Friday, 10 April 2015

Gatchaman | review by Jacob Edwards

The tokenism of casting a bat (and batted eyelids) amongst the pigeons.

Anime pioneer Tatsuo Yoshida’s Science Ninja Team Gatchaman has gone through several permutations since the seminal television series of 1972, perhaps foremost of which is the fondly remembered English-language adaptation Battle of the Planets (1978). Gatchaman / Battle of the Planets centres around five orphans – Ken (Mark), Jun (Princess), Ryū (Tiny), Jinpei (Keyop) and Jō (Jason) – whose bird-themed ninja superpowers and techno-wizardry enable them to stand against the evil forces of Galactor (Spectra). Imagi Animation Studios (which released Astro Boy in 2009) began work on a Gatchaman feature film in 2004, but the project stalled, languished and eventually was cancelled in 2011. Gatchaman then rose again as a live action movie directed by Toya Sato and released by Nikkatsu Studios in 2013.

Back in 1978, cuts and voiceovers were used to make the American-tailored Battle of the Planets more children-orientated than the original serial, the main differences being less violence, fewer human casualties, no references to transgenderism, and the rather upbeat replacement of environmentally conscienceless corporate villains with a more SF-generic alien foe. Thirty-five years on, the live action incarnation of Gatchaman serves as something of a prequel, not only restoring much of what was lost to English translation (Berg Katse’s hermaphroditic shifts, for instance) but also fleshing out the backstory of Ken and Jō’s strained relationship. Oddly enough, given that Battle of the Planets twisted its reworking partly so as to cash in on the Star Wars phenomenon of the late 1970s, Gatchaman also now genuflects to George Lucas, postulating a yin-yang relationship between Galactor’s and Ninja Team Gatchaman’s powers, and even culminating in a fluorescent pastiche of the lightsaber duel from The Empire Strikes Back. Notwithstanding such concessions, much of Yoshida’s founding premise remains, albeit somewhat revamped and elevated to the brash absurdities of the big screen.

The Japanese film industry has a special term – tokusatsu – for works that make extensive use of special effects. Cultural nuance renders the word closer to Hollywood’s blockbuster than to the more British utter codswallop, but anyone who’s seen Man of Steel (2013) will doubtless have suffered through the gist. Clocking in at 110 minutes, Gatchaman has more than enough bouncing-off-buildings and faster-than-the-eye-can-follow fight sequences to tick off those viewers who weigh their lives by number of hours invested and pointlessly lost; yet, such is the speed disparity between the movie’s live action and animated sequences, that the blur becomes at times quaintly cartoonish, as if the feature film format were being used not to break but rather to recreate the constraints of its forerunner. Harking back to and elevating the action components of 1972’s Science Ninja Team Gatchaman may seem at once questionable yet strangely in keeping with the cinematic zeitgeist of the 21st century, but then again there can be little doubt that 2013’s Gatchaman has been realised at least in part as a new-age kitsch homage.

Certainly, this is the case when we see the prototype Phoenix (G-Force’s distinctive supersonic plane) launch belatedly upon its maiden flight, and then again when it turns fiery, the dramatic pre-eminence of these events clearly playing more to notions of audience nostalgia than to their function within the film. As per the television series, music is employed to rousing effect in underscoring such iconic themes, but Toya Sato and writer Yusuke Watanabe also use it to cheat their way out of attention to scripting, manipulating the audience so as to cover up (or indeed barefacedly create drama from) some conspicuously nude plot points. One brazen example of this is when Ken and Jun must infiltrate a high-security masquerade, Jinpei scrambling desperately to hack the computers and establish forged identities before they reach the checkpoint. It’s undeniably a tense moment, but of course the timing is arbitrary and there was no reason for them to line up before Jinpei had finished his work. The sense of peril is entirely manufactured.

Although its plot is loose, its action cartoon-chaotic and its themes as vague as they are epic, Gatchaman 2013 does in one respect meaningfully elevate itself above the franchise’s small-screen origins of forty years previous. Live action affords, if nothing else, the potential for stronger characterisation, and in the persons of Ken (Tori Matsuzaka) and Jō (Gō Ayano) – and to a lesser extent Ryū (Ryohei Suzuki) and Naomi/Berg Katse (Eriko Hatsune) – that opportunity has been capably seized. Matsuzaka has a real presence. Ayano positively smoulders. Whenever there is (inter)acting to do, rather than racing all about the place, fatuously martial-fartsing, we are given at last a fully rounded sense of what those teeth-grinding, angst-ridden expressions were all about back in the days of hand-drawn emotions. Watanabe’s script, in truth, gives the actors precious little to work with, but Matsuzaka and Ayano nevertheless put in performances well worthy of both 1970s Gatchaman and the dark superhero genre’s broader swathe. It’s just unfortunate that Toya Sato’s modernisation – to give a western comparison – proves rather closer to Michael Bay’s oeuvre of filmmaking than to Christopher Nolan’s.

Possibly the most damning evidence of Gatchaman’s failure to better itself for the big screen and the new millennium, is the mind-blowingly vapid characterisation of Jun (Ayame Gouriki). Granted, the animated Jun/Princess was never much more than a wet handkerchief with which to dab the perspiring foreheads of the male leads, but the Jun of 2013, far from correcting this imbalance, has fallen into a condescension machine and emerged, wide-eyed and pouting, as a perverse archetype of bland, tittering, puerile, hormonal brainlessness. Jinpei (Tatsuomi Hamada) may be the least developed of Ninja Team Gatchaman’s quintet, but whereas he is merely neglected by Sato and Watanabe, Jun has been actively depicted (objectified? fantasised?) as recycled plastic. She is to female dignity and empowerment what Elmo has been to the Muppets, which is more than just a shame; it’s out-and-out shameful.

One advance trailer for the curtailed Imagi Animation production of Gatchaman shows Ken, Jun, Ryū, Jinpei and Jō leaping from a skyscraper and swooping down towards an insectoid death mecha, Jun’s inane little giggle jarring badly with the urgent musical score and the more determined exertions of her fellow ninjas. In another piece of test footage she winches (wenches?) up through a scene of explosions and mayhem, waving coquettishly. Could it be that some quirk of Japanese culture has doomed her character to play the flighty swan and to candy all those action scenes, no matter what form Gatchaman takes? If such is true then it hints at a damning shallowness of artistic vision, and we can only lament that the courageous orphans of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman – and those who shape their adventures – have matured little across forty years. Some fans may rejoice that a feature film treatment of Gatchaman even made it off the ground, but if the 2013 movie soars at all then, sadly, it is to heights not much greater than adolescent wish fulfilment.

“Bird, go!” has always been the command phrase for transforming the Gatchaman team into ninja mode, but in this instance somebody should most definitely have stood up to director Toya Sato and screamed instead, “Bird, no!”

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

It Follows reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

Controlled study in terror rebels against contemporary horror tropes, explores teenage sexuality and parental influence

The image of Halloween’s (1978) Michael Myers, with his impenetrable motives and his patient pursuit of his single-minded purpose (to kill), has embedded itself in the horror aficionado’s consciousness. There is something quite unsettling about an impending threat that can’t be reasoned with. Clearly John Carpenter’s iconic film has influenced writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, which exploits this strategy of approaching doom, coupled with creepy audio and smart filming techniques, to deliver an atmospheric masterpiece in which everything, from the proliferation of soda cans to the pronounced lapping of waves, is rich in implication.

Jay Height (Maika Monroe) is a somewhat woolly-headed teen who likes to lounge in her pool and gaze up at the sky. After she consummates a budding relationship with Hugh, her life takes a turn for the much worse: Hugh passes on a sexually transmitted ghost – can we call that an STG? – that assumes a human form. The ghost pursues the latest person to contract the curse with a Michael Myersesque determination. “It could look like someone you know,” says Hugh, “or it could be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you.”

The infected person can divert “It” by sleeping with someone else. However, once it kills the newly infected person, the force moves to the previous person in the chain. Thus Jay is fraught with challenges regarding not only how to evade the pursuer, but also whether and to whom she should pass on the curse. Neighbourhood heartthrob Greg Hannigan? Awkward long-time family friend Paul? Total strangers?

The Fears of Height
It Follows evades the gore, pop-out scares, and petty squabbles of the typical horror film that has a teenage cast. Its believably lethargic teens engage in mundane activities (e.g. sitting on a swing, watching an old sci-fi film, lounging on a beach, playing old maid), yet through all of these ostensibly benign scenes lurks the threat.

In one early scene, Jay’s professor reads an extended passage from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – the film uses several direct literary quotes – while the camera does a 360 degree pan. It starts with a view outside showing a distant figure (who doesn’t quite fit with the other students) walking unsteadily toward the classroom. The camera then slowly pans around the classroom, giving the viewer time to question what he or she saw outside, before the view returns to the courtyard to reveal the figure has come closer.

This isn’t the only time Mitchell uses the 360 degree pan. The technique sucks Jay Height and the filmgoer down the drain of this nightmare, and creates a boxed-in feeling: no matter which way you turn, you can’t escape this ghost.

The use of sound also distinguishes It Follows. This includes the eighties-style synthesizer-heavy tunes of Disasterpeace’s soundtrack and the unnerving repetition of sounds (e.g. swing set creaking, waves lapping) amongst otherwise quiet settings.

Additionally, though filmed in Detroit, It Follows really takes place in an unknown place, at a time that’s hard to pin down. What are we to make of the odd clothing, the dated automobile, and the old television sets despite the present day feel of the film? Why does Jay’s friend Yara, with her seventies-style glasses, read Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot on a shell-shaped e-reader?

Surfaces and Layers
Mitchell seems obsessed with liquids in this film. Jay and company are often near water sources and/or drinking from aluminum cans. Perhaps this is Mitchell’s way of challenging us to look below the surface. Yes, It Follows is about a supernatural predator, but it also explores sexual-related repercussions, whether they be STDs or emotional turmoil. In other words, it follows.

Adult figures are conspicuously absent in this film, which challenges the viewer to consider how parents’ presence (or lack thereof) in their teens’ lives impacts teenage sexual decisions.

The film evokes other questions, the answers to which are beyond the scope of this review. For instance, why is the human form that the ghost adopts often fully or partially exposed? Also, why does the ghost sometimes choose a guise that resembles characters’ parents?

What Mitchell has achieved with It Follows is a sense of dread that lingers from the strange opening sequence that reveals what “It” is capable of, to the equally disturbing conclusion. See this film, but expect it to follow you long after you’ve left the theatre. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Friday, 3 April 2015

The X-Files: Season 10, Vol. 1 by Joe Harris and friends | review by Stephen Theaker

The X-Files: Season 10, Vol. 1 by Joe Harris, Carlos Valenzuela and Michael Walsh (IDW, tpb, 138pp) tries to follow the example of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8 in providing the comics continuation of a beloved and much-missed television series. Unlike Buffy, Mulder (as played by David Duchovny, until recently shedding his trousers twelve weeks a year on Californication) and Scully (Gillian Anderson, last seen on Hannibal and the BBC) had pretty much given up the fight by the time their series ended, their replacements Doggett (Robert Patrick) and Reyes (Annabeth Gish) taking the limelight up until the originals returned for the disappointingly low-key second feature film.

All four feature in this series, as do other favourites like Skinner, the [redacted] and the [redacted], but Mulder and Scully are the stars. They’re still a couple, still retired from the FBI, but living under assumed names, Scully working as a doctor. The plot follows on from the final episodes of the TV series, which tried to link the cyborg assassin storyline of the later seasons with the alien invasion story that drove its glory days. A group of mysterious types with glowing eyes want to prepare the way for the alien colonisation of Earth to finally go ahead, and for that they need Mulder and Scully’s magical baby William.

I wish I could say it’s fantastic. I really wanted it to be, because I do miss these characters and at its best The X-Files could be magnificent. But this book’s just okay, about on the level of the old Topps series. The sketchy artwork tells the story clearly and does a fair job of capturing likenesses without conveying the eerie atmosphere of the programme – Mulder and Scully fill the frame like superheroes. The story covers all the right territory, but not enough of it is new. If Mulder and Scully ever return to television, you’d be surprised if this story was considered canonical. Readable – for fans, anyway – without being essential. ***

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Insurgent | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Heroine keeps fighting the system in slightly soppy, though ultimately triumphant sequel

In Divergent (2014), Beatrice “Tris” Prior and love interest Four put a dent in the Erudite/Dauntless alliance (between those who value knowledge above all else, and those who value bravery above all else) aimed at seizing control of a future Chicago whose inhabitants are divided into factions.

This time, Insurgent, directed by Robert Schwentke, has the duo on the run from the mental giants at Erudite and the Dauntless goons that they employ.

Tris, distraught by major losses, does what rebellious teenage girls have been doing for years: she chops off her long hair. Perhaps this is a way to shed her grief or redefine herself (or distinguish herself from rival dystopian blockbuster heroine Katniss Everdeen). Then the girl with a boy’s hairdo undergoes a series of trials that will shed more light on what she and her Divergent label mean to the future of this world.

Tris and Four undertake a journey that allows the viewer to experience the different factions: the glass dome, green roofs, and farms of the hippie-like Amity; the austere concrete headquarters of the always truthful Candor; and the gleaming white tower in which the Erudite scheme. Insurgent also introduces the lair of the punk rockeresque Factionless, those who are not compatible with any faction and who seek to destroy the existing system to establish a new society.

The film’s makers took a great deal of liberty in manipulating the novel (by Chicagoan Veronica Roth) that inspired it. Characters and major scenes are cut, goals and obstacles are simplified, and key concepts are reimagined. Sure… purists will gripe at such slicing and dicing. However, this film is an entertaining sequel that at its worst resembles a soap opera, but at its best stuns the viewer with breathtakingly technologically indulgent action sequences.

It even treats the viewer to a couple of highly entertaining minor characters. There’s the hulking, zero-conscience Dauntless army leader Eric, who looks prepped for an Ultimate Fighting Championship match. Then there’s the self-serving smart aleck Peter, played by Miles Teller, star of the Oscar-nominated Whiplash (2014). Both Eric and Peter have a knack for pushing Tris’s buttons, and push they do.

The standouts in Insurgent are Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Erudite mastermind Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet).

As in Divergent, Woodley proves her ability to convey emotion. Look to the trial scene at Candor headquarters, where Tris is injected with a truth serum. Feel the pain as she struggles to hold back a secret that wracks her with guilt and that will hurt one of the onlookers.

Equally engaging is Winslet’s Jeanine Matthews. Veronica Roth’s villain isn’t very fleshed out: Matthews has no redeeming qualities and no backstory. Considering that Winslet doesn’t have a lot to work with, she does a fine job portraying a character that, in a less capable actor’s hands, might have been staid (e.g. the antagonist in The Host (2013)) or even overblown.

Everything about Matthews is severe: her pulled back hairstyle, her tight blue dress, her economy of movement, her affectless expressions. Whereas Tris is the girl-boy, Matthews is determinedly adult, an undiluted dark monarch who threatens to annihilate those who would bring change to the rigid systems that have been imposed on this society.

In one of the film’s most blatant departures from the novel, the filmmakers put the mystery on which this story hangs front and center in the form of a metallic capsule. Each side of the pentagon contains a faction logo. It sits in a closely monitored room in the Erudite headquarters. Nobody knows what’s in the capsule, but it has to be important!

Matthews rounds up those with the highest levels of divergence because the capsule can only be opened when a Divergent passes simulation tests for all five factions. When a test is passed, the corresponding symbol on the capsule illuminates (it must be Wi-Fi compatible). Subjects are attached to snake-like wires that descend from the ceiling, inject substances, and then suspend them in a kind of zero-gravity acid trip. The problem is that a failed simulation means death for the subject.

This capsule is a major simplification of what happens in the book, but it works. Similar to the Tesseract in The Avengers (2012), it’s as if the filmmakers are saying to characters and the audience, “Here you go… this is what the protagonist needs to open.”

There is a term in food industry jargon called “bliss point”. It has to do with the amount of unhealthy ingredients (i.e., salt, sugar, fat) needed to maximise taste.

During Tris’s Dauntless simulation, Insurgent achieves a kind of cinematic bliss point. In this technology- and drug-induced sequence, Tris attempts to save a departed loved one in a burning, crumbling house that floats over a city. The scene contains many elements (e.g. dream, intense special effects, damsel in distress) that would make most critics scoff, but to those of us willing to let go, this unapologetic immersion into Hollywood extravagance makes the film worth seeing in the cinema. Legolas would be proud!

The scene also makes up for Insurgent’s shortcomings, namely too many lovey-dovey scenes, too much dull table talk, and the lackluster personality of Four. When it comes to love, perhaps Tris is a little more certain of her soul mate than Katniss Everdeen or Bella Swan. Great in real life. Boring in film and fiction.

“Defy reality.” Such is the challenge that Insurgent advertisements pose to the filmgoer. The film, with its simulations, strong polarization between good and evil, and contrasting factions, lives up to its promise and keeps the fictional dream alive. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Read Douglas’s review of Divergent.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Megalex: The Complete Story by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Fred Beltran | review by Stephen Theaker

Megalex: The Complete Story (Humanoids), by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Fred Beltran, takes us to a world where the rich literally bathe in the blood of the hoi polloi, the clones who gather for their appointment with death at the age of forty. The children left behind are told to watch out for the magical food parcels that fall from the sky. The ruling family are an ancient wizened magican, his sorceress wife, and their vampire daughter. Only two parts of the world escape their dominion: the haunted forest and the deadly sea.

This bizarre world is of course ripe for disruption, and it comes in the gangly form of an overgrown clone soldier who escapes his routine termination and meets up with an improbably and presumably uncomfortably buxom member of the revolution. She’ll take him to their leader, get him trained up, and maybe even give him a nice cuddle if he’s a good boy.

The writer is Alexandro Jodorowsky, and it’s as wild and woolly as anyone who has read The Incal or The Metabarons would expect. His work for French publishers is much more mystical than we’re used to seeing in science fiction, his science fiction following the logic of dreams instead of the rules of physics. This collects all three volumes of the story, a fairly short run for a French graphic novel series, and there is definitely a sense of things being wrapped up swiftly in the latter third.

The art style changes too, moving from computer-generated to hand-drawn backgrounds and objects, though it’s quite possible I wouldn’t have noticed if the artist Fred Beltran hadn’t brought it up in the introduction. ***

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Available for pre-order: Space University Trent: Hyperparasite by Walt Brunston

Now available for pre-order, the first ebook novella from Theaker's Paperback Library. It's a reprint of Walt Brunston's Space University Trent: Hyperparasite, his adaptation of the classic (but rarely seen) television episode, which first appeared in TQF13. It'll be out on April 30.

In this short novella Mack Hardiman leads the spacefaring university's investigation into a lost colony on the world Adontis. The ebook also includes an introduction to this much-loved show and, for reference, a complete list of its episodes.

It's Kindle-only for the time being. Just 99p in the UK.

Amazon UK | Amazon US | Amazon DE

Friday, 20 March 2015

In the Broken Birdcage of Kathleen Fair by Cate Gardner | review by Stephen Theaker

In the Broken Birdcage of Kathleen Fair (The Alchemy Press, ebook, 784ll) is an interesting novella by Cate Gardner, but the tone is a bit hard to describe. There are horrific elements, but it isn’t really horror. Comic horror fantasy, maybe? Weird fantasy? Kathleen Fair is in a room of objects that are too big for her – like a dressing table stool which comes up to her nose – but this isn’t a new development. She’s been here a while. What’s new is a mirror, through which she sees “a bloodshot eye pressed against the glass, its lashes long and spider-like”, before a man comes through: Frederick Schentenfreude III, who drains people of their scent in order to keep himself young. He will later decide that he wishes to marry Kathleen. She follows him out of the mirror, and sees the body of a boy, Bobby, that Schentenfreude has drained. She makes it her mission to restore him. I found it difficult to get a handle on this story; I’m not sure what it was aiming for, or whether it achieved it, which makes this rather a useless review. But I enjoyed reading it, and look forward to reading more from the same author. ***

Monday, 16 March 2015

Black Gods Kiss by Lavie Tidhar | review by Stephen Theaker

If I were a judge and this were a court and the case were that of Black Gods Kiss by Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing, 184pp), I would have to recuse myself, because by this point I am such a fan of this writer’s work that my impartiality would be in serious doubt. Cloud Permutations, Martian Sands, The Violent Century: each has been remarkable in its very own way. If I were writing a list of my favourite books of the last few years they would all show up on it.

Fortunately this is not a court, not a case, and I am not a judge, and you are quite capable of taking my admiration for this author’s work into account when reading the review.

Perhaps my favourite of his books so far was Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God, to which this is both prequel and sequel. Gorel is an “exile, mercenary, hired killer, thief, and what he liked to think of as odd jobs man”, searching for his home of Goliris, which from the bits we learn about it throughout the book doesn’t sound so great. For example, in a wasteland Gorel asks what caused the desolation: “Only one word was whispered, sometimes, amidst the branches, in the falling of leaves.” Goliris!

In the first story here, “Black Gods Kiss”, Gorel acquires his addiction to the dust of gods. He is hired to kill a goddess, Shar, who has preyed on the men of a village. A kiss from her leaves him craving the essence of the gods. It is how they bind their followers to them, as addicts. This curse is at times of use to Gorel: its hold so tight it shatters illusions, as in “Buried Eyes”, where he encounters a town ruled over by a sorcerer of Goliris.

The third story, “Kur-a-Len”, is the longest, at about seventy-five pages, and is divided into six episodes. Gorel has come to the Garden of Statues, a colossal graveyard where “a thousand thousand graves gleamed as one”, in hope that someone of Goliris may be buried there. In return for the help of the cemetery’s caretaker in finding them, he takes on the role of security guard or sheriff, and must deal with both dead and living troublemakers.

The fourth story is the shortest, “The Dead Leaves”. Gorel takes his guns to kill a man in the Deadlands, paid with god’s dust by a sorcerer who sacrifices his life so that Gorel might rescue his daughter. In the fifth story, “White Queen”, he gets involved in a messed-up version of the Snow White story.

He doesn’t find his way home, not in this book – some say the world he is lost in is infinite – but he finds a few clues, gets his fix, and has a lot of well-written sex. Gorel isn’t picky: gods, queens, ghouls and zombies all get their turn, even though it doesn’t always do the trick: “Sex was sex and it did not fulfil him. Nothing did but the Black Kiss”.

Pot-Bellied God was subtitled a “Guns & Sorcery Novella”, and that’s what this is, classic heroic fantasy with a hero as selfish as Conan, as miserable as Elric and as crafty as the Gray Mouser, but who carries a pair of guns instead of a sword: “fine, hand crafted things, with grips of dark, strong wood and the small, exquisitely wrought silver pattern of a seven-pointed star on each: the ancient sign of Goliris.” There are similarities too with Stephen King’s gunslinger from the Dark Tower: the episode in which that character fought an entire town would have fit into this volume very neatly. If you liked that, you’ll probably enjoy this.

The writing is as good as in Tidhar’s other books, the atmosphere murky and groggy, the language thick and sticky. Gorel swears, which always seems surprising though it shouldn’t. It’s not unusual for dialogue from different characters to appear in the same paragraph, and even in the same sentence – lazy readers should be on their guard. My overwhelming feeling upon reading it is gratitude that such an exceptional writer chooses to write the kind of books I want to read. And if that sounds too gushy, you can’t say you weren’t warned! *****

Available from PS Publishing.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Invincible, Vol. 17: What’s Happening by Robert Kirkman and friends | review by Stephen Theaker

Invincible, Vol. 17: What’s Happening (Image, ebook) is written by Robert Kirkman, with pencils shared between Ryan Ottley and Cory Walker, who illustrate scenes depending on whether they take place on Earth or in the alternate, quick-time dimension from which the Flaxan Empire launches its regular invasions. The latter are flashbacks, showing us what happened when Monster Girl and Robot were stranded there, explaining their tense relationship and the way that she is now a full-grown woman. (Previous volumes had shown her slowly growing younger the more she used her power to transfer into a huge green monster.) The scenes on Earth show follow the old and new Invincibles. The original Invincible is having trouble with his powers on the blink, the consequences of which are demonstrated in the brilliant shock ending to chapter one. The new Invincible, filling in to keep the Invincible business going, has to fight the alien invaders, though he’s glad for the break from his visiting parents, forever comparing him to the brother whose failings they don’t know. Invincible is always a reliable source of superhero adventure, and volume 17 was no exception. If it felt like a less than weighty read, that might be down to my last reading session on this comic having lasted for about 70 consecutive issues! There’s so much to like here. A universe of heroes that may, for all I know, have their own comics, but if they do there’s nothing here that forces me to read them. It isn’t like DC or Marvel, where endless company-spanning crises leave almost every individual superhero title feeling like a badly cut jigsaw piece. If an infinite crisis or a civil war happens in Invincible’s universe, it’ll happen in his comic. ***

Monday, 9 March 2015

The Lazarus Effect | review by Douglas J. Ogurek


Scientist dies, comes back to life, goes on killing spree. What’s not to like? 

Ever since Dr. Frankenstein stitched together his monster, people have been fascinated with laboratory experiments on humans… especially when it comes to what could go wrong.

The Lazarus Effect, Hollywood’s latest foray into terror via test tube, explores the repercussions of chemical-based human resurrection. Director David Gelb mixes horror, thriller, and sci-fi elements in a film that, though not staggeringly original, holds up as an elixir for the horror devotee.

Zoe (Olivia Wilde), her too-busy-to-marry beau Frank (Mark Duplass), and science geeks Clay and Niko (Evan Peters and Donald Glover) have spent four years tucked away in a university lab. Their research started with a way to temporarily prolong life, but then evolved – maybe devolved is a better word – into the “Lazarus Serum”.

The group first resurrects a dog, but this lab dog is no lap dog. Rocky’s erratic behavior and supercharged brain indicate the Lazarus Serum might be more than what it’s stirred up to be.

A third of the way through the film, a corporation maneuvers a hostile takeover of the research and the lab. The infuriated quartet and videographer Eva sneak into the lab to solidify their claim on first to raise the dead. However, when Zoe flips the power switch, she gets electrocuted and dies. Frank convinces his colleagues to inject the Lazarus Serum into her brain. Not a well-reasoned decision.

Zoe isn’t quite Zoe anymore. The serum has kicked her brain into hyperdrive. As her nightmares of a girl in a burning corridor grow more vivid, Zoe develops a collection of powers straight from the Stephen King compendium: pyrokinesis, telepathy, telekinesis, and precognition, to name a few. Of course all these psychic gifts come with a loss of sanity. Zoe struggles with whether the colleagues she’s locked in the lab want to help her or put her down.

Wilde and Duplass head up a cast of characters whose moderate personalities seem consistent with what one would find in a lab. This lack of eccentricity means more focus on the action. The most energetic scientist is Clay, played by Evan Peters of American Horror Story fame. Peters offers a performance reminiscent of (but by no means as outrageous as) a young Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Dusty Davis in Twister.

Another notable strength of this film is its soundtrack. It starts with the American Horror Story-like opening credits: creepy music accompanies extreme close-ups of threatening-looking elements slithering and coalescing. On several occasions, the viewer is treated to Mozart’s “The Queen of the Night Aria”, which would make watching cell cultures incubate entertaining. During the most intense scenes, a jarring shriek escalates the action in an admirably unsubtle way.

There are masterful lab horror films like The Fly and the less well-known Splice, and there are their deliciously preposterous cousins like I-Frankenstein. The Lazarus Effect falls somewhere in the middle. Though the trailer tries to connect it (by way of producer) to Insidious, The Purge, and Paranormal Activity, The Lazarus Effect is, by comparison, playing in the minor leagues. Still, many love to (and even prefer to) watch those minor leaguers.

The critics blasted The Lazarus Effect with typical complaints: highly derivative, chaotic, an over-qualified cast wasted by an impatient plot. Even the general public has met it with a tepid response.

Nevertheless, there are a few perhaps juvenile viewers who applaud this film, and I, fortunately, count myself among them.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Interstellar | review by Jacob Edwards

A stellar cast, interred amidst the stars.

At almost three hours in length, Christopher Nolan’s epic SF film Interstellar falls roughly into three acts: humanity clinging to life on a dust-ridden, dying Earth; a last-ditch mission to seek out habitable planets through a wormhole in spacetime; and the consequences (small- as much as large-scale) of that mission going awry. Such is the broad progression of plot. In a critical sense, what plays out on screen is a compellingly envisaged scenario that compromises itself in favour of the box office and then descends further still into the warm glow of metaphysics. For all its cinematic excellence, this is the equivalent of Albert Einstein and his conceptual twin brother playing four-dimensional Monopoly and each contriving to make need of a specially tailored get-out-of-jail-free card. It is an engrossing spectacle, to be sure, but a somewhat unsatisfying comedown from what might have been.

In terms of bringing the script to life, Matthew McConaughey leads an outstanding cast performance, the tone of which he sets in the first act alongside charismatic child actress Mackenzie Foy and an effortlessly world-weary John Lithgow. Interstellar is told through unaffected, very human characters, with Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck adding a touch of despair to the grim faces of act two. Michael Caine does what he does, and Anne Hathaway is more Sandra Bullock than Barbarella in taking womankind into space. Even the NASA robots have real personality. The one blemish, it could be argued, is Matt Damon, whose name is to the cast list as the roiling, pestilent blight is to future Earth’s crops, hanging with Damoclean foreboding until his appearance in the third act signals the onset of the apocalypse. Damon is revived as the craven Dr Mann, a minor role in which he can be seen thumbing his nose at those who might question his acting range. Mann’s aura is intentionally jarring, his demeanour scripted to arouse our suspicions; let it be noted, then, that Damon can play an unconvincing character as convincingly as he can a convincing character unconvincingly. His injection into the storyline cuts the hair by which our belief was suspended, and triggers a cinematic cataclysm of untethered action/drama.

Like Gravity before it, Interstellar strives for realism but comes to rely on a manipulation as overt as it is irreconcilable with the story being told. The state of play is signposted at any given moment by Hans Zimmer’s score, the excellence of which is difficult to judge because of its prescriptive and patronising, heavy-handed use of VOLUME. Whoever mixed the film has done Zimmer no favours; nor the actors, who at times have their lines drowned out entirely so that music may be used to prod the audience towards whatever emotional shearing shed Nolan has designated. This bombastic approach becomes more prevalent as the film progresses. By the time the supermassive black hole has selectively extended its gravitational pull to reel in any ship lifting off from Matt Damon’s planet (bypassing the influence of the sun around which that planet orbits), the soundtrack has gone berserk. The effect is not unlike that of an archetypal miscreant whistling in faux innocence to cover up a petty larceny, only in Interstellar’s case this has been amplified to decibels beyond the credulity horizon.

Sometimes a writer will begin with a particular idea, only later to find that the framework they construct to present that notion comes to hold more interest than the premise itself. Given Interstellar’s unimpeachable first act and then the eyebrow-raising liberties taken by the second in reaching the incongruous fanfare of the third, it would be easy to assume this is what happened to Christopher Nolan. The truth, however, is somewhat less flattering. Nolan is credited as having co-written Interstellar with his brother Jonathan, but as it transpires their project was not a genuine collaboration. Jonathan in fact wrote an earlier script by himself, and it was the first third of this that was used as Interstellar’s opening, the remainder being binned so that Christopher had somewhere to affix his own, less grounded story idea. In filmmaking in general and Hollywood in particular, success and failure are relative terms, but whatever the perspective of verdict passed on Interstellar – glass one-third empty or one-third full – there should be little wonder that such a piecemeal, Frankensteinian approach has led to at least some measure of ruinous consequence.

There will be many viewers, of course, who take no issue with Interstellar’s storyline, and indeed who will point to the involvement of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne serving as both scientific consultant and executive producer on the film; instead of taking this legitimising presence with a grain of salt, such people will toss that salt over their shoulders and maintain that Christopher Nolan’s physics are faultless. Well… Yes, clearly a lot of attention was paid to the visual depiction of wormholes, black holes and associated phenomena, but that’s not altogether the same kettle of fish as declaring them scientifically accurate. Metaphysics aside – and the third act of Interstellar surely is no more scientific than Flatliners or What Dreams May Come – we still are left with some decidedly odd compressions of plot-space and plot-time, while the real life effects of time dilation, though soundly based in theory, are applied inconsistently and only when they serve Nolan’s purposes. When they don’t, they are ignored, and in this respect the so-called laws of physics are treated more in the sense of judicial laws than the universally immutable workings of cause and effect. Perhaps to some extent this is unavoidable, for a film without poetic license is liable to be a very dry film indeed. Yet, Christopher Nolan’s two-thirds of the script compounds any affront by falling prey also to an unconscionable compression of characters’ thinking time. Whether or not a story can withstand bad physics, metaphysics or consciously eschewed physics, it really is going beyond the pale to have the protagonists make decisions – choices that speak to the very survival of the species – in less time and with less discussion than most people would need in standing in the dairy section, deciding whether to buy low fat or regular. Drama there must be, but when the milk is spilt and Newton’s apple turns pear-shaped, our heroes’ calamities should move us to something greater than a sardonically muttered, “Whoops.”

Interstellar is by no means a bad film; indeed, its positioning amidst the upper echelons of its cinematic peers might well suggest a manifest disproportion between criticism levelled and criticism warranted. But then again, with Christopher Nolan’s having set his sights on the stars, Interstellar surely could have been a masterpiece (and for an hour or so looked like being just that). The fact that it so poignantly loses its way is in a sense far more distressing than the abject floundering exhibited by its happy-go-hapless Hollywood fellows. Interstellar tantalises, but falls short: not with the high-octane bluster of Evel Knievel but rather the down-to-earth tragedy of a Cape Canaveral launch that, for all its meticulous planning and having just made a successful lift-off, inexplicably then jettisons the wrong rocket segments… and if, further to this, such a mishap should come to form the crux of a closed time loop, then let it be noted that cosmic contrivances are not in all contexts as interesting as Christopher Nolan might have thought. When E.T. phoned home, was he unwittingly calling through time and summoning himself to the rescue? Indeed, no – and let us all join together in extending one long, bony finger at the prospect of a mashup remake in which Drew Barrymore plays her own mother – but with such doomsday scenarios in mind, could it be that Nolan injected Interstellar with a weak dose of glitzy goose so as to immunise it against a fully-fledged bout of Tinseltown turkey later in life? Stranger things have been known to make themselves happen.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Amazon Fire TV | review by Stephen Theaker

The Amazon Fire TV is a nifty little under-set box that connects to the internet and allows you to access various apps and bits and pieces of online content, much like Roku boxes. Its small remote control takes you up and down through the categories – currently including things like Prime Video, Movies, TV, Games, Apps, Music and Photos – while left and right take you into the contents of those categories. The remote also has a superpower: hold down the microphone button to summon your entertainment with surprisingly reliable voice controls. (Text Search is also available in a pinch.)

The voice search shows up one weakness of the device; while working well, it only takes you to Amazon content, and much of that needs paying for. Unlike similar searches on the Xbox 360, results from apps like Netflix and the BBC iPlayer are not presented, and voice search does not work within those apps. That’s a limitation that soon stops being a bother, as you get to know the situations in which voice search is worth trying. It helps of course if you have Amazon content to search for.

We began paying for Amazon Prime a few years ago to take the stress out of buying Christmas presents, and we would probably pay for it even without Prime Instant Video being included – but it is, and it is easily accessible on the Fire TV. People not paying for Prime will find the device much less useful, and will probably be irritated by its focus on Amazon video, but the selection is good, and getting better. Constantine may not be the classic we hoped for, but I’m glad we got to watch it each week on Prime, while the frequent Pilot Seasons of new shows are always a treat. It’s nice being able to watch episode one of a programme without feeling guilty about not watching the rest The selection of films is also good, though dig a bit and it still has the video store feel of the Lovefilm service it grew out of.

Prime Music isn’t available in the UK, unfortunately, but people who buy their albums from Amazon will find many of them available in the Music section of the device. This, for me, has been one of the greatest things about the Fire TV. Aside from a brief dalliance with Play.com, I’ve bought nearly all my albums from Amazon since I began working at home, and two hundred and three of them are available here. It’s been by far my favourite way yet of bringing digital music into the living room. Playing an album can be as simple as searching for that artist with a voice search and then picking the album. Playlists can also be set up – we have one for each family member of their own albums, plus one for quiet reading – though that must be done elsewhere, such as a PC or the Amazon music app. One slight glitch is that the music stops playing when the television turns off, but that might be down to the settings on my TV.

Games on the device have surprisingly good graphics, at perhaps the level of the Wii. However, there are limits: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, though very similar to the recent Xbox 360 re-release, requires most of its graphics sliders to be turned right down before it will run on the Fire TV – not to mention that its huge file size takes up so much of this device’s meagre space that it’s impractical to keep it on there for any significant length of time. Other games are mildly diverting, and tend to be cheap, but have the usual tendency of cheap app games to demand additional purchases and apply penalties to gameplay when they are not bought. Games can be played with the remote control, or with an optional games controller, which is a passable imitation of the 360’s. If I’m going to play games, I’m always going to turn on the 360 instead of this, but kids without consoles would appreciate the games.

Game and other apps bought in the Amazon App Store for Android devices or the Kindle Fire become available at no extra cost here, where a version compatible with the Fire TV is available.

Some apps are missing altogether, notably the BBC Radio Player, Now TV (reciprocally, Amazon Instant Video is unavailable on the Roku), Kindle and Audible. The last is presumably down to Audible being set up for downloads rather than streaming, but it was still a big disappointment. I’d hoped too for some kind of fun Kindle app – no one is going to read full novels on their television, but it’d be useful for family reading, exercise, and things like that. There is no Comixology app either – HD guided view on the TV would be great. NPR One and Spotify would also be good to have eventually.

YouTube is on there, and how much our household uses it shows one of the strengths of the Fire TV, that it is so quick to turn on and use. The 360 and TiVo have YouTube access, but going through the rigmarole involved in starting those up to watch a five minute video isn’t worth the effort. With the Fire TV, watching the latest Jimmy Fallon, SNL or Jimmy Kimmel clips has become a very pleasant part of our daily routine. That the remote control doesn’t need to be pointed at the device itself just adds to the convenience.

Any negatives other than those already mentioned? It lacks an on-off button, so crashes mean pulling out the power cord, Spectrum-style. For some reason, the film Tower Heist, having once been added to our watchlist, now refuses to be removed from it. And the option to remove a recommended film from display seems to only have a temporary effect. So let’s say, for the sake of argument, not from any personal experience or anything, that in a moment of weakness a fellow was to watch a certain kind of film from the seventies, its sleazy ilk would pop up in his recommendations over and over as if he were playing a game of whack-a-mole. The only solution is to watch enough wholesome items to take the recommendations in a less embarrassing direction.

Another problem, but again one that may be down to my inexpert adjustment of settings, is that since buying the device our wifi router needs rebooting at least once a day. Whether this is down to the device, or just down to it encouraging us to stream much more video wirelessly than usual, is yet to be investigated. I have seen reports of other users having similar problems, relating to its screensaver streaming photographs from the Amazon Cloud.

That feature has been popular in our household. Again, we could do that with various other devices and apps, but it works so well and so simply and so conveniently on the Fire TV. If we want to watch Netflix or Instant Video or iPlayer or YouTube, the Fire TV is the device we now use. If you have Prime and a good Auto-Rip collection, I’d recommend it heartily. If, however, your music was all bought in iTunes and you prefer Now TV to Netflix, it may not be the device for you. ****

Friday, 27 February 2015

Happy by Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson | review by Stephen Theaker

With Happy (Image, pb, 112pp) it feels Grant Morrison has taken a step into Garth Ennis territory. It’s a violent mini-series, collected here in a book. Nick Sax is an ex-cop now working as a hitman. Hired to kill the Fratelli brothers, he hires them to come and kill him, figuring it’s the easiest way to get them all in a room together. Unfortunately an extra brother tags along and Nick is shot. Badly wounded, on his way to (he thinks) hospital, he starts having visions of a chatty blue flying donkey unicorn thing. It wants him out of hospital and off saving some kidnapped children.

Darick Robertson’s artwork is good, reminding me here more than elsewhere of Phil Jimenez. By Grant Morrison’s standards this is a quick and straightforward read, a fantasy-tinged adult thriller that’d make an ideal vehicle for Nic Cage at his demented best. It wasn’t a bad book, but if it were in my power to pick Grant Morrison’s next projects, a sequel to this would be a long way down my list, below Kill Your Boyfriend and just above Skrull Kill Krew. ***

Monday, 23 February 2015

Kindle Voyage | review by Stephen Theaker

I didn’t buy a Kindle Voyage right away. The initial reviews weren’t good, and those that were seemed to come from tech reviewers who didn’t give the impression that they would be using the things for reading anyway. The Kindle Paperwhite had been a huge disappointment to me. The touch screen worked better than the touchscreens on any other ebook readers I had, and made it a device you could hold in lots of different positions, but the name was an outright lie, the e-ink screen no whiter than that of the earlier grey Kindle with a keyboard. The backlight didn’t make it look paper white, it was a ghastly green, and could never be completely turned off.

And yet I used it a lot, because our house is fairly dim, even in daylight, and once I had an ebook reader with a backlight there was no way Mrs Theaker was going to let me have a bedside lamp on at night.

That made me keen for a replacement, but distrustful of marketing promises. I wanted to see one in action in a Waterstone’s before buying, but the Kindle table in our local branch has now been colonised by gift books. I might have gone without buying one at all if it hadn’t been for the recent Fire Phone offer, which I went for, then cancelled, leaving me with a bad case of emptor interruptus.

When it arrived, my first impression was that the Voyage is essentially an upgraded – fixed – Paperwhite. Both children upon seeing it asked, “What’s the difference?” The screen itself, when the backlight is off, is practically indistinguishable from the Paperwhite’s. The increase in resolution is difficult to spot – although comparing it to my very first Kindle, the big white one that had to be sent from the USA, the improvement is clear: the text on that one now looks fuzzy. There are no new fonts, sizes or margin settings in addition to those on the Paperwhite, except when reading pdfs, where you can now choose to slightly increase the margins.

With the backlight on, though, the improvement from the Paperwhite is obvious. The light is much more even, much nicer to look at; it glows rather than ghosts. I think we are supposed to keep the light of this one on all the time, since a new setting of Auto Brightness lets the device choose its own brightness over the course of the day. It likes itself rather brighter than I like it, and its fluctuations are often puzzling, but the effort is welcome. I’m torn between appreciating the light and regarding it as a cheat, an admission that these e-ink screens have reached their technical limits and are never going to become as white as the pages of a book.

However, the more I use the Kindle Voyage – and I’m using it a lot, my Paperwhite passed on without even a kiss goodbye – the more I come to appreciate its small improvements on its predecessor. It doesn’t have buttons for turning the page, but instead has a quartet of pressure sensors, two on each side. Two are a few centimetres long, for moving on to the next page, two are mere dots, for going back – the latter are very difficult to find when reading in the dark at night. These can all be set to issue a tiny feedback thud when pressed. The result is the most immersive reading experience I have ever had, being able to go from one page to the next with the slightest squeeze of the thumb. Even when reading in positions that make the sensors hard to reach – or reading in landscape mode, where for some reason they don’t work – the Voyage improves upon the Paperwhite. Its screen is flush with the sides of the device, making touchscreen swipes simpler, more effective, and less irksome when reading for long periods.

There are other slight changes. All progress info, when displayed, now appears on the bottom left. When opening a new book from the Kindle store, a new About the Book panel appears, providing info about the book and any series of which it is a part, and letting you know how long it generally takes people to read it. The power button is on the back rather than the bottom, which is handier. The device gets quite cold outdoors. It’s a bit lighter than the Paperwhite, and to enhance that I’ve made a conscious decision not to buy a case for it, because once the Paperwhite went into its excellent case it never really came out of it. I’ve gone back to the simple sleeve that came with the original Sony Reader.

Overall, then, I’m surprised by how much I like the Voyage, though its improvements over the Paperwhite are so hard to spot. It just fixes everything that needed fixing, and is very pleasant to read. If you’d told me when I bought that original Sony Reader that the top of the range ereader so many years later would see so few major improvements I’d have been surprised. Still no colour, pages still grey, battery power barely improved, music and audiobook playback lost… I’ll read dozens if not hundreds of books on this device, but it’ll take something special to make me buy another. (He says, knowing in his heart it isn't true.) ****

Friday, 20 February 2015

Jupiter Ascending | review by Stephen Theaker

Jupiter Ascending is another visually stimulating movie from the Wachowskis, directors of such outstandingly pretty films as The Matrix, Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas. Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, whose stargazing father died trying to stop robbers taking his telescope. She works as a cleaner with her mother and aunt, and they all live with her uncle’s family, which includes a shady cousin who persuades her to sell her eggs for money.

But the doctors aren’t after her eggs; they are sneaky little aliens in disguise, with orders to put her to death once her identity is confirmed. Luckily for Jupiter, just as she begins to lose consciousness a beefy guy with rocket boots enters the theatre, blasts the aliens, and carries her away: Channing Tatum, who spends much of the movie topless and glistening – for that alone this film will find many enthusiastic fans.

He plays Caine Wise, a splice of man and wolf, a flying soldier who had his wings clipped after chomping on the throat of an Entitled: one of the posh nobs who keep themselves young and beautiful by means of a regular “harvest”. Caine is now working as a hunter, a mercenary, but he begins to develop feelings for Jupiter. There is no future in their relationship – she doesn’t know it yet, but she is Entitled too.

After a spectacular battle among the skyscrapers of Chicago, he takes her to meet former colleague-in-arms Stinger Apini, played by Sean Bean, a human spliced with a bee, who lives in a house that’s part hive. Another battle later and Jupiter and Caine are off into space, where the film’s unusual structure will see her meet each of her three space children in turn. Well, they’re kind of her children. Everyone is after her because she has all the same genes in all the same order as their mother, a grand matriarch of the Entitled, who in her will left the planet Earth to any recurrence of herself. (What foresight!)

None of the matriarch’s children are particularly happy about her return, and as she passes through their hands Wise does his best to keep her safe, with the help of the Aegis, the space police, led by Captain Tsingh (played by Nikki Amuka-Bird, betrayer of Luther!) and the brilliantly named Phylo Percadium (Ramon Tikaram). Eddie Redmayne plays the most vicious of the three siblings, Balem Abrasax, spitting out his dialogue like Jeremy Irons with clothes pegs on his nipples. Before it’s all done there will be space battles, fights with flying dinosaurs, last minute rescues, and romantic kisses in the midst of glorious explosions.

Any film with space police is off to a flying start with me, and Jupiter Ascending has so much more to offer than that. It is a beautiful, stylish film from start to finish, with special effects the equal of anything in Guardians of the Galaxy and locations so gorgeous Elrond would be envious. Wise’s airskates are wonderful: it’s great fun to watch him scoot around a castle or jump out of a crashing spaceship and slide down the side of a building. Some elements of the story are extremely similar to Jodorowsky’s Megalex (see #50) and it does feel more like a French album than traditional American sf.

It could perhaps have done with being a bit funnier. What jokes there are tend to be underplayed. In the run-up to its release a lot of talk was about how daft it would be, thanks to Channing Tatum in elfish ears, but for me it could have safely gone much campier without going too far. Its locations and attention to detail may outshine Flash Gordon and The Fifth Element but it seems too anxious to avoid the giddiness and goofiness of those films, at least until its final, exhilarating scene.

I enjoyed Jupiter Ascending; it’s by no means the hot mess some people expected, but neither is it the instant classic I was hoping for – though the Wachowskis’ films do tend to grow on me. It took reading The Art of the Matrix for me to really appreciate that movie, and The Matrix Reloaded is now one of my favourite ever films, and would be for the highway sequence alone. Jupiter Ascending is a good film that looked fabulous, I can say that much for sure, and it’s a shame that sequels now seem unlikely. How much fun it would be to watch Jupiter and Caine fight side by side. ***

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Constantine, Season 1 | review by Stephen Theaker

John Constantine is an English magician, exorcist and supernatural con man who at the beginning of the series is still an inmate at Ravenscar, an American institution for the mentally unwell, following the unsuccessful exorcism of a little girl in Newcastle. As Constantine, Season 1 (and possibly the only season) continues, we meet others who were there that day and see what a state it left them in.

A supernatural visitation makes John realise that he must get back to work, and on the outside he soon hooks up with Zed, a weirdly-accented psychic on the run from a religious cult. With the help of hard-to-kill cabbie Chas and the advice of an angel, Manny, they must combat the rising tide of darkness. Monsters and demons are abroad, and their powers are waxing. (DC fans will be intrigued to see Eclipso among them.) They will find allies, like the pre-Spectre Jim Corrigan, though not all will survive the experience.

I wanted to like Constantine much more than I did. I’ve been waiting on tenterhooks for a TV series based on the comic Hellblazer ever since I saw the possibility floated in SFX #1. It is a natural fit for television, with so many meaty story arcs to exploit, a compelling central character who doesn’t need expensive special effects to get the job done, and relative novelty – it hasn’t been adapted to death already, the one film so distant from the source material that if it weren’t for the title no one would connect it to this.

Part of the problem is that it is so networky. It has that feel. John has a little gang around him all the time like a security blanket, and he has a nicely furnished base from which to work. Constantine isn’t the kind of guy to have a headquarters and regular colleagues, but that seems to be what you need for a network show. Giving him Zed to chat with makes sense, since it gives him an audience for the kind of speeches that in the comics would appear in voiceover captions, but he needs to be more exposed than this, more vulnerable.

Matt Ryan’s performance as Constantine is spot-on, though. It is eerie to see a fictional character brought so perfectly to life, although because he’s nearly always with his friends, he’s always performing, always on; it would be good, if the show continues, to see more quiet moments, more of what he’s like when he doesn’t have to convince anyone of anything. He is not yet seeing the ghosts of those who have died for him, but one feels it is coming.

The storylines draw from all over the character’s history. There are elements of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing (albeit without Swamp Thing himself, as yet), much from Jamie Delano’s run on Hellblazer, and nods in the direction of Garth Ennis’s issues. The American setting – and the American Chas! – takes a bit of getting used to. Of course, that’s where Constantine first showed up in Swamp Thing, but a UK setting, even if it was just for an episode or two, would have gone an awfully long way towards giving the programme its own feel. At least Constantine himself is English, which is an improvement on the film.

Ryan’s performance isn’t the only thing to enjoy. The title sequence and theme music are excellent, and that’s half the battle with any programme. As DC characters crop up there are signs that this could become the supernatural equivalent of Arrow. It wouldn’t be a surprise to hear that the question of its renewal or cancellation rests in part on whether the creators can negotiate for the appearance of other DC characters – a second season featuring the Sandman or Swamp Thing or Etrigan the Demon would be hard to resist.

The best episodes are genuinely frightening, and none are truly terrible. I enjoyed it much more than Grimm, though it hasn’t yet found its feet. I hope there will be a second season, but if there isn’t I’ll be disappointed rather than gutted. As it accumulates characters, and as those characters build a history, the stories gain weight, and eventually that could lead to this becoming a fantastic programme. The problem with a thirteen episode run is that it puts you in mind of how much better it could have been on a US cable channel or the BBC. And why the heck didn’t they call it Hellblazer? It’s a much better name. ***

Monday, 16 February 2015

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie | review by Stephen Theaker

Young Yarvi becomes king after his father and brother are killed. He was born with one bad hand, and is no great shakes as a swordsman. He hasn’t even practised it for years – he was in training instead to become his brother’s adviser. He doesn’t fit the mould of a great warrior king, and on a raid to punish the supposed murderers, unhappy at the resulting carnage, he is himself betrayed. He survives, only to become a slave among strangers, an oarsman on a trading boat captained by a fabulous grotesque who constantly chides herself for her soft heart. Will his knowledge and cleverness be enough to keep him alive in a violent world? And if he can stay alive, can he get his vengeance? What compromises and sacrifices is he willing to make?

This is Half a King (Harper Audio, digital audiobook, 9 hrs 26 mins), an audiobook written by Joe Abercrombie and read by Ben Elliott. The reading is good, though after hearing Steven Pacey’s work on other books by Joe Abercrombie you can’t help missing it here. It’s much shorter than some of the author’s other novels; the audiobook of The Heroes lasts twenty-three hours. That the book sticks with Yarvi’s point of view makes it perfect for audio, because it’s always easy to pick up where you are. It’s not a work of great originality, but it’s well done, and I enjoyed it, and people who have enjoyed this kind of story before will probably enjoy it once again. It will go down a storm in school libraries.

It asks interesting questions about the workings of its own plot, the things we might take for granted: that the deposed king must fight his way back to power, and that we should support him as he does. Yarvi’s actions could cause the deaths of his own people, and in the end, for what? That he should be king instead of someone else? Really, it’s revenge, he’s made a vow, and there’s a strong sense that everyone else would have been better off if he hadn’t. The plot is very well worked, with motivations clicking into place at the end. The twists are excellent, and even if this was planned as the first of a trilogy it works well as a standalone novel; little is left up in the air except the pleasant possibility of future conflicts and revenges. ***

Friday, 13 February 2015

Doctor Who: Engines of War by George Mann | review by Stephen Theaker

For a long time people assumed that the eighth Doctor (played on television by Paul McGann) had fought in the Time War, that the Doctor we saw in “Rose” was freshly regenerated. However, the notes in the last of the four eighth Doctor collections from Doctor Who Magazine popped a hole in that idea, making it clear that (in Russell T Davies’ head at least) it was the Doctor after McGann who had fought. Davies had been willing to let the magazine handle the regeneration, and have them send the ninth Doctor on his way, ready to fight the Time War.

On-screen events didn’t work out too differently. The eighth Doctor did his best to stay out of the war, before regenerating into a Doctor who would fight. If Christopher Eccleston had signed up for “The Day of the Doctor”, presumably that would have been him. He’d have got hold of the Moment, and stepped into the Tardis at the end, about to forget that he didn’t use it. As it was, we got the War Doctor instead, as played by John Hurt, who came between eight and nine and lived long enough to age from a young man to an elderly one.

Doctor Who: Engines of War by George Mann comes from the latter stages of his battle with the Daleks. This is what everyone wanted: the Time War! As it turns out, though we’re told that it has consumed him, the Doctor’s way of going about things during the Time War isn’t all that different to how he went about things at other times. There are still no weapons on the Tardis, though he uses it as a battering ram. He kills Daleks, but then so do most of the other Doctors at one time or another. He is still the conscience of the Time Lords, still risking everything to do the right thing.

This particular adventure stems from the plans of the Time Lords, led by Rassilon, to destroy the Tantalus Eye, an area of “temporal murmurations” surrounded by conquered human colonies. It’s where the Daleks are building a weapon that will wipe Gallifrey off the spatio-temporal map forever. So the Doctor has to stop the Daleks, he has to stop the Time Lords, and he has to do it all while keeping an eye on Cinder, a resistance fighter from the world of Moldox who joins him in the Tardis.

No book could ever live up to the Time War that lives in every fan’s imagination, but this comes pretty close, with space/time battles between military Tardises and armadas of Dalek stealth ships, Dalek progenitors being seeded through the dark corners of history, and the Doctor having to admit he once had the chance to wipe the Daleks out and didn’t do it. Strands from the programme’s history are woven together, nicely intertwining the original and current runs of the show.

The serious tone is similar to Target adaptations like Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks and Doctor Who and the Planet of the Daleks – the War Doctor is not too different from the third Doctor on a bad day. I often found myself wondering why he hadn’t asked Ace to join him in battle, given her excellent Dalek-fighting skills, but it’s made clear that this Doctor doesn’t want companions, doesn’t want to put them at risk, even if he misses having them along. He’s still the same guy, really. Bit of a grump, heart of gold.

Russell Davies and Steven Moffat have both been generous in leaving spaces between their stories for new adventures to take place. The War Doctor is the best example yet – like the eighth Doctor, his life is wide open, and there are surely more adventures to come, more battles for him to fight. John Hurt’s casting is a gift to anyone writing novels in this space – though he only appeared in two episodes, we know the actor well enough to imagine him saying the dialogue and striding over ruined Moldox. This novel harnesses that to a satisfying Dalek war story, which I would recommend to any fan.

My only criticism is that the Doctor felt too much like the Doctor, making you wonder why he gave up the name. I’m not sure any of the other Doctors would have acted all that differently in the course of these events, and some of them would have been surprised at his restraint. They may have forgotten what happened with the Moment, but if they remember adventures like this they would know that the War Doctor wasn’t a bad sort at all. ****

Monday, 9 February 2015

The Book of Iod: Ten Cthulhu Stories by Henry Kuttner | review by Stephen Theaker

What a surprise: if I ever knew that Henry Kuttner had written Cthulhu mythos stories, I had forgotten it long before seeing this book. What mad nightmares could spring from the imagination that brought us “The Last Mimzy”? Unfortunately, Book of Iod: Ten Cthulhu Stories (Diversion Books, ebook, 2187ll) is slightly mistitled, since Cthulhu (bless his name!) is only mentioned in passing twice. “The Invaders” is the most traditional mythos story, about a writer whose drug-assisted time-travelling for inspiration has opened the way for things that shouldn’t be here. Kuttner’s stories differ from Lovecraft’s, though: Cthulhu here is almost the hero of Earth, having fought off these things before, a bit like Godzilla. Not many mythos stories end with a human saying, “I felt a wave of reassurance. Suddenly all fear left me.”

“The Secret of Kralitz” has a mere mention of the mythos. The new Baron Kralitz learns the dark secret of his family, in the course of carousing with his reanimated ancestors. “Spawn of Dagon” is a REHesque adventure where a pair of quarrelling adventurers are sent to kill a wizard, who turns out to have been protecting Atlantis all along. “The Eater of Souls” is a rather groovy story about the Sindara, the ruler of Bel-Yarnak, who goes to face a dweller in an abyss, while “The Jest of Droom-avista” describes the final fate of Bel-Yarnak. “Hydra” is about an experiment in astral travelling that goes horribly wrong, leaving an unfortunate expert without a head. The final image is one of the best in the book, but, as so often in this book, this is a story where, if you’re clever enough, there is a way out.

Witches are a common theme. “The Salem Horror” is about a writer who finally finds the perfect place to write: a hidden room in a house that once belonged to a witch. The mysterious markings on the floor simply add to the atmosphere! In “The Frog” an artist wants the “witch stone” removed from the garden of his rented place. This foolishness lets out the witch buried there, who in the centuries of being buried has come to resemble her master (see title for details). Turns out that giant frogs are surprisingly scary.

“Bells of Horror” tells us of “the lost bells of Mission San Xavier”. They are found in California and ringing them again causes all kinds of trouble. The most alarming part of this story is a toad that has worn away its own eye, scraping it against a rock to ease the supernatural irritation. Once again “the quick actions of one man … saved the world”. “The Hunt” is about Alvin Doyle, who wants to kill his cousin to gain himself an inheritance. His cousin has a cabin, and you can probably guess what kind of thing he has been doing there. Yes, “calling up an entity which mankind worshiped years ago as – Iod. Iod, the Hunter.” The Dimension Prowler!

I think the present popularity of Lovecraft’s work has little to do with his prose or actual stories and more to do with creating a shared universe in his stories, a relatively fresh alternative to the Christian, Greek and Viking myths, and then throwing it open to others to use. Sometimes, like here, his mythology is used in ways that don’t much resemble Lovecraft’s work, except on the surface. I wasn’t crazy about this book, and the stories felt oddly optimistic, but I read it quickly enough and wouldn’t have minded reading another in the same vein. Not the best Cthulhu stories I’ve read, not the best Henry Kuttner stories I’ve read, but still interesting to see the two interact. ***

Friday, 6 February 2015

Borderlands the Pre-Sequel | review by Howard Watts

Borderlands the Pre-Sequel sits chronologically between the original Borderlands game and Borderlands 2. The developers (2K Australia) have managed to write a fairly convincing partner to the first two games, even though their appointment caused some concern within the gaming community. Many players and journos alike feared the move from 2K’s Texas outfit to 2K Australia was perhaps a cost cutting move that would impact quality and continuity. Others commented the Texans had perhaps farmed the pre-sequel out, as they didn’t want to be associated with it, for whatever reason or reasons undisclosed, or had other projects to develop of more importance. Let’s be fair, considering the huge sales generated by the first two games and their various DLC, it was all too obvious BTPS wouldn’t sit on the virtual shelves of pre-order retailers.

I couldn’t wait for its release, having watched a few trailers on YouTube. The thought of playing in a low gravity environment, blasting away at space-suited adversaries, was a huge attraction to me – not only from a gaming POV, but also from an SF gaming perspective in general. Lasers! They have laser guns! Sadly, eviscerating an opponent is not on the cards, slicing off limbs and or even halving opponents cannot be done. This was a little disappointing, as I really enjoyed corroding a shoulder joint to which a bot’s gun arm was attached in Borderlands 2, a wonderful way of disarming (if you’ll pardon the pun) bot combatants.

More of the game play and my expectations later. For now, a brief overview of the story.

BTPS shoehorns itself into the overall Borderlands mythos. A great deal of thought has gone into expanding the plot, character origins and motivations from the first game, working these up so they segue (almost) seamlessly into Borderlands 2. If you’re a fan of the first two games, some of the explanations given here for various characters’ behaviour and origins will make you smile, nod in recognition or gasp, “Oh, so that’s why so and so did such and such, that makes sense now, brilliant!” For the most part, these explanations work, others are a little contrived and feel forced, as if the shoehorn doesn’t match the size of the foot or the shape of the shoe. Yes, amid the frenetic combat there are moments of sheer brilliance as we play our way up towards the events of the superb B2, but sometimes it’s impossible not to groan and wonder “WTF?” Furthermore, a few key characters from B1 and B2 are noticeably absent from this outta space outing, three or four of which I must admit are my favourites, and are sadly missed along with their backstories. There are instances mentioned in B2 that, at the time of playing the game, I wished I could witness, and that these are sadly not seen during BTPS is a drop the ball moment for 2K. This aside, there are many more new characters added to this saga, again, some effective, others cardboard walk-ons serving to further your main and side quests, or simply get in the way.

Essentially, this is Jack’s story, how he came to be handsome, and absolutely crazy. This is worked up perfectly, and we can feel Jack’s determination to achieve his goals as he slowly grows into a psychotic madman before us. Voice acting is wonderful, you really can feel for the character as time and again he loses it in the face of stupidity. Familiar faces from B1 and B2 witness this, and you’ll be surprised at the original relationships between these characters. But again, I cannot help feeling something is missing here. Perhaps it’s all to do with the sheer number of characters from the previous games – impossible to cater for them all? I don’t know, and I don’t think 2K did either – obviously there’s a point where you have to (as a developer) say “No more, enough is enough there’s no more room.” This is where the problem lies I think, there’s just too much “story” to figure out from the previous outings, and then make it all work in such a short game. Okay, prequels seem to be in vogue at the moment, but releasing the second part of a (now) trilogy is a momentous task in any genre. BTPS has a lovely narrative from familiar voices, but be warned, playing the story missions only to complete the game will remove these comments and observations once the story is complete – leaving you with a gap in the soundscape as you play the side missions.

From a technical POV, the game looks identical to B2, all the inventory screen layouts exactly the same – so it’s an easy task to just jump from playing B2 to BTPS. There have been a few tweaks – you can now order weapons by value which is cool when it comes to selling off unwanted items, but usually the rare items enjoy the highest value anyway. These games have always been about the millions of weapons, shields, grenades the game code generates, and this game is no different. In fact, it builds upon the first two games by adding freeze and laser weapons. The former can be great fun, freezing an enemy and them hitting them so they shatter into tiny pieces. But to be fair, this does become a little tiresome after a while as it’s all about the guns. When you’re running around the lunar surface you have to keep an eye on your oxygen level, but killing an adversary causes them to drop oxygen canisters, and this, along with patches of terrain that vent oxygen for you to replenish your tank, means this “threat” quickly becomes a “meh” moment of little consequence.

There’s a neat new machine called the Grinder. It allows you (after much trial and error) to place three weapons into the machine and “grind” them together – essentially combining their attributes and receiving a new weapon of higher ability in exchange. This is great fun, and the same technique can be used for shields and grenades. However, nine times out of ten the machine informs you your three offered weapons cannot be ground together – it seems to be a bit hit and miss and frustrating. Couple this with the machine moaning at you to hurry up just as you scroll through your inventory for suitable objects to grind, and it all gets irritating quite rapidly. Bloody annoying #1. Unfortunately, the game is not without its playability problems. It feels a little “heavy” with the controller, not as smooth as B2, not as fluid. I have made numerous kills while in “Fight for your life” mode that have gone undetected, thus ending my life when it should have been saved. I’ve had a few collision detection problems where a shot has not registered even though it was clearly on target. On one occasion I stepped out of my vehicle to land beneath the actual floor level, unable to jump to another area – essentially “glitching out”. There’s also a noticeable lag to some places, the frame rate dropping off causing all kinds of combat problems – bloody annoying #2.

Saying this, the game is, well, a game – and it’s a great deal of fun! Perhaps some missions and areas are a little too much fun rather than serious, considering the storyline, as it certainly has an Australian humorous edge or flavour. If you’re familiar with Australian humour, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Strictly Ballroom and Bad Boy Bubba spring to mind here as cinematic examples of how off the wall this humour can be – sometimes hitting the mark, other times way off target. At times the Australian influence is repetitive and irritating, as character after character fall into parody (even the oxygen canister’s label, originally to be marked as “O2” is explained in the story as being printed badly, making the label appear to read “0Z” – ouch!). Sure, it was made in Australia – my wife’s favourite country in the world, having lived and worked there for just over a year – yeah why shouldn’t they introduce a little of their culture into the game? But even my wife raised a critical eyebrow at the Australian archetypes inhabiting Pandora’s moon, Elpis. You have the drunk, talking gibberish about billabongs and fair dinkum, cobber, and you begin to believe that Elpis is somehow representing a NuAustralia, a kind of new world in space. Other characters are equally annoying, and this aspect distracts from the overall Borderlands experience we’re so used to. There’s the little cockney kid that speaks in cockney rhyming slang – although he doesn’t, because after he’s spoken the slang he drops in the actual word the slang refers to. “Mind the apples and pears, stairs, mister.” I was expecting him to mention Mary Poppins at some stage. Pointless and bloody annoying #3. Another character points the finger at colonialism – the intrepid upper crust Englishman replete with handlebar moustache and monocle, staking a claim on Pandora’s moon on behalf of the king. As the player, all you have to do is hoist the flag and protect him as he salutes it, humming along to a national anthem, and fetch a broom to support his arm as he grows tired saluting. A comment along the lines of “Why do they all sound Australian?” from one of the familiar narrator characters that pops into the soundscape now and again for a critical or amusing comment would have taken the edge of this – but hey, Mr Torgue still has a few amusing and bleeped out lines, and thank goodness for him.

From a visual standpoint the game’s various environments are beautifully rendered. One level in particular took my breath – a huge space station partly completed. It was wonderful to jump around this place, assisted by jump pads – small illuminated chevrons that boost your jump height and distance from one area to another. Exteriors are extremely colourful and boast a plethora of interesting natural plants, objects and indigenous life forms. There are a few hidden areas that provide tough bosses – these are essential as they allow you to farm upgraded loot, again, essential to complete the entire story mission, but somehow the majority of these areas seem truncated compared to B2.

The game took me two weeks to complete – playing a couple of hours perhaps four or five days a week. I’m now on my second play through, but have capped my level out at 50, so completing the remaining missions will not afford any more experience points and therefore upgrades. I’m certain there will be a downloadable upgrade allowing you to play other areas and gain more XP, much in the same way B2 did some time ago, but for now – I find it pointless to continue playing. BTPS’s length sits between its predecessors, being a little longer than B1, but much shorter than B2. So perhaps this is the issue for me, as replaying the missions still so fresh in my memory and for no reward other than doing so seems somewhat pointless.

If you’re a Borderlands vet, you’ll have to play this – that’s a given. But I think you’ll soon tire of it during the second play though as it’s very tough and unforgiving – glitches aside – although there are another three characters to play (four if you include the Handsome Jack add-on available for purchase) to keep you busy and feeling as though you have value for money. Today I found my mind wandering as I played, and loaded up B2. The difference between the two played back to back is startling.

If you’re not familiar with the Borderlands games, then for heaven’s sake buy number 1 first, then number 2, and when you’ve completed them and their add-ons, BTPS will probably be available for around a fiver, representing excellent value for money.