May 31, 2015

Ga-Rei-Zero: "Above Aoi"

In response to an attack by invisible supernatural creatures, Japan's Ministry of Defence dispatches its elite Paranormal Disasters Countermeasures team. Using their own innate psychic powers this military team can see the invisible monsters than ordinary humans cannot. When a second, much more devastating, creature attacks near Tokyo Tower, the team mobilises again to lure it into the city's aqueducts to destroy it.

Ga-Rei-Zero is an odd thing, or at least its first episode is. The initial impression it makes it not a good one. The episode suffers from extraordinarily generic designs and music, not to mention by-the-numbers characters and cliché-ridden dialogue. It's the sort of set-up that's been so many times in anime: the supernatural monsters running around Tokyo, versus the conflicted team of misfits who are the only ones capable of stopping them. In many respects it's the anime equivalent of a CSI or NCIS: you know going in exactly what you're going to get, and while it doesn't do anything badly watching it hardly feels like a justifiable use of one's time. And then...

The West Wing: Aaron Sorkin and A Few Good Men

The West Wing is comparatively rare among American television drama in that, for its first four seasons at least, it was primarily written by one person: Aaron Sorkin. The standard model for American TV writing is what's called "the writer's room", where a group of writers will collectively develop story concepts and ideas and then split off individually to write each episode. While The West Wing would retain that writer's room, the writers involved worked more as researchers, providing story material and background information for Sorkin himself to then develop and adapt into the television scripts.

As a result, The West Wing is to a very large extent the work of a singular creative talent. While executive producers John Wells and Thomas Schlamme would have a huge influence over the series' look, aesthetic and production values, the characters, their crises and the iconic sophisticated dialogue were all Sorkin's. I think the best place to start when exploring The West Wing is with Sorkin himself.

May 30, 2015

Primary (1960)

In 1960 United States Senator John F. Kennedy ran for President, and his first step in that process was the primary election to win the Democratic Party nomination. This process kicked off with a primary election in the state of Wisconsin, against Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey. In a then-unique move, both campaigns agreed to have their activities recorded by a team of documentary filmmakers.

The resulting documentary film, Primary, was the first of its kind for American film: not because it provided such an intimate glimpse into America's political process, but because it was the USA's first major example of cinema verité (then described as 'direct cinema'). There's very little narration. No one is interviewed. Instead what you see is simply what happened when the cameras are rolling.

These days this is a pretty standard way to shoot a documentary. In 1960 it must have been extraordinary. By using small handheld film cameras the crew are able to insert themselves right into the action, whether it's Humphrey speaking to an audience of disaffected farmers or Kennedy slowly making his way through a throng of supporters to reach the stage. The documentary is only an hour long, but it packs a lot of impact into those 60 minutes.

May 29, 2015

The Pull List: 27 May 2015, Part II

Valiant continue to release some of the best superhero comics on the market. Divinity is just one of them. This week it concludes its initial four-issue run, although a second miniseries has already been announced for later in the year. It's been genuinely good stuff, and I think this fourth issue is probably the best.

The book follows Abram Adams, who travelled into space as a cosmonaut only to return to Earth 50 years late and gifted with godlike powers. The superhero team Unity have been sent to capture and contain him, but as of the end of issue #3 he was pretty much running rings around them. This issue concludes that fight.

It's wonderfully written, because at its heart this issue showcases a man who's simply decades too late to recover what he wants. The ending is bittersweet, and the journey there is carefully told and very well developed. The artwork, by Trevor Hairsine and inker Ryan Winn, shows remarkably subtlety in the characters: their movements and expressions are lifelike and rich in detail.

This comic has been a fascinating experiment: what would happen if a godlike super-human did suddenly arrive on Earth? How would people react? What effects would they have. Based on this issue, it looks like the impact of Divinity's arrival is going to have some pretty huge ramifications for the Valiant Universe. (5/5)

Valiant. Written by Matt Kindt. Art by Trevor Hairsine and Ryan Winn. Colours by David Baron.

Under the cut: reviews of Hellbreak, Ivar Timewalker, and The Life After.

West Wing Month: An Introduction

American television in the 21st century is in a very different place to where it was just 20 years earlier. The rapid expansion of cable television drama, followed by new online drama platforms such as Amazon and Netflix, has led to an unprecedented advance in quality and prestige. This increase in prestige and respectability has brought with it a wave of actors, writers and directors who have in part abandoned feature films - where the visual effects-driven blockbuster now reigns supreme - for more creatively fertile grounds.

I think that this current 'golden age' of television can be drawn all the way back to 1999, and two widely acclaimed, memorable dramas. The first is David Chase's HBO series The Sopranos. It wasn't the first original hour-long drama series for the cable channel - that was Oz, which premiered two years earlier - but it was the first to make a seismic impact on the industry in terms of storytelling style and depth of character.

The other key series of 1999 was Aaron Sorkin's political drama The West Wing, and that is the series on which I've decided to focus this month with a set of reviews. It follows the story of fictional United States President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet (Martin Sheen) from the beginning of his second year in office to the inauguration of his successor seven seasons later.

May 28, 2015

The Pull List: 27 May 2015, Part I

Image continue to publish an impressive range of titles, and a great example of that this week is Pisces. The book follows Patrick Keene, a Vietnam veteran suffering from the strangest of flashbacks and waking nightmares. We're two issues in, and the reality behind what he's experiencing is still a complete mystery to me. It's got me intrigued as all hell though.

The book is written by Kurtis J. Wiebe, best known for the acclaimed and award-nominated Rat Queens. This is a very different kind of book, both in look (the Johnnie Christmas artwork is great) and tone. It's sort of a science fiction thing - it keeps jumping to maddening scenes of Patrick as an astronaut and then back to his post-war life in Miami - but at the same time it's a deeply effective psychological thriller.

I actually have no idea how long this book is intended to run. I assume it's a miniseries, but haven't bothered to check. I don't need to check. I picked up the first issue based on Wiebe's name and it's entertaining me so far. This second issue is stronger than the first, suggesting this might be one of those series that just picks up steam as it goes. (4/5)

Under the cut: reviews of Black Widow, He-Man: The Eternity War, Indestructible: Stingray, The Infinite Loop and Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye.

Gatchaman Crowds: "Collage"

It's the final episode of Gatchaman Crowds. The Crowds have overrun Tachikawa. Berg Katze seems impossible to defeat. The Gatchaman are not strong enough to push back the tide of destruction. It's time for the final showdown - and so on and so forth.

The series concludes on a high note. That's the first and foremost thought on my mind. There's always a risk with a serial narrative of screwing up the climax, and it's fantastic to see just how effective and satisfying this conclusion is. It's dramatic, thrilling, funny and more than a little sad. It boasts multiple pay-offs for the audience, and even a couple of surprises.

The first thing that happens is that OD, the playful androgynous Gatchaman who never transforms, challenges Katze to a duel and not only transforms but damn near defeats Katze all by himself. It's a stunning, cataclysmic battle that pretty much destroys Gatchaman headquarters in the process.

May 27, 2015

Star Trek: Enterprise: "Affliction"

It's 18 February 2005, and time for more Star Trek: Enterprise.

Dr Phlox is kidnapped by aliens in San Francisco. While the Enterprise crew attempt to work out where he has been taken, Phlox finds himself unwillingly forced to help a Klingon scientist find a cure to a virus that is decimating his species.

Given Season 4's ridiculous propensity to indulge in all manner of unnecessary continuity references, I suppose it was only a matter of time before the series tackled Klingon foreheads. In the original Star Trek the Klingons were basically humans with orange-hued make-up and thick black eyebrows. For Star Trek: The Motion Picture, however, they were re-envisaged with thick cranial ridges that remained throughout all of their remaining Star Trek appearances. Some fans - evidently the ones with too much time on their hands - always wanted to know why this change occurred, demanding some in-universe reason to cover the fact that essentially 1980s Star Trek had a lot more money than 1960s Star Trek and could finally do decent prosthetic make-up. By Deep Space Nine they were even making jokes about it, with Worf noting "it is not something we discuss with outsiders". It was a great joke, basically telling the audience "Yes, we know. Stop fussing about it."

May 26, 2015

Gatchaman Crowds: "Gamification"

It's the penultimate episode of Gatchaman Crowds. Rui finally manages to reconnect with X, giving the people of Tachikawa hope in defeating the Crowds. Hajime convinces Prime Minister Sugiyama to go on the Internet Gatchachannel and plead with the people of the city to reconnect with Galax and fight against the Crowds and Katze.

That doesn't seem like quite enough plot to sustain an entire 25 episode - and there's a reason for that. The story cited above fills about 12 minutes, and forms the second half of the episode. The first half consists of 12 minutes of clips from the previous 10 episodes, as the Gatchaman team take turns in reminiscing over their experiences since Hajime joined the team in episode 1.

Now I am very much aware that anime is an expensive art form, and that costs often overrun and must be clawed back in some fashion. An episode comprising clips of pre-existing footage is sometimes a necessary evil for producers, and while I'm often bored by these episodes I understand the reason why they exist.

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (1945)

Let's have a look at Akira Kurosawa's fourth feature film, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, which is to be honest more interesting for when and how it was produced than what it's actually about. Kurosawa originally wanted to direct a large-scale feudal epic titled The Lifted Spear, however it required battle scenes with samurai on horseback. With Japan losing its war with the Allies there simply weren't any horses left in or near Tokyo for Toho Studios to use. As a low-budget back-up the studio suggested Kurosawa adapt the kabuki play Kanjincho (The Subscription List). The film was ultimately shot almost entirely inside a studio with only a brief trip to the nearby Imperial Forest to shoot some establishing scenes.

The play, based on a true event from the 12th century, followed a disgraced feudal lord as he crossed a heavily guarded border with his retinue disguised as itinerant monks. Kurosawa was not keen on making the film, but its subject matter of feudal loyalty and bravery in the face of certain defeat was appealing to Japan’s military authorities. Kurosawa wrote a screenplay for the film in three days, keeping the narrative relatively close to the original play. The only significant addition he made was to introduce a comic porter, to be played by popular comedian Kenichi Enomoto – an actor on whose films Kurosawa had worked as an assistant director through the late 1930s.

May 25, 2015

Angels & Demons (2009)

Don't think. That's pretty much the core requirement to enjoy Angels & Demons, Ron Howard's 2009 adaptation of the popular Dan Brown novel. I read the novel back in 2006 while on a lengthy holiday in Europe. I was aware of Brown by repute - hugely popular, badly written, and so on - and figured it would be a silly and enjoyable read. To an extent it was, although the enjoyment was largely gained by reading select passages aloud to my wife and laughing as she accused me of making them up.

The plot, which if you've not read the book nor seen the film I promise you is not a lie: the Pope has died, and when the assembled Cardinals are locked inside the Vatican to elect his replacement the four most likely candidates are kidnapped. At the same time the kidnapper has hidden an anti-matter bomb somewhere on the premises. It's all down to Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), a Harvard professor of symbology, to track down the kidnapped Cardinals, find the bomb and save the day.

Star Trek: Enterprise: "The Aenar"

It's 11 February 2005, and time for Star Trek: Enterprise.

Analysis of the brain waves of the Romulan drone's controller reveal it to be similar but not identical to an Andorian. This prompts Commander Shran to reveal the existence of the Aenar, a white-skinned, blind and telepathic sub-species of Andorian living in isolation on his home planet. While Shran and Archer attempt to contact the reclusive Aenar, T'Pol, Trip and Dr Phlox work to develop a device that can enable them to hijack and deactivate the drone when it resurfaces.

Much of this episode takes a rather different tack to the previous two parts, and that's probably a good thing. We've had two weeks of diplomacy and cloaked Romulan attacks, so this third time around a lot of time is spent in ice caves on Andoria. It's a decent plot thread: the Aenar, when we meet them, are interesting and engaging, and the storyline showcases a different and refreshing side to Shran. In many ways it's rather unfortunate how fascinated Enterprise's writers are with Shran, because they're writing such good material for him while neglecting half of the series' regular cast. We're only a dozen episodes or so from the end of the entire series, so I'm assuming Mayweather's chance to be fleshed out and given some actual material has pretty much run out.

May 23, 2015

Judging the DCU: April 2015

April 2015 is an odd month for DC Comics. Here's why. The publisher is moving its offices for the first time, shifting everybody from New York to Los Angeles. The move is intended to align the company more closely with Warner Bros, who own DC in its entirety and have a lot of intellectual property invested in what DC publishes. Shifting the whole enterprise coast-to-coast is major disruption, however, so rather than try and edit and publish its entire line at the same time DC created Convergence.

In short, Convergence is a weekly miniseries backed up by 40 new two-issue comic books published in April and May. These two-issue series each bring back older storylines and continuities from DC's long history, mashes them together and makes them fight. As a self-contained two-month storyline, Convergence could be edited and managed by a temporary team leaving all of the regular DC editorial staff time to make the move, settle in, and get a solid head start on what the company has planned for the second half of the year. Putting aside the actual storyline of Convergence, which has by-and-large not been well liked by critics or readers, you might think this was actually a pretty clever idea. It's not: it's a terrible idea, and DC has thrown money away by doing it. Here's why.

May 22, 2015

The Pull List: 20 May 2015, Part III

I made a terrible mistake. I had become increasingly bored by the glacial storytelling and constant disappointment of Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man. Despite loving the character and reading Miles' adventures since the debut of Ultimate Comics Spider-Man a few years back I had made the choice that this was the end, and I couldn't waste money on reading such irritating comics any more. Then Marvel released this, the first issue of a final Ultimate Universe mini-series, and I figured I could find it within myself to give Bendis one more chance with the character - a last hurrah, if you will.

I made a terrible mistake.

Ultimate End #1 is a confidence trick: a book that promises to close off the Ultimate Universe yet focuses instead on the massive Secret Wars cross-over that Marvel has been publishing this past month. It doesn't have a proper opening or introduction: instead you're thrown into an angry debate between a dozen or more self-similar superhero duplicates. It doesn't even appear to have Miles Morales in it. It does have Peter Parker's Spider-Man, but it took me half the issue to work out whether Bendis was writing the original Marvel Universe Parker or the identical Ultimate Universe clone Peter who had prominently appeared in the last few issues of Miles Morales.

Mark Bagley does a great job illustrating the book, but in all honesty who cares? Without having read Secret Wars in advance, this book is patently unreadable. And that's the bare minimum I expect from a comic book: a comprehensible story. Not even a good one - just one I can read. And this, as I've said, is unreadable. (1/5)

Under the cut: the final reviews for this week, including Daredevil, Doctor Who, Jem and the Holograms and Usagi Yojimbo.

May 21, 2015

The Pull List: 20 May 2015, Part II

Since April 1995 Adrian Tomine has been writing and drawing Optic Nerve on one of the slowest schedules of pretty much any major comic book. Not that he's been any kind of slouch: in between he's written and illustrated a raft of acclaimed graphic novels as well as extensive work for The New Yorker. This week the 14th issue of Optic Nerve was finally published, and it's predictably an absolute knock-out.

In "Killing and Dying" a father and his teenage daughter struggle to relate to one another as she embarks on an attempted career as a stand-up comedian. It's a perfectly observed character piece, told through dialogue and a stream of tiny panel layouts. It's deeply melancholic, and almost perversely banal, but page by page it wins you over, making you relate very deeply to both the daughter and her awkward, constantly wrong-footed father.

In "Intruders" a man desperate to reconnect to his past life uses a spare set of keys to break into his old apartment while it's new resident is at work. It's a much darker story, presented in a heavily narrated fashion, and has sharply different tone and aesthetic to "Killing and Dying". It's testament to Tomine's talent that two vastly different comics can be released in the same single issue.

Comics like this demonstrate just how versatile the comic book medium is. Why I can't deny I have a lot of love for superhero adventure books, it's so refreshing to read something like this now and again to remind myself just how great the medium can be. This is easily one of the best comic books I've read this year. (5/5)

Optic Nerve #14. Drawn & Quarterly. Story and art by Adrian Tomine.

Under the cut: reviews of Bloodshot Reborn, Convergence: Hawkman, The Fly: Outbreak, Ninjak and Winterworld: Frozen Fleet.

Star Trek: Enterprise: "United"

It's 4 February 2005, and time for Star Trek: Enterprise.

Captain Archer struggles to salvage the Andorian-Tellarite peace negotiations in the face of overwhelming odds: a Romulan drone ship is still roaming the area, with Trip and Reed still trapped onboard, and Commander Shran's first officer and lover has been killed by one of the Tellarites, leading him to demand revenge. There's only one way to track down the drone ship, and that method will require ships from the humans, Vulcans, Tellarites and Andorians. That level of interplanetary cooperation has never previously been achieved.

"United" is the second part of Enterprise's "Babel One" trilogy, and combines action - both space battles and fisticuffs - with generous helpings of Star Trek historical lore. While the series is continuing to swallow its own tale with continuity references, and I think this episode might contain the densest collection yet, it's managing to be entertaining sci-fi adventure at the same time. To an extent this episode's all "inside baseball", but given that the hardcore were pretty much the only ones left watching the series at this stage that's not necessarily the disaster it could be.

May 20, 2015

The Pull List: 20 May 2015, Part I

It's always good to see Dirk Gently get more attention. Douglas Adams wrote two Dirk Gently novels - Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul - and while they never gained the popular appeal of his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy works I always felt they were actually much better books. Now the character is making a fresh jump to comic books in an all-new ongoing series from IDW.

This first issue does an outstanding job of adapting the character with a story that seems right up Adams' alley: an Englishman in San Diego, amateur serial killers, and revived Egyptian mummies all thrown into one complicated string of interconnected things.

If there's one major criticism, it's that Dirk himself has undergone a bit of a redesign: less overweight redhead and more, well, David Tennant's Doctor Who, basically. Asides from that, this strikes me as the best adaptation of the character I've seen. (4/5)
IDW. Written by Chris Ryall. Art by Tony Akins.
 Under the cut: reviews of Empire: Uprising, Kaijumax and The X Files.

Robin of Sherwood: "The King's Fool"

It's 26 May 1984, and time for the Season 1 finale of Robin of Sherwood.

Robin (Michael Praed) rescues a Norman knight (John Rhys Davies) from bandits in Sherwood. The following morning the knight reveals himself to be Richard Lionheart, King of England, returned from his ransomed captivity in Germany, When the King pardons Robin and his men, and Sir Guy of Gisburne is disgraced, it seems as if everything is going to end happily for once - but how long can this new peace last?

In many traditional Robin Hood stories, the arrival of King Richard signifies the end of the narrative: his arrival back in Britain heralds a return to the normal order, and a restoration of justice and fairness for the people. As a result it's not a surprise to see Richard turn up in this season finale. What is a surprise is where the episode goes from there: this isn't the noble, people-loving king of legend. This is Richard Lionheart, a militaristic absentee monarch whose only interest in returning to Britain was to raid its coffers for more war money.

May 19, 2015

Superman Earth One: Volume 3 (2015)

DC Comics publishes a range of graphic novels under the "Earth One" banner. They basically tell all-new versions of their most popular superheroes, from the beginning, unsaddled by several years of continuity, and published in broadly self-contained 128 page increments. I loved the idea, but the production pace has left a little to be desired. Since the launch of Superman Earth One in 2010 they have published just six volumes: two starring Batman, one starring the Teen Titans, and three starring Superman.

Superman Earth One: Volume 3 was published in February 2015, and sees writer J. Michael Straczynski teamed up with a new artist: Ardian Syaf, replacing earlier artist Shane Davis. It picks up pretty much where Volume 2 left off: Superman has revealed himself to the world, but his impromptu actions - including violently unseating a North African dictator - have made him a potential enemy to the Earth's governments. At the same time, an alien pod crash-lands on the Earth, containing an unexpected passenger: Zod-El, Superman's uncle and the only other survivor of the planet Krypton's destruction.

Sanshiro Sugata Part II (1945)

Movie goers concerned that Hollywood produces too many needless, money-hungry sequels should feel reassured that it's not just a contemporary phenomenon - nor is it an exclusively American one. After directing his second film, the 1944 propaganda picture The Most Beautiful, Akira Kurosawa was unwillingly roped into making a sequel to his first. The original Sanshiro Sugata had been a smash hit with Japanese audiences, and with morale dipping as Japan started to lose the war in the Pacific the military-led government was keen to see another rousing populist hit in the cinemas.

Sanshiro Sugata was an engaging martial arts drama set in the 1880s about a headstrong young man - the titular Sanshiro (Susumu Fujita) - becoming a judo master. Sanshiro Sugata Part II picks up the story a few years later. Sanshiro is disgusted to see a commercial fighting ring set up where an American boxer fights all manner of Japanese martial artists for money. At the same time the two brothers of Higaki - the man Sanshiro defeated at the end of the original film - have arrived in town looking for revenge.

May 18, 2015

Robin of Sherwood: "Alan a Dale"

It's 19 May 1984, and time for more Robin of Sherwood.

Robin and his outlaws come across Alan a Dale, a musician who has fallen in love with a local baron's daughter - only to see her unwillingly engaged to the Sheriff of Nottingham. Happy to take any opportunity to disrupt the Sheriff's plans, Robin sets up a scheme to rid him of his bride and her lucrative dowry.

Alan a Dale has been part of the Robin Hood mythology since about the 17th century, but when developing Robin of Sherwood creator Richard Carpenter elected not to include him in the Merry Men - instead choosing more obscure characters like Much the Miller's Son or complete inventions like Nasir. In a way it's rather pleasant to see him unexpectedly pop up five episodes in. This is the only episode in which he appears, but he's a welcome guest character to have.

May 17, 2015

The Pull List: 13 May 2015, Part II

It's taken eight issues, but with Thor #8 writer Jason Aaron and artist Russell Dauterman finally reveal the secret identity of the new Thor. I shall not spoil her identity here, but given the news got spoiled all over the Internet at the beginning of the week it won't be hard for you to look it up if you're keen.

The issue begins with a knock-down fight between Odin's Destroyer and pretty much the entire female cast of the Marvel Universe. It's a powerful statement to match the new female Thor, celebrating and promoting strong, powerful women in Marvel, and it certainly acts as a strong climax to this first story arc.

Then there's the revelation of Thor's true identity, which is possibly not the most surprising choice but is certainly one that adds an enormous complication to the character going forward. It's well revealed, and is a powerful moment. Overall the book still feels maddeningly slow, but at least we've made some solid progress through the story with this issue. Hopefully once it returns after Secret Wars things will pick up ever further. (4/5)

Under the cut: a big week, with reviews of Black Science, Copperhead, Darth Vader, FBP, Giant Days, Ms Marvel, ODY-C, Rebels, Saga and Southern Cross.

May 15, 2015

Whiteout (2009)

Whiteout, a 2009 film based on the Greg Rucka comic book, has all the ingredients for an exceptional film. It's a tense murder mystery. It has an arresting setting: an Antarctic research base. It has a strong and interesting female protagonist. The storyline is, on the face of it, a good one. Why, then, did it all go so horribly wrong?

This film was a notorious flop upon release, grossing Warner Bros less than $18 million dollars worldwide off a $35 million dollar budget. After director Dominic Sena completed work on the film, the studio ordered reshoots directed by Stuart Baird, and then even more reshoots undertaken by Les Wiseman. After that the film reportedly spent two years gathering dust on a shelf before the studio decided to release it. So all up, it's close to impossible to lay blame at the feet of any specific filmmaker. Perhaps it's best not to blame anyone, and simply give the film sympathetic glances and a gentle pat on the back. It tried its best. It failed. A future adrift in the back catalogue of streaming film providers clearly awaits.

Whiteout follows deputy US marshal Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale) as she investigates a suspicious death in the middle of Antarctica. The more she investigates, the more complicated the crime appears. With a lethal blizzard fast approaching, and winter closing in, Carrie is on a deadline to solve the crime before she's trapped in the base for the next six months with a murderer.

May 14, 2015

Jubal (1956)

Mention westerns and a whole range of leading men come to mind: actors who pretty much established their on-screen reputations on the back of a horse with a six-shooter in their hand. Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Sterling Hayden... the list is extensive, because for a few decades there the western was one of the most commercially successful film genres there was. The actor who fascinates me the most from American westerns is Glenn Ford. Time doesn't seem to have remembered Ford. Movie-goers of my generation seem to remember him solely as Jonathan Kent in Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie. Movie-goers of more recent generations don't seem to know him at all.

That's a shame, because he's an outstanding lead in pretty much every western he made. Eastwood made an impact with his steely resolve and narrow eyes. Wayne found his audience as an everyperson with an easygoing, drawling kind of attitude. Ford seemed to excel at playing the walking wounded: cowboys who, either through life or misadventure, had come to the screen with emotional scars. He's the weary and reluctant hero, who doesn't want to pull his gun but knows he's going to have to. (The one key exception is 3:10 to Yuma, where he's deliberately cast against type.)

Robin of Sherwood: "Seven Poor Knights from Acre"

It's 12 May 1984, and time for Robin of Sherwood.

Shortly after an encounter with a wandering thief in the forest, Robin Hood (Michael Praed) and his band of outlaws are attacked by a group of seven knights on horseback. Friar Tuck (Phil Rose) identifies them as members of the Knights Templar: religious zealots best known for mass murders in the Middle East. When the Templars successfully capture Much (Peter Llewelyn Williams) Robin is forced to negotiate and retrieve their stolen religious icon.

Like "The Witch of Elsdon", "Seven Poor Knights from Acre" feels as if it's been pitched at a slightly younger audience that the opening two-parter. I suspect it's all a part of the series attempting to find its feet. Here we've got a fairly simplistic story, but unlike "Elsdon" it's a story that still feels rather entertaining and is certainly much better told.

May 13, 2015

The Pull List: Batman #40

After a two-week delay I finally have a copy of Batman #40 in my hands and, since it's a pretty significant issue in terms of the current storyline, I figured it was worth reviewing it in its own blog post. So here it is: the final instalment of writer Scott Snyder and artists Greg Capullo and Danny Miki's "Endgame" story arc. The Joker has returned, not to taunt Batman but to kill him, and the issue begins with all of Gotham in chaos, half its people infected with a psychotic gas, and the combined villains of the city all teamed up behind Batman to finally bring him down. No pressure.

The issue is split pretty neatly into two halves. Firstly there's the fight on the streets, where the Joker appears to get the upper hand - until he discovers it's all been a ruse. It's Dick Grayson in the Batsuit, and the real Batman is deep in the cave system beneath Gotham looking for the unexplained pool of healing liquid that can cure the entire city.

Of course as soon as he realises he's been fooled, the Joker's down in the caves as well, and once he confronts Batman the issue's main sequence kicks into gear.

The Pull List: 13 May 2015, Part I

IDW really haven't wasted time in releasing another lengthy issue of Uncle Scrooge. It remains tremendously good value for money, with each issue containing three stories translated from the popular European comic books. I'm not quite sure why Disney's characters have remained so popular in Europe over the decades - they've pretty much never been out of print, with new storylines published all the time. It's nice to finally see some of them come out in English. This month's stories were originally published in the Netherlands.

The lead storyline, which sees Uncle Scrooge and his nephews kidnapped by a ghostly pirate ship, is broadly entertaining, but a few pop culture reference stick out a bit too obviously and the tone of the piece is a little inconsistent. Still, it's nicely illustrated with clean panel layouts, and I suspect its target market will enjoy it all the same.

I actually preferred the third storyline (the second's basically a one-page gag), in which a crashed meteorite makes everyone who gets close to it fall under its charms. It has the consistency of tone that the first storyline lacked.

IDW are going to town with these Disney reprint books, with a Donald Duck comic starting this month and a Mickey Mouse one coming in June. As far as I'm concerned, the more children's comics on the market the better. Kids, kids at heart, and Disney enthusiasts are all going to have a blast. (3/5)
IDW. Written by Jan Kruse, Bruno Sarda, Frank Jonker and Paul Hoogma. Art by Bas Heymans, Andrea Frerreco and Maximo Tortajada Aguilar. Colours by Sanoma with Tom B. Long, and Disney Italia with David Gerstein.
Under the cut: reviews of Imperium, Star Trek, Unity, X-O Manowar and Zombies vs Robots.

Gatchaman Crowds: "Crowds"

In episode 10 of Gatchaman Crowds Katze sends the Crowds after Japan's Prime Minister, forcing the Gatchaman team to return to action to prevent mass casualties as the Crowds tear Tachikawa apart. It's basically the episode I expected last time, with climactic action sequences, high stakes and a real push forwards in terms of story.

It's great action too, as we finally get the entire Gatchaman team together and transformed, and engaging in the sort of pitched battle most of the audience expected from episode one. Even Joe is back, in one of the episode's strongest moments as words of encouragement from Sugane finally prompt him to have more faith in himself and to return to duty. Also back in action is Paiman, who's provoked into fighting when the kindergarten from a few episodes back in threatened with harm. These sorts of character moments act as wonderful pay-offs for some of the series' more quiet episodes, and it's hard not to get swept up in the enthusiasm.

May 12, 2015

Doctor Who: "Strangers in Space"

It's 20 June 1964, and time for more Doctor Who.

The TARDIS arrives on a human space vessel in the 28th century. Its crew are trapped in a sort of suspended animation, with the vessel held in orbit around the planet Sense-Sphere by the mysterious and mind-controlling Sensorites. When an unknown force steals the lock from the TARDIS door, the Doctor and his companions are trapped on the vessel as well.

With "The Sensorites", Doctor Who begins its seventh serial. The series so far has bounced from science fiction stories to historical ones and back again. "The Keys of Marinus" was followed by the historical "The Aztecs", so it's not a surprise to see the series bounce back again to the far future, and the orbit of a new alien world. The difference this time is that humans are there too. There weren't any in "Marinus" or "The Daleks", so in many respects this story of future humans under attack from aliens is the beginning of one of Doctor Who's oldest story tropes.

The Deadly Trap (1971)

Jill (Faye Dunaway) cares for her two children while her talented scientist husband Philippe (Frank Langella) works in Paris. Jill's memory is slipping and Philippe is growing concerned with her increasingly tenuous grip on reality. Then a former employer makes threatening overtures for Philippe to return to their employ, and their children both go missing.

The Deadly Trap (originally titled La Maison sous les arbres) is a 1971 French thriller directed by René Clément. Clément was for a time a major creative force in French cinema, but as was often the case his star faded as audience tastes changed. By the time of The Deadly Trap's production he was very much at the tail end of his career. Certainly this film - which is almost exclusively performed in English - doesn't indicate much to suggest that Clément was a significant auteur of French film. It's competent, and fairly entertaining, but it lacks the originality or the emotional impact to really linger hard in the memory.

May 11, 2015

Furious Six (2013)

It seems that, by the release of Furious Six in 2013, the Fast and the Furious saga had slipped into a rather comfortable routine: a new film every two years, pushing forward the increasingly soap opera-like narrative each time and also pushing the franchise further and further across sub-genre borders. Not content with their shift from street racing movies to heist flicks, the makers of The Fast and the Furious now expanded their repertoire to include international espionage as well.

Federal agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) needs help tracking down and apprehending the criminal and terrorist Owen Shaw (Luke Evans). To achieve this goal he enlists retired international robber Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), with the promise of a full pardon - not to mention the chance to reunite with Lette Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), Dom's lover who is supposed to be long dead. Cue the entire team getting back together, including ex-FBI agent Brian (Paul Walker), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Han (Sung Kang), Gisele (Gal Gadot) and Tej (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges).

Star Trek: Enterprise: "Babel One"

It's 28 January 2005, and time for Star Trek: Enterprise.

The Enterprise has been sent to escort the Tellarite ambassador to Andoria for a much-needed peace treaty between the two civilizations. While a Tellarite ship appears to destroy an Andorian vessel, all-out war is developing - unless Archer can find the parties responsible.

It was a short break for the series, but it's diving back into three-part serials with "Babel One". "Journey to Babel" was of the most famous episodes of the original Star Trek: it introduced Spock's father Sarek and mother Amanda, as well as both the Andorians and Tellarites. This, therefore, is the prequel. It also brings back the Romulans, last seen anonymously harassing the Enterprise back in Season 2's "Minefield", and now working with a disguised spaceship to stop the Alpha Quadrant races from banding together. This isn't just a return to the three-part stories, then: it's yet another Season 4 continuity porn bonanza.

May 10, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a behemoth of a film: its shadow over the cultural landscape is vast, and for the past two weeks there's been seemingly little else on the pop culture radar. As it's taken me about a fortnight to actually see the film, once again I've coming to it after a lot of the heat has gone. The film has been watched, the fans who love it have praised it, the people who hated it have said their piece, and a noisy minority of people with nothing better to do have all tweeted abuse at writer/director Joss Whedon. To be honest I don't care all that much about the hype, the various online controversies, and the like. I just care about whether or not the film was worth the cost of a movie ticket.

To be honest the answer is yes, but for me it's a qualified yes. Age of Ultron is a bit of a curious mixture, in that to a large extent it gives the audience exactly what it wants, but that it also sacrifices a lot of its own content in order to set up other Marvel Studios productions that are coming down the line. With this kind of over-hyped, bloated studio picture there's always a degree to which one can praise the film purely for telling a coherent story at all, but at the same time I don't think it's unfair to argue that Joss Whedon has not written the best possible screenplay with the ingredients made available to him. The short review, for those who don't want to be spoiled by any kind of in-depth analysis and fussy complaint, is that if you liked The Avengers then you will almost certainly like Age of Ultron. Just don't expect it to be the best film you've ever seen, or indeed the best Marvel Studios film.

May 7, 2015

The Pull List: 6 May 2015

Swings and roundabouts: issues of The Fuse and Daredevil that I intended to review last week have turned up. The latest issue of The Wicked + the Divine, which I intended to reviews this week, has not. My copy of Batman #40 is still lost somewhere, so I'll get to that whenever and however it arrives. In the meantime, let's check out the latest issue of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee's Daredevil.

So in issue #15, Daredevil has been forced to team up with the daughter of one of his enemies - the Owl - to rescue that super-villain from a vigilante hero - the Shroud - that he thought was his ally. Then things go from bad to worse, and by the end of these 20 pages careers are ruined, allegiances have shifted, and the mother of all unexpected cliffhangers arrives to smack the reader in the face.

I honestly think that Mark Waid's run on Daredevil has been pretty much the best run the character has ever had. I know many readers have enormous affection for the iconic Miller and Mazzucchelli run - and rightly so - but this has simply been an outstanding and consistent string of storylines over two volumes and about 50 issues. Waid has never cheated his audience, and every time he's pulled the rug out from underneath it's immediately been accompanied by the simultaneous head-slapping of thousands of readers who should have seen it coming but didn't, because his writing has been so effective and well-structured.

Chris Samnee's artwork is a marvel as well (no pun intended). It's so simple and clean, with outstanding panel layouts: crisp and clear when they need to be, immerse and complex when that would suit the story better. This is the final story arc for Waid and Samnee, and they're going out all guns blazing. I'm really going to miss this comic when it ends. (5/5)

Daredevil #15. Marvel. Written by Mark Waid. Art by Chris Samnee. Colours by Matthew Wilson.

Under the cut: reviews of Dead Drop, Descender, The Fuse, Halogen, and Samurai Jack.

Doctor Who: "The Day of Darkness"

It's 13 June 1964, and time for Doctor Who.

Time is running out for the Doctor and his companions to escape Aztec-era Mexico. Ian has been trapped inside a secret tunnel to Yetaxa's tomb, which is rapidly filling with water. Barbara's conflict with Tlotoxl is reaching breaking point. The solar eclipse - and Tlotoxl's planned human sacrifice - moves ever-closer.

This is such a fascinating climax, and it's a striking one in comparison to the rest of the series so far. It's striking because there isn't really a winner. Barbara doesn't get to turn the Aztecs away from human sacrifice. The Doctor falls in love but leaves his fiancee behind. Ian is forced to kill a man. The high priest of knowledge, Autloc, has his world view shattered and abandons his post, his religion and his home. Tlotoxl is the closest thing to a winner: does get to sacrifice someone, but at the same time he doesn't get to destroy Barbara as he's been planning for four episodes.

May 6, 2015

Chef (2014)

I've always rather liked Jon Favreau. He's what Hollywood types tend to refer to as a 'multi-hyphenate', in that he's often a writer-producer, or actor-director. He kickstarted his career with the low-budget comedy Swingers (1996), in which he both wrote and starred, before graduating to directing with his 2001 film Made. From there he jumped to larger and larger projects starting with Elf (2003), then Zathura (2005), and finally the mainstream Hollywood blockbusters Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010) and Cowboys and Aliens (2011).

His 2014 film Chef sees him deliberately pull back, presenting a relatively small-scale comedic drama without visual effects or over-the-top bombast. Instead it's a film about characters, and making food. Once he again he performs multiple roles: in this case writing the film, playing the lead role, directing it and co-producing, all at the same. He's done a great job on all four fronts.

Gatchaman Crowds: "Forgery"

Hajime takes Rui to her apartment to get healed by Utsutsu. Together they broadcast over the Internet to apologise for Rui's use of the CROWDS and to promise that the Gatchaman will defeat Katze. Katze, meanwhile, gives Galax's most dangerous users full access to CROWDS and sends them on a destructive rampage through Tokyo's government buildings. Sugane confronts JJ, and with the rest of the Gatchaman behind him informs their one-time leader that his prophecies will no longer be required.

Episode nine of Gatchaman Crowds is messy, unfocused, and for the most part a relatively boring affair. It's as if a certain amount of plot needed to be progressed, and so rather than create a single streamlined story the episode simply pushes a couple of separate elements forward one by one. After the strong momentum of recent episodes it's a remarkable disappointment.

May 5, 2015

Fast Five (2011)

If Fast & Furious represented an unexpected jump in quality from the original The Fast and the Furious, then Fast Five represents an unexpected jump again: this is a tremendously fun movie packed with appealing actors, entertaining action scenes and ridiculous over-the-top stunts. In many respects it's critic-proof: sure the characters may lack realism and often depth, but they do what they're designed to do and they do it in the fastest, most destructive way imaginable. It really is one of those cases where finding the film wanting is likely due to coming to it with the wrong expectations, rather than any fault in Justin Lin's film itself.

After breaking Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) from a prison transport, former FBI agent Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) and Dom's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) now join him on the run in South America. While holed up in Rio they take a robbery job to get some badly-needed cash, only to wind up lied to and betrayed by the city's most powerful gangster. While they plan their revenge against him - not to mention the biggest robbery of their lives - they also find themselves hunted down by a US federal agent (Dwayne Johnson) sent to capture them.

Doctor Who: "The Bride of Sacrifice"

It's 6 June 1964, and time for Doctor Who.

I last reviewed an episode of Doctor Who some time ago, so let's quickly recap. The TARDIS has materialised inside an Aztec tomb. When the Doctor and his companion exit the tomb, not only do they discover it was a one-way door with no apparent means of re-entry but Barbara is mistaken for the reincarnation of the goddess Yetaxa. While Barbara uses her position of power to attempt to dissuade the Aztecs from human sacrifice, the Doctor works to discover a way back inside the tomb so that they may escape.

"The Bride of Sacrifice" is the third part of "The Aztecs". The episode's title refers to the Doctor's granddaughter Susan. Since the high priest of sacrifice Tlotoxl cannot get to Barbara directly - he does not believe she is the goddess she claims to be - he strikes at the next-best target: Susan. Not only does he arrange for her to marry the appointed human sacrifice, but he manipulates Barbara into agreeing to have her brutally punished once she refuses the honour. Barbara, of course, reneges on the agreement the moment she realises what has happened, and this further weakens her status with the other high priest, Autloc.

May 4, 2015

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a hugely unexpected movie for me. I had been anticipating a complete disaster - Planet of the Apes was a great concept in the late 1960s, but Tim Burton's 2000 remake had seemed to demonstrate pretty conclusively that the concept didn't work in a contemporary film context. Too silly. Too easy to ridicule. Then along came Rupert Wyatt's film, which took an unexpectedly realistic approach to the idea, and I was pretty conclusively proven wrong. That film ended in a wonderfully open fashion as well, as a deadly influenza strain bred in a San Francisco laboratory started to spread across the world killing most human life as it went.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Cloverfield's Matt Reeves, picks up the story 10 years later. A small community of humans remain holed up in what's left of San Francisco. In the nearby redwood forests a parallel community of mutated, highly intelligent apes have formed their own primitive society. When a group of humans track into the woods in an attempt to restart a hydro-electric power station, these two communities collide with disastrous consequences.

Robin of Sherwood: "The Witch of Elsdon"

It's 5 May 1984, and time for Robin of Sherwood.

In the Nottinghamshire village of Elsdon, an innocent woman named Jennet (Angharad Rees) is falsely convicted of witchcraft. To earn her freedom, she agrees to help lay a trap for Robin Hood (Michael Praed) and poison his entire band of outlaws.

As Robin himself tends to say, 'nothing lasts forever'. That includes the quality of the series it seems, as things take an unexpected but definite nose-dive with this third episode. Subtlety is gone, depth has left the building, and what's left is some pretty tedious one-dimensional characterisation. Will Scarlet (Ray Winstone) is particularly ill-served by the script, which takes his character from aggressive attitudes and violent tendencies to puppy-dog eyes without any sort of proper justification.

May 3, 2015

White Mane (1953)

Albert Lamorisse was a French filmmaker who all-but guaranteed his place in film history with his 1957 short children's feature The Red Balloon, which was awarded the Palme d'Or at Cannes. He was also, by the by, the inventor of the popular board game Risk. Less famous than those two cultural artefacts is his 1953 short feature White Mane, which predates The Red Balloon by four years but which already demonstrated a remarkable filmmaking talent and which still stands up as a wonderfully entertaining film today.

White Mane is set in the salt marshes of Carmague, France, where a group of ranchers attempt to corral a band of wild horses. One horse, a particularly wilful stallion named White Mane, constantly escapes them. While they continue to chase the horse down, it befriends a 12 year-old boy named Folco who works as a fisherman through the marshes. The boy and the horse bond as they escape the increasingly desperate ranchers.

Fast & Furious (2009)

The Fast and the Furious was a weak action film that broadly plagiarised Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break by simply replacing surfboards with cars and Patrick Swayze with Vin Diesel. It was a moderate hit back in 2001, and its success led to an even less accomplished sequel: 2 Fast 2 Furious. That film kept co-star Paul Walker but lost Diesel. The third film, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, pretty much lost everything bar the basic concept of illegal street racing. That's the point at which I tapped out, and left the franchise to do its thing without me.

Then I started hearing genuinely surprising things about the subsequent movies: that the unexpected fourth film, that reunited Walker and Diesel, was actually pretty good, and that from the fifth film onwards it had somehow metamorphosed into one of Hollywood's most entertaining action franchises. Given the fairly lacklustre experience of the first three films I was never in a particular hurry to find out if this buzz was accurate, but with the runaway box office performance of Fast & Furious 7 I finally decided to rent the previous three films and check them out for myself.

May 2, 2015

Blake's 7: "Orac"

It's 27 March 1978, and time for the season finale of Blake's 7.

Both Blake and Servalan travel to the distant planet of Aristo to capture "Orac", the mysterious technology for which the Federation will pay one hundred million credits. For Blake the mission becomes even more urgent: after their time on the radioactive surface of Cephlon his crew urgently need anti-radiation drugs to survive. Either the elusive inventor Ensor will provide them, or Blake's crusade ends here.

After being teased very effectively during the previous episode, Orac turns out to be a computer. Not simply any computer, however, but the master computer - one capable of hacking into and controlling pretty much every other computer in existence and exploiting its information. It also talks, and from here onwards becomes the final regular member of Blake's crew. When viewed today, it's a fairly ridiculous contraption made from perspex and Christmas lights. When viewed as a child, I thought it was one of the most wondrous technological inventions ever. I have so much nostalgia invested in this series that it's hard not to get excited when one of the more iconic elements of the series finally arrives.

Star Trek: Enterprise: "Observer Effect"

It's 21 January 2005, and time for more Star Trek: Enterprise.

Commander Tucker (Connor Trinneer) and Ensign Sato (Linda Park) return from an away mission suffering from an unexplained alien infection. While Dr Phlox (John Billingsley) races to save their lives, the crew's action are observed by a pair of non-corporeal life forms capable of possessing and controlling anybody on the ship.

After so many disappointing hours of television in Season 4, "Observer Effect" comes as a tremendous relief. Here's an episode that is well performed, tightly written and dramatic, that manages to play with old Star Trek continuity in an interesting fashion, and which doesn't feel shoe-horned in or weirdly disrespectful to the franchise's past. This is also entirely achieved without building a single new set, or hiring a single actor outside of the regular cast. That's actually a rather impressive achievement.

May 1, 2015

The Heat (2013)

Straight-laced FBI special agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is dispatched to Boston to track down an elusive drug kingpin, and immediately butts heads with scrappy, unconventional police detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy). Together they must put aside their differences to crack the case, and so on and so forth. You really don't need a synopsis for this stuff.

Reviewing this kind of mainstream Hollywood comedy is always a tricky exercise, since the level to which you're likely to enjoy this film is conditional on several factors. Do you like this style of comedy? Do you like the two lead actors? Do you enjoy films produced within a fairly tight, traditional genre formula, or do you favour comedies that move out of that comfort zone and provide something genuine fresh and original?

There's no real originality to be found in The Heat. It is, for all intents and purposes, Neil Simon's The Odd Couple re-fashioned to be about police detectives. That it seems fresher than it is is largely down to director Paul Feig's casting of the two leads with women rather than men, which seems to be the general default for Hollywood productions of this kind.

The Pull List: 29 April 2015, Part II

My local comic shop suffered a highly unfortunate ship-pocalypse this week, with a large part of their comics order going AWOL somewhere between the USA and Australia. As a result I can't bring you my planned reviews of Batman, Daredevil, Silver Surfer or The Fuse. Let's keep going with what we have left starting with Image's new monthly series Pisces, from Rat Queens creator Kurtis J. Weibe.

Those trying this new book out based purely on Rat Queens are likely in for a shock. This isn't a comedic title like that one, It doesn't boast a female cast like that one either. It's also a slightly maddening experience: I enjoyed this first issue a hell of a lot, and it's definitely got me hooked into reading the second, but I couldn't actually tell you what the book is about.

We start with a man in a car, cut up and bleeding. He arrives at the hospital, and is confronted by another man. Just when we might be getting a handle on what's going on the comic shifts. Now we're in Vietnam during the war. By the time we get to grips with this aspect of the storyline, it shifts somewhere else entirely.

It's intriguing stuff, and it's well illustrated by Johnny Christmas with a style slightly reminiscent of Eduardo Risso. As a first issue of a comic, however? I'm not quite certain it works. I liked what I read a hell of a lot. I can imagine a lot of other readers getting frustrated. (4/5)

Pisces #1. Image. Written by Kurtis J. Weibe. Art by Johnny Christmas. Colours by Tamra Bonvillain.

Under the cut: reviews of He-Man, Knights, Multiversity and Plunder.