strange but utopian Christian community, but soon a darker side emerges and the three visitors begin to fear for their own safety.

The Sacrament is a thriller by American writer/director Ti West. I am a huge fan of West's work, including his exceptional low-budget horror films The House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011). He is clearly a lover of old-school 1970s horror, but has also demonstrated a remarkable versatility: the two previous films I have cited are quite distinct from one another, and scare audiences in different ways each time. With The Sacrament he seems to be trying something new again, adopting a first-person POV approach akin to The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield, and telling a story that's much more grounded and believable. It's not a perfect film, nor is it close to his best, but it does remain a quite potent and provocative thriller with more than enough great moments to make up for any shortfalls.

February 15, 2015

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

The Earth has been invaded by aliens. On the morning before the last concerted assault on the alien army, an American officer finds himself shanghaied onto the front line. He dies within minutes of the battle starting. Then he wakes up again, one day before the assault, and dies again in the battle. Then he wakes up again. And again. And again.

The lazy description of Edge of Tomorrow would probably be something along the lines of "Starship Troopers meets Groundhog Day". It boasts the military SF trappings of the former and the time loop schtick of the latter. While Groundhog Day used it's time travelling premise for comedic purposes, Edge of Tomorrow uses it to construct a genuine clever action-thriller that boasts strong characters, talented actors, and multiple surprises in the plot. I missed this film in cinemas, and now I really regret that: this is the sort of smart, good-looking blockbuster that Hollywood should be making all the time.

February 14, 2015

Black House (1999)

Wakatasuki, a young employee at an insurance firm, receives a telephone call from a woman asking if her life insurance policy covers her committing suicide. Concerned for her welfare, he rushes to her house only to stumble upon the dead body of the woman's son - who has apparently hanged himself. Shortly afterwards the same woman enquires about an insurance payout in the event of an industrial accident - shortly after which her husband has both arms sawn off in a freak accident. By the time Wakatasuki realises the sort of violent sociopath with whom he's dealing, it may be too late. Soon everyone is in danger: his co-workers, his girlfriend, and especially Wakatasuki himself.

Black House is a bleak, odd, and fairly confronting film. It sits somewhere between a thriller and a horror movie, with a strange sideline in absurdist comedy. Some scenes are rather frightening. Others are inappropriately funny. Others are simply weird and uncomfortable. In the end I'm not entirely certain how much I liked Black House, although I'm reasonably certain that I won't forget it in a hurry.

February 13, 2015

The Pull List: 11 February 2015

January saw Marvel's Star Wars #1 sell almost a million copies in the USA and Australia alone. This month sees the next stage of their Star Wars comic book line hit stores: the first-ever ongoing comic book dedicated to Darth Vader.

Darth Vader #1, written by Kieron Gillen and illustrated by Salvador LaRocca, picks up shortly after the events of the original Star Wars movie. The Death Star has been destroyed, thanks in part to Vader's decision to let the Millennium Falcon escape with a homing beacon attached. He is disgraced in Emperor Palpatine's eyes, and forced to take his orders from an intermediary.

This is a book with good and bad elements. Kieron Gillen has written Vader perfectly: he's a constantly simmering pot of rage, with the potential to boil over at a moment's notice. One key scene demonstrates brilliantly the difference between the Jedi and the Sith: differences in mind-set, powers and purpose. Others show Vader's calculating nature and keen intelligence. LaRocca's artwork is highly effective and reflects the motion picture designs of the characters and settings very well. In short, it looks and feels like Star Wars. That's surely the goal of any spin-off comic book like this.

With good comes bad. Put simply this issue is packed with so many guest appearances and continuity references it's mired in it. The issue begins with Vader visiting Jabba the Hutt on Tatooine, moves through a meeting with Palpatine and ends with a conversation between Vader and Boba Fett. Throughout it strings together references and flashbacks to both the original Star Wars and the first issue of Marvel's main Star Wars comic book: it presents a Vader who has learned of Luke Skywalker's existence, realised he wields Anakin Skywalker's lightsaber, and is dispatching famous bounty hunters to track him down. It's this sort of wedged-in continuity porn that irritates me. I vacillated on buying the main Star Wars comic, and actually chose not to when I saw that the second issue featured a pre-Empire Strikes Back confrontation between Luke and Vader. There's a whole galaxy of things Vader could be doing on the Empire's behalf between movies - tracking down Luke isn't something I feel I need to see.

So this book has a lot of good, but buy did it irritate me by the end. I'm tentatively onboard, but Gillen needs to show some new story ideas instead of just tying knots with all the threads between movies. (3/5)

Under the cut: reviews of Batman Eternal, Doctor Who, FBP, Justice League 3000, Thor and Wild's End.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Improbable Cause"

It's 24 April 1995, and time for more Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

An explosion rips through Deep Space Nine's promenade, incinerating the tailor Garak's shop and almost killing Garak (Andrew Robinson) himself. Odo (Rene Auberjonois) investigates, finding a trail that leads from the station to an alien assassin, the Romulan Empire, and Garak's own murky past as a Cardassian intelligence agent.

It's a pretty clear demonstration of Garak's popularity among Deep Space Nine's writers that an entire two-part storyline will become dedicated to the character, sidelining the bulk of the series' stars in the process. It's not difficult to see why. Andrew Robinson gives a wonderfully creepy performance, all smiles and ingratiating courtesy on the outside but with an inner cruelty that's always been visible just under the surface.

February 12, 2015

The Borgias (2011)

Not the popular television series starring Jeremy Irons - the five-volume graphic novel series by writer Alejandro Jodorowsky and artist Milo Manara. This European bandes-dessinées, originally released between 2004 and 2011, has recently been translated into English and collected into a single hardcover book by American publisher Dark Horse.

It tells the notorious story of the Borgia family, a Spanish dynasty living in Rome whose patriarch Rodrigo was elected Pope. Stories of horrific acts and lewd debauchery surrounded the Borgias, including accusations of murder, adultery, simony, incest and overwhelming corruption. It's likely impossible to know which, if any, of the numerous accusations against the Borgias were true; Jodorowsky and Manara assume for their book that they all were, making this a very confronting descent into the worst excesses of human depravity. This is one graphic novel that is categorically unsuitable for children.

Judging the New 52: January 2015

In January 2015, the American comic book industry was all about Star Wars. The first issue of Marvel's new ongoing Star Wars comic shifted close to a million copies via Diamond Distribution to the USA and Australia alone. Additional sales in the UK (which aren't counted in Diamond's figures) will easily push it over to make it the first million-selling American comic in years. Certainly it's the highest-selling single issue since Diamond started exclusive distribution in 1997.

All of this activity saw Marvel claim a pretty healthy market share of more than 40 per cent, but I think all of the attention on Star Wars is masking some pretty serious downward trends among DC's titles. Put simply, some of the main DC titles are really starting to slip with readers. Justice League dropped below 70,000 readers for the first time the New 52 launched. Similarly Aquaman dropped below the 30,000 unit mark, and Green Lantern below 40,000. Detective Comics dropped by 3,000 copies. That follows a similar drop in December, suggesting that despite the sterling work Manapul and Buccelatto are doing on that book the market simply isn't buying. Sales are still above 50,000 copies, so it's doubtful DC will be taking any drastic measures, but it must be of concern.

DC have a two-month crossover coming up in April and May, and are launching 24 new comics in June and setting up new creative teams on many of the continuing titles. Hopefully that will bring some readers back.

February 11, 2015

Horror Hotline: Big Head Monster (2001)

An American TV crew arrives in Hong Kong to profile "Horror Hotline", a late-night radio chat show whose listeners call in to share their own experiences of ghosts, supernatural experiences and the occult. A call comes through describing a demonic baby with eight eyes and a giant head, and after that call comes through a whole wave of similar calls are received. The American journalist Mavis (Josie Ho) and local radio producer Ben (Francis Ng) team up to investigate.

Really you'd think that all you need to judge this film is a quick glance at the title, an understanding that it's a cheaply made Hong Kong horror movie, and quick read of the premise. It sounds like the tackiest kind of D-grade movie, less scary than it is hopelessly silly. To an extent it is rather silly. It's also remarkably effective in places, and is one of those rare pulp horror movies that's significantly better than it has any real right to be.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Through the Looking Glass"

It's 17 April 1995, and time for more Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Commander Sisko (Avery Brooks) is kidnapped by a duplicate O'Brien (Colm Meaney), and transported to a parallel universe - the same alternate reality in which Major Kira and Dr Bashir found themselves a year earlier. The alternate Sisko is dead, and the Commander is tasked with completing his final mission: rescuing his own wife, who in this universe never died in a Borg attack.

Given the enormous creative and popular success of Season 2's "Crossover", which acted as a sequel to the classic Star Trek episode "Mirror, Mirror", it's unsurprising that the Deep Space Nine production team elected to return to the alternate universe once again. They clearly put their thinking caps on as well, finding one of the more dramatically interesting and character-enriching alternative situations they could have imagined: reuniting Sisko with his dead wife Jennifer.

February 10, 2015

DC Comics: The New 24

In June DC Comics is undergoing a widely expected semi-relaunch of their superhero line. Everyone will likely remember DC's line-wide reboot of September 2011, the "New 52", and while there have been fairly regular launches of new monthly titles since then June represents the biggest change since then. The New 52 moniker is being dropped, and 24 new monthly books are premiering in one month. These will join 25 books that are continuing - some with new creative teams and some with the same writers and artists.

These new titles are following from the successful broadening of the Batman comic book range in recent months. Headlined by a re-imagining of Batgirl, a raft of books have tried out new directions and styles including Harry Potter-inspired boarding school hijinks in Gotham Academy, a crime saga in Catwoman, espionage in Grayson, and horror in Gotham After Midnight. This "Batgirling" of the DC Universe looks set to produce some really interesting books, and - it must be said - a few with "immediate cancellation" written all over them.

So with 24 new books at once, this is probably going to be a fairly long post. Let's take a deep breath and dive right in.

Bullet Ballet (1998)

Writer/director Shinya Tsukamoto made an enormous impact internationally with his low-budget 1989 tech-horror Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Shot in grainy black and white with a piercing industrial soundtrack, it rapidly became a cult hit around the world and attracted a fiercely loyal cult following. Tsukamoto's subsequent films never quite captured the widespread attention that his feature debut did - and that included two Tetsuo sequels - but he remains a provocative and fascinating filmmaker whose work I regularly admire.

Bullet Ballet, released in 1998, is something of a jump back for Tsukamoto in terms of visual aesthetic and storytelling style. After expanding his style with Hiruko the Goblin (1991) and Tokyo Fist (1995), here he reverts back to the grainy black and white visuals, the aggressive musical score and the shaky, frantic camera work that made Tetsuo such an arresting film. The results are spectacular: Tsukamoto keeps the very best elements of his first film but combines them with a more complex and nuanced sense of story and character. I think this is the best Tsukamoto film that I've seen so far.

February 9, 2015

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Distant Voices"

It's 10 April 1995, and time for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Dr Bashir is assaulted and knocked unconscious by an alien thief. When he awakes, Deep Space Nine is in disarray as some unseen monster stalks down the crew on-by-one. It soon becomes apparent that Bashir is not being hunted across the station at all: he is lying in a coma, and an alien virus is attempting to kill him inside his own dream world.

And it was all a dream. This is the kind of maddening, self-indulgent, ridiculous dream world episode that sets my teeth on edge. I imagine they're very popular with the people who made it, since it gives everyone a chance to do something different. The design people can re-light and re-arrange the sets to make them look strange and interesting, and the cast all get to play their regular roles in different ways. The writers and the director can engage in surreal dream imagery. The audience? The audience be damned; this isn't an episode for us, it's an episode for them.

February 7, 2015

Drive (2002)

A depressed businessman suffering from hypertension finds his car hijacked by three armed bank robbers. What ensues is a bizarre and purposefully absurd odyssey through the streets of Tokyo over a 24-hour period. The film is Drive, released in Japan in 2002 and directed by Hiroyuki Tanaka under his pseudonymous alter-ego Sabu.

I have only seen one other Sabu film, which was his rather marvellous manga adaptation Bunny Drop (2011). This is a remarkably different film: whereas Bunny Drop was a heart-warming conventional comedy-drama, this is a slightly darker and considerably more sparse affair. It doesn't even really have a story, just a road movie-style chain of interconnected events. Parts of it work, parts of it do not, and it's overall a little too long for comfort, but in the end there's more good in the film than bad and enough interesting scenes and moments to make it worth recommending.

February 6, 2015

The Pull List: 4 February 2015

Saga has returned! This 25th issue kicks off the fifth volume of the book, and picks up where issue #24 left off: half of the cast kidnapped, the other half forced to team up with the villain to chase after them.

I was rather underwhelmed by the last volume of this comic, which seemed to unexpectedly jump forward in time by two years and then do a lot of odd work in making me actively dislike characters I had previously liked an awful lot. To an extent that damage is still done; despite Alana's stressful situation, I'm struggling to care that much about what happens to her. That said there's an urgency and a narrative drive in this issue that's been missing for a while, and that makes up for my lack of empathy quite a bit.

I'm hugely invested, on the other hand, with Marko. Forced to team up with Prince Robot, and terrified that his daughter is dead or lost to him forever, he's now the emotional core of the book. His situation is awful, and both Vaughn's writing and Staple's artwork really bring home just what a nightmare scenario he is in. It's momentarily quite powerful stuff.

One of the things that impresses me about how Vaughn writes this book is the way in which he casually drops in major plot information through Hazel's narration that in any other book would feel like a massive spoiler (here she reveals her father won't see her again for several years). In Saga, however, it's something that adds weight and gravity. We're already sad see Marko mourn losing his daughter; once we learn that he's not going to find her any time soon, it feels overwhelmingly tragic.

Staples' art remains as close to flawless as one can get. She highlights character over background detail, and gives the various protagonists real personality and depth. This is, all up, a brilliant issue. I hope the quality I loved in the first 18 issues has finally returned. (5/5)

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Annihilator, Batman Eternal, Detective Comics, Ms Marvel, Nameless and The Woods.

Cute High Earth Defence Club Love!: "In the Name of Love"

First up, let's just address that remarkable title: Cute High Earth Defence Club Love! (exclamation mark included). It's as if somebody just read out the results of a Scrabble game. I'm a big fan of the weird and lengthy titles many anime receive. My all-time favourite probably remains All-Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku, but I must admit that Cute High Earth Defence Club Love! gives it a remarkable run for its money.

What is it? Well, for one thing it's new. The first episode aired in Japan on 6 January, and it's currently being streamed online for free via Madman's Anime Lab website. I'm used to coming to review anime a year or two at least after everybody else. Watching something this up-to-date is a new experience for me, and I have to say I am really enjoying these anime-viewing sites and apps like Anime Lab and Crunchyroll for making so much material freely available to watch and try out.

But what is it? Okay, so five high school students are given magical powers by a mind-controlling pink alien wombat in order to save the Earth with love, starting with a talking noodle.

Go on, admit it: you're intrigued.

February 5, 2015

Gatchaman Crowds: "Genuine"

It's episode #8 of Gatchaman Crowds. Rui, still recovering from his injuries, is tormented by Katze - who manages to copy his identity and take control of the Galax network. Meanwhile Hajime forces the Gatchaman to announce their presence to the world, using a kindergarten as the venue.

Last episode was an earth-shaking action climax, so it's understandable that this episode is about the aftermath. While the bulk of the episode seems quite breezy and positive, with Hajime enthusiastically introducing the Gatchaman to the Japanese media, there's a very dark undercurrent running through it for many of the characters. This gives the episode some depth that takes it beyond being a passable episode to being an excellent one. When the episode begins Paiman is drinking himself into a stupor out of the shame of fleeing from last episode's battle. Joe seems to have given up on being a Gatchaman altogether. Then there's OD, making strange ominous comments every time no one can hear him.

February 4, 2015

Pretty Deadly Vol 1: The Shrike (2014)

The western genre collides with folklore and even light horror in Pretty Deadly, a new comic book by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Emma Rios. It's an often-times thrilling read, and a has a lot within it to recommend. It's also maddeningly frustrating, sketchily illustrated and occasionally a little confusing. After reading this first volume The Shrike, which collects the first five monthly issues, I can't say my time was wasted. I can't say I'm in a rush to read a second volume.

A blind man goes on the run across the American west, a young girl in a vulture-feather cape named Sissy in tow. They're running from Death's daughter, a mysterious and deadly gunfighter with skull marks on her face and a penchant for violence. This is all told in retrospect by a rabbit and a butterfly.

The book's rich with magical realism and atmosphere, and certainly in this regard it excels. DeConnick has developed a very specific unsettling mood to the book, which does seem as if it could be rich with story potential. Sadly the story that's told feels too sparsely told, and in the end a little too rushed. It all seems like a pile of regrettable missed opportunities.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Visionary"

It's 27 February 1995, and time for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

After a workplace accident soaks Chief O'Brien (Colm Meaney) in radiation, he begins to experience momentary jumps into his own future. Meanwhile a delegation has arrived from the Romulan Star Empire, eager to hear what the Federation has learned about the Dominion.

Star Trek is obsessed with time travel. Overwhelmingly obsessed. For decades there were basically two big science fiction TV franchises - Star Trek and Doctor Who - and one of them was based around a time-travelling alien, and the other was the one actually about time travel. Only five episodes ago Chief O'Brien was travelling back in time to rescue Sisko, Bashir and Dax from the 21st century. It's only going to be another 11 episodes before there's another time travel episode. The writers were time travel mad.

February 3, 2015

Nostalgia Time, 3 February 2015: In the Mouth of Madness, The Three Caballeros

It's Nostalgia Time, where we celebrate pop culture anniversaries like nobody's business. Today sees the anniversary of two films that probably couldn't be any further apart: John Carpenter's 1995 horror movie In the Mouth of Madness, which turns 20 today, and the Walt Disney animated film The Three Caballeros, which turns 70.

In the Mouth of Madness is a Lovecraft-inspired horror movie directed by cult favourite John Carpenter. Shot in Toronto on a budget of just $7 million dollars, it represented a fresh hit for the Carpenter, whose career had been slowly falling into the doldrums after a string of early smash hits including Halloween and The Thing. The film starred Sam Neill as insurance investigator John Trent, who is dispatched to investigate an author who has gone missing without filing a copy of his latest novel with his publisher. Once in the strange town of Hobb's End (previously thought to be fictional) Trent is sucked into a nightmarish apocalyptic world.

The Pull List: 28 January 2015

Umbral's second story arc comes to a close in typically dramatic fashion. Twists are turned, climaxes are had, things are set up for issue #13 in a couple of month.

Antony Johnston impressed me enormously in 2014 by writing not one but two sensational ongoing comic books. The Fuse wound up being my favourite book of the year, and to be completely honest Umbral wasn't that far behind. A young thief named Rascal goes on the run when a demon takeover kills a city's royal family. This second arc has seen her on the run across the wilderness with an old wizard, a suspiciously dangerous trader and a gypsy assassin. The characters are well crafted, and the fantasy world excellently realised. Johnston has also plotted it with a canny eye for unexpected revelations and twists, and that's made it addictive reading.

Christopher Mitten's artwork really sells the dark fantasy angle, giving everything a sort of scabby, worn-out look. It eschews traditional comic book artwork for something a bit more grounded and realistic. His depictions of the shadowy demons are top-notch.

Issues #1-6 are already available in an inexpensive trade paperback edition. Issues #7-12 are collected into a second volume later this month. If you like fantasy, you really should be reading this comic. (5/5)

Image. Written by Antony Johnston. Art by Christopher Mitten.

Under the cut: reviews of Aquaman, Batman, Batman Eternal, Catwoman, Gotham Academy, He-Man, Revival and Thor.

February 2, 2015

Nostalgia Time, 2 February 2015: The Lost World

Welcome to Nostalgia Time, an irregular celebration of all the pop culture anniversaries that strike my fancy. Today it's time to celebrate a pretty significant milestone: the 90th anniversary of Harry O. Hoyt's adventure film The Lost World, based on the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle. How old is this film now? For a better perspective, just keep in mind that when it was released into cinemas on 2 February 1925, Arthur Conan Doyle was still alive.

Doyle was a presence in the making of this film as well. In 1922 he brought test footage of the film's famous dinosaurs to a meeting of the Society of American Magicians, showcasing the pioneering stop-motion effects to audience that included Harry Houdini.

It is for Willis O'Brien's remarkable effects that the film is remembered today: it's a landmark achievement in film-making technology, and foreshadowed O'Brien's later work animating King Kong in 1933.

February 1, 2015

This Girl is Bad-Ass!! (2011)

Thai actress Jija (pronounced "Chee Cha") Yanin has rapidly established herself as a rising star of international action cinema, thanks to films like Chocolate and Raging Phoenix. These movies showcased her talent for physical stunt work and martial arts, as well as a gift for comedy and a genuinely appealing screen presence. This Girl is Bad-Ass!! is her third film out of the five in which she's starred; it's a Thai action comedy written and directed by Petchtai Wongkamlao.

I really loved Yanin's two earlier films, and had high hopes for This Girl. Sadly it completely failed to engage. It's not so much an action comedy as an action film and a comedy film that each take turns to play out, scene by scene. The action segments aren't anywhere near as interesting as those in Yanin's earlier films. The comedy segments are just odd: either they're flat-out not funny, or Thailand has a particular sense of humour with which I've failed to engage.