Saturday, 19 January 2019

Twin Peaks: the Return, by David Lynch (Sky Atlantic) | review

The original Twin Peaks was a remarkable programme, easily liked for its quirky characters in a lovable town, but utterly terrifying as that lovable town’s dark secrets bubbled to the surface. It was said to have lost its way after the revelation of Laura Palmer’s murder, but I don’t remember ever being anything less than desperate to watch the next episode. I remember talking about it in the school library with other fans, lending out my copy of The Diary of Laura Palmer. The film came after I had gone to university, and I was very unhappy when the promised follow-ups never appeared. (We didn’t have ww.boxofficemojo.com back then, so I had no idea that it had not been a financial success.) Like many who enjoyed the show, I was extremely excited to hear that a third season was on the way, with David Lynch writing and directing, and many of the original cast returning. My feelings while watching the revival varied from scene to scene. I never stopped being glad that the new episodes existed. I was glad that a television channel had given a genius and his clever colleagues the money, time and space to indulge himself. But it did sometimes feel like it was taking the mickey.

The return begins where the last show ended, with Agent Dale Cooper trapped in the Red Lodge, and his evil doppelganger at large outside. The details of the plot are often hard to follow (all part of the fun), but, essentially, Cooper gets out, with help from bizarre supernatural beings, and is damaged on the way, and thus takes the place of a second doppelganger, who was married with a child. As Dougie, he lives on instinct, speaks few words, is baffled by the world, shepherded by his wife, Janey-E Jones (Naomi Watts), and yet treated like a genius. (One might suspect that this is an allegory for how Lynch often feels.) This state of affairs carries on for much, much longer than most viewers will appreciate, even if Kyle McLachlan’s performance is superb. Far more enjoyable are the scenes involving FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole (played by Lynch) and FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer), as they investigate murders, track down the evil Cooper doppelganger, visit mysterious locations, and introduce us to mythical Diane, to whom Dale would dictate his messages, played brilliantly by Laura Dern.


Not much of this happens in Twin Peaks itelf, and it often feels more like a spin-off from the original programme (like the one originally planned for Audrey Horne) than a sequel. The scenes that take place in Twin Peaks are reminiscent of Arrested Development season four, where characters appeared in their own storylines but rarely interacted, due to the production difficulties involved in getting them on set together. That’s understandable with the actors in this who died after production began – it’s wonderful that a way was found to include them – but even with other Twin Peaks characters it feels like all their scenes are with the same few people every time, or with no one.


Often the lack of background music, long scenes and earnest acting make it feel like a parody of bad, low-budget films like The Room – or are those scenes just plain bad? They often feature women who are shrill and hectoring. Women are generally not shown in a good light, and there is a great deal of violence towards them. Perhaps both of these things could be explained by this all drawing on the stuff of nightmares, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if many viewers stopped watching for that reason. Another group of viewers likely to be disappointed are those for whom the original was a quirky soap, the predecessor of shows like Northern Exposure and Gilmore Girls. There’s not a lot of that here, and it’s easy to understand why US channel Showtime almost had second thoughts about making it.


At times it is quite boring, at others nasty and unpleasant, and it’s not a lot like the original programme, and yet, overall, I loved it. It was genius, unmissable television. Those who loved the weirdness of the original, who adored the even weirder Fire Walk With Me, will find a lot of what they have been waiting for. Even if the rest had been a total disaster, the new episodes would have been justified just by the scenes in the black lodge before Cooper is released. That tree! And the flashback episode, surely a contender for greatest television episode of all time! At times it was literally necessary to remind myself to breathe, and I couldn’t let myself think about the programme at night. Stephen Theaker ****


Sunday, 13 January 2019

The Punisher, Season 1, by Steve Lightfoot et al. (Netflix) | review

Jon Bernthal returns as The Punisher, Frank Castle, after being so good in the second season of Daredevil. That makes this that rarest of things, a non-fantasy spin-off from a fantasy show. (NCIS is another, being a spin-off of JAG which featured, at least in the episodes I saw, a psychic whose powers helped her solve crimes.) There are no resurrected ninjas in this one, no super-powers, just lots of violent people with lots of guns. The events of Daredevil left everyone thinking that Frank Castle was dead, and he’s pretty much finished wiping out the organised crime gangs involved in the gunfight that led to the death of his wife and family. However, a guy going by the name of Microchip (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who is also pretending to be dead, has tracked him down, and wants help clearing his name, so that he can return to his own lost family. What’s more, Dinah Madani of Homeland Security (Amber Revah) has returned from Afghanistan with a mission of her own, to find who killed her partner, and that’s going to lead her into Frank’s sights. This is a very well made action programme. Bernthal, a serious actor, is given lots to chew on, and he conveys both Frank’s heart-rending pain over losing his family and his bottomless rage concerning everyone involved. When he’s upset, you believe it, and when he lashes out, it looks like it hurts. The action, whether it involves guns, knives or fists, is always well-staged, clear and exciting. There is a formula to these Marvel shows, with the airtime divided between the titular heroes, their allies and the villains, and Iron Fist showed how it could hurt the show if any of those are less than compelling. Here, all the story threads are compelling, and viewers are unlikely to feel that there hasn’t been plenty of Frank in the show. It’s really good. Stephen Theaker ****

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Preacher, Season 2, by Sam Catlin et al. (Amazon Prime) | review

Jesse Custer (played by Dominic Cooper) used to be a preacher, albeit not a very good one. His life was turned upside-down, and not for the first time, when he gained the power of Genesis, a heavenly being. It had previously tried to join with Tom Cruise, with explosive results, but seems quite comfortable with Jesse. It gives him the power to command anyone, as long as they can hear him, and as long as they have a soul. By season two he has an uneasy romance with with passionate criminal Tulip O’Hare (Oscar nominee Ruth Negga) and an uneasy friendship with dissolute vampire Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun). (Church helper Emily from season one does not return.) God has wandered away from heaven, but he loves jazz music, so they come to New Orleans in search of him. Meanwhile, the Grail tries to get its teeth into Jesse Custer, the Saint of Killers is on his way, Cassidy has to learn a bit of responsibility, and poor old Eugene Root has to deal with Hitler (a brilliant Noah Taylor). It’s a season that features some of the most shocking scenes ever seen on television. Maybe it’s not quite up to the extremely high standards of season one, but it’s still a great show, and it looks like season three will be a corker, drawing on the comic’s very best issues. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 7 January 2019

Aquaman | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Tiaras, tridents, and explosions: latest DC Universe film goes deep into the ocean to achieve shallow, yet engaging story. 

After underwater princess Mera (Amber Heard) magically extracts water from Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), then uses it to activate a glowing key, Arthur says, “You could’ve just peed on it.” Then Arthur watches the projection of a deceased king dramatically deliver a message. When Mera quizzes him on what he just heard, Arthur says, “Something, something, trident.”

These reactions exemplify what makes director James Wan’s Aquaman such a pleasure to watch. Arthur’s gruff manner makes him a glaring counterpoint to the melodramatic underwater beings that populate this film. It’s kind of like watching a biker at a ballet.

Arthur, with his superhuman strength and ability to breathe underwater, lives a simple life brawling and drinking brewskis. Then Mera shows up to enlist his help in preventing an impending Atlantean/human conflict by becoming Ocean Master. Aquaman initially resists, considering himself unworthy of such a position. Unfortunately, Arthur’s half-brother and Mera’s fiancée Orm (Patrick Wilson) wants to unite seven underwater kingdoms to wage war on land dwellers. He considers Aquaman a “half-breed” because of Arthur’s human father. The majority of the film chronicles Arthur and Mera’s journey to stop Orm and find the trident. Among the diverse settings are a cramped submarine, visually stunning underwater empires, and the streets of Sicily, Italy.

Though Aquaman is predictable and contains nothing new, one can’t help but be taken in by its schoolboy charm. Examples include the bug-like costume of villain Black Manta, the raising of weapons and shouting triumphantly, well-timed explosions, and the rubble that Aquaman leaves in his wake as he kicks ass and gets his ass kicked.

Another delight of Aquaman is the presentation of the protagonist’s ridiculous backstory, including the meeting and courting of his completely incompatible parents: Maine lighthouse operator Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) and Princess (eventually Queen) Atlanna (Nicole Kidman).

Like most action movies, Aquaman has dialogue-heavy parts during which the modern moviegoer’s attention begins to wane. However, in this case, Arthur Curry is the viewer’s ally in distraction. What will one remember about Aquaman? Something, something, fun.–Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Sunday, 6 January 2019

The Love Witch, by Anna Biller (Anna Biller Productions) | review

“I’m the love witch. I’m your ultimate fantasy!” Elaine Parks (played by Samantha Robinson) is a witch and a former burlesque dancer who comes to a new town, having left behind a poisoned husband. She has buried bodies before, she tells us, and she’ll do it again. She befriends Trish (Laura Waddell), and will later betray her. At the park she lays the whammy on Wayne (Jeffrey Parise), a louche professor. A love potion proves surprisingly successful, leaving him profoundly desperate for her. The strength of her powers is perhaps fuelled by her sublimated fury at the behaviour of men, including a scuzzy former mentor. Eventually her shenanigans will bring a police officer, Sergeant Griff Meadows (Gian Keys), into her life, as an investigator, and a lover.

Her professed submission to the desires of these men places them completely in her power. The message seems to be that what men think they want in a woman isn’t what they need: given everything they want they will lose their minds. Men are at best selfish buffoons, at worst dangerous brutes. Like children, they need boundaries. Women need to show solidarity with each other, and Elaine does not, which is what marks her as a villain.


Anna Biller writes the script and a song, directs, produces, edits, dresses the stunning sets, paints artwork, and makes the wonderful costumes. This is clearly the work of an auteur if there ever was one, and an auteur with a unique vision. It’s as stylish and as distinctively creepy in its way as a David Lynch film, but it feels authentic and sincere: it’s not a retro spoof like The Brady Bunch Movie (though that was brilliant too), and it’s easy to see why Biller has been rather put out by people calling it a parody or a comedy. It is absolutely not a film that’s so bad it’s good or anything like that. Viewers coming upon it unawares will honestly think it a product of another time till they see Trish using her mobile phone.


It’s heartbreaking to hear stories of Biller being treated badly by the crew, who for example she said crowded around the monitors for the (tastefully done) nude scenes. Hopefully the critical success of this film will give her more clout on set in future; one doubts the people who gave Ridley Scott a hard time on Blade Runner would get away with it now.


To a science fiction fan, this horror film was reminiscent of the original Star Trek series: intense, brightly-coloured, and deliciously ripe. A sequence set at a renaissance faire made this reviewer imagine her adaptating Jack Vance’s work (if she could find something of his with decent parts for women – a bit of gender-swapping might be necessary). She would do wonderful things with the stylized society of The Moon Moth, for example. But whatever she comes up with next will be worth a look. This movie is a true work of art. Stephen Theaker ****


Saturday, 5 January 2019

Death Note, by Charley Parlapanides and chums (Netflix) | review

In this American adaptation of the Japanese saga, dropped by Warner Bros but then produced by Netflix, Light Turner – yes, that’s his name – is plying his trade, homework for cash, while watching the cheerleaders practice, when out of a cloudy sky falls a battered book with the words Death Note on the front cover. He picks it up, then gets himself punched in the face confronting some bullies. He gets punished for the homework service, the bullies go free, and in detention he has his first encounter with what we will learn is the death god Ryuk, in a scene where the shrieksome Nat Wolff as Light Turner makes you wonder if this is going to be a horror comedy. It’s not, or at least I don’t think it is meant to be, but then, once Ryuk has made his first entrance, it’s not very scary either. It’s more a thriller with supernatural elements. The chatty, persuasive, spiny-backed monster (voice by Willem Dafoe, body by Jason Liles) tells Light that if he writes a name in the book, that person will die. If he specifies how they will die (and it has to be physically possible – no sharks in toilets, he is told), that is how they will die. There are lots of other rules, and bit by bit the film tells us those that will be relevant to the plot. Ryuk tempts Light into using the book, and it’s an easy sell: those bullies are harassing a cheerleader, Mia (Margaret Qualley, from The Leftovers). Soon Light and Mia will become close, and start using the book, but you know she’s a bad influence because she’s smoking in her first scene, and as they expand their death noting it’s not long before L, trained since the age of six to be the world’s greatest detective, is on the hunt for them. L, easily the best character in the film, is played by Lakeith Stanfield, also great last year in Atlanta and Get Out. I wouldn’t have minded seeing a film just about him, and apparently there is a spin-off of the previous Japanese films about the equivalent character.

I haven’t seen the anime versions, or the live action Japanese films, or read the comics, but you would think that with so many previous versions to consider that the film-makers would have been able to get a pretty good idea of what worked and what didn’t before starting work on this one, which despite that ends up being pretty unremarkable. For one thing, Light is is a very unsympathetic lead character. The film was criticised by some for whitewashing, by casting a white actor in the lead, and maybe that played into my feelings when watching it. No one’s saying that when adapting a title from another country you must keep the setting and ethnicities of the characters exactly the same, and there’s certainly more diversity in this film than in the Japanese version, but when you cast a blonde white guy in an American remake of a Japanese film, it can feel like you are making a statement about the blonde white guy being more typically American than the alternatives. He certainly didn’t come across as the genius the film needed him to be.


What I did like about the film was how it opened out very quickly from what could have been a straightforward Final Destination kind of film to exploring the wider possibilities of the death note power, but I have to say I liked the Final Destination films much better. As well as vividly demonstrating perfectly the importance of good health and safety, they brim with suspense. There’s nothing in this film that comes close to the set pieces in those, though the conclusion has a crack at it. Ryuk is good company but you could replace him with a series of bombs without affecting the plot very much. It’s not a classic film, but it’s sweary and gory, and music is deployed very well throughout. It’s watchable enough to pass a couple of hours, and I could see a sequel being better, especially if it played up the horror. The part most likely to stick with me is the excellent advice of L’s right-hand man, Watari: “Sleep is key to strong thought.” Stephen Theaker **

Sunday, 30 December 2018

Blazing Transfer Students, Season 1, by Yuuko Kawabe and chums (Netflix) | review by Stephen Theaker

Seven students, coincidentally all named Kakeru, start at Tanebi School on the same day, and are thrown into the ring to fight each other. Played by the members of Johnny’s West, a Japanese boy band whose members range from twenty to thirty years of age, they are all distinct types. The trailer describes them as “the excessively zealous fighter”, “the unbelievably smart nerd” (who has very smart glasses), “the young wannabe samurai” (obsessed with old television dramas), “the incredibly average guy” (who seems to be a bit of a creep), “the hoodlum from a bygone era” (who has a magical quiff), “the ultimate crybaby” (who has a Moe haircut) and best of all “the appallingly vain narcissist”, though I’d descibe him more as a lover of beauty in all its forms. After a seven-way special moves brawl, they try to escape, but are recaptured by the other wacky students of this place. Hikari takes them to the principal to learn why they are here: to train as blazing transfer students, who go undercover, two or three at a time, in troubled schools and sort them out. Imagine a cross between 21 Jump Street and Scott Pilgrim Versus The World, with special effects comparable to The Sarah Jane Adventures. Did I mention that the principal, who assigns their missions, is a lifesize mannequin in the form of the lead character from the original manga? It’s posed for different shots, but is never seen moving, and it never ever stops being laugh out loud funny. It also tickled me when, in a later episode, the artist behind the original comic from the eighties turns up to declare he is unhappy with the television adaptation and brings his own replacement team! Other missions include things like a school where all the pupils turn into zombies at night and one whose female pupils have been kidnapping nice boys and keeping them in a cage, to find out what nice boys are like. It’s a shame Hikeru wasn’t directly involved in more of the missions, but it is after all a vehicle for the seven male pop stars. I remember borrowing a friend’s copy of the Doramu Encyclopaedia and being amazed to see how many live action Japanese fantasy programmes there were that I had never heard of. I’m glad Netflix are giving us the chance to check them out. (The Japanese title of this one is Honō no Tenkōsei REBORN.) If you ever wanted to see a programme where one man focuses a jet of wee through the magical quiff of the guy giving him a piggyback, or where two guys in a beauty contest battle it out with magic winks and a visible workman’s aroma, this is it. ***

Saturday, 29 December 2018

Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, by Gen Urobuchi (Netflix) | review by Stephen Theaker

After half of century of all out attacks, humanity and its alien allies definitively lose the battle against the giant monsters, and the only option remaining is to flee the planet. It takes twenty years in space to reach a potential new home, but an attempt to land on that planet ends in disaster. A return to Earth becomes the least terrible option. One problem is that they have travelled very quickly back and forth, and so time dilation means that thousands of years have passed on Earth in their absence. An even worse problem is that Godzilla – or at least a godzilla, they reason – is still alive, and the planet’s ecology has reshaped itself around him. If humanity wants to recapture Earth, Godzilla will have to go. Captain Haruo Sakaki has a plan to take down the monster, but he’s less than fresh from a spell in the brig and doesn’t yet have the trust of the six hundred lives sent to carry out the mission. Godzilla’s toughness is revealed in this film to be thanks to a personal forcefield, and they have to destroy the organ that generates it if any lasting damage is to be done.

A new Godzilla film! Netflix was treating this as episode one of a series, but it did get a cinema release in Japan so I reviewed it on its own as a film without waiting for the two other planned films (or feature-length episodes if one prefers) to be released. Either way, it was very exciting to get to watch a Godzilla film so soon after its Japanese release. It’s often years before they are released in the UK, and even then it is often in terribly dubbed versions with a bare minimum of foley work. Not this time: Netflix present it with both English and Japanese audio, and with English and Japanese subtitles. (Foreign-language subtitles are fantastic for learners of foreign languages.) I watched it in English with English subtitles, which could be a bit odd, because they were often quite different. There are different constrictions for each – the dub tries to match the mouth movements of the characters, while the subtitles must be short enough to be read quite quickly – but they seem to have been produced independently. For example Godzilla is usually a he in the dub, but an it in the subtitles, while on Earth, examining a plant, a character is told in the dub that no one knows what will happen if his suit is torn, while the subtitles say outright that he will die. Trying to triangulate the Japanese meaning from these two slightly different translations provided an extra level of interest.

It felt to me like there were strong echoes of Mass Effect in the new Star Trek film trilogy and Star Trek: Discovery, and at times this feels rather like Mass Effect versus Godzilla, because of the design of the spaceships, suits and mobile turrets. The animation looks really good, although the ratio of action to conversation does make it feel more like television than a film. Godzilla seems a little bit stuck for things to do now that he rules the world, with no buildings to trample or power lines to burst through, but he is huge, menacingly slow and so craggy that it’s almost as if he has fossilised during the thousands of years the humans have been away. He has an amazing new (I think) tail attack which is supremely destructive. The film has many striking scenes, but one in particular struck home: the despair when the crew realises that Godzilla is still alive. Even though we know from the title that he will be, we really share their dismay. Overall: highly enjoyable, with a tip-top ending. Bring on films two and three. ***

Sunday, 23 December 2018

The Good Place, Season 1, by Michael Schur et al. (Netflix) | review by Stephen Theaker

Kristin Bell plays Eleanor Shellstrop, a young woman who died in a horribly embarrassing way and now finds herself in the Good Place with Michael (Ted Danson). It’s not exactly heaven as people have imagined it – none of the religions quite got it right, Michael tells her – but it seems rather delightful. There’s a soulmate waiting for her, the bookish Chidi Anagonye (William Harper), and wonderful next-door neighbours to hang out with, socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and monk Jason (Manny Jacinto). And the activities on offer! The lovely little village has umpteen frozen yoghurt vendors, flying lessons, grand balls. The only problem is that – and look away here if you want to remain completely unspoiled, because although this is the premise of the show it does come as a twist in the first episode – Eleanor is not supposed to be there. She was an appalling person when alive, selfish, greedy and mean, and she’s only in the Good Place because of a mix-up. But she likes it, and she wants to stay, and so here is where it develops into a programme as Reithian as the Lord could desire: she has to learn to be good, and Chibi tries to teach her. It becomes a programme that makes the point, every single week, that to be a good person you have to do good things, which feels like an important point to be making at the present time. No surprise that it shares a creator with Parks and Recreation, a programme all about the importance of good governance and being involved with civic life. There are a few saucy jokes, but on the whole it’s ideal for watching with children, who will love the special effects while digesting a series of important moral lessons. It’s a good show, and it’s a good show, that educates, informs, and entertains. And season two’s not bad either. ****

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, Vol. 1, by Paul Levitz, Mike Grell, James Sherman et al. (DC) | review by Stephen Theaker

The Silver Age Superboy has already been visiting the Legion of Super-Heroes for a while by the time this book begins. It may have only been a year or two for him, but from the Legion’s point of view he’s been visiting since 2959 and now it’s 2978. It’s explained that anti-aging treatments in the thirtieth century extend lifespans and youthfulness, so the Legion still appear to be in their early twenties. Sensibly, Superboy undergoes super-hypnosis before returning to the twentieth century, to avoid interfering with the timeline, though this means, tragically, that he forgets Supergirl every time, and goes back to believing himself the last survivor of Krypton. Originally founded by Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad, the Legion of Super-Heroes has a lot of other members by this point, including Brainiac 5, Phantom Girl, Chameleon Boy, Dream Girl, Mon-El, Shadow Lass, Wildfire, Dawnstar, Princess Projectra, Timber Wolf and, my favourite, Matter-Eater Lad, though he doesn’t play a big role in this book. This volume runs from issue 234 to 240, but the Legion had joined the title of the comic much earlier, with issue 197, while writer Paul Levitz had come on board with issue 225; presumably this volume starts where it does because the previous issues were collected in volume 13 of the expensive Archives collections. It works fine: it helps that it begins with a story from DC Super Stars #17, telling the story of the Legion’s founding. Despite the promise of the sales description, the book does not include issue 238 (a reprint of earlier adventures), only its cover. It does however include the All-New Collectors’ Edition C-55, an extra-length issue featuring the marriage of Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad, in a future derailed by the Time Trapper, not that anyone believes Superboy when he tells them. An important story, it leads to them leaving the Legion, per the rules. It’s hard to review something that’s so precisely what I’m after in a comic that it dissolves my critical senses. It’s not the Legion at its peak, but it’s building up to it, and if the actual plots (e.g. four legionnaires are combined into one composite monster) are not always top notch, the characterisation and the groovy seventies costumes are getting there. Some great names contribute, as well as those on the cover, including Gerry Conway, Jim Starlin, Walt Simonson and Howard Chaykin. And masses of superheroes in space adventures: what could be better? I should say though that I bought it for £3 in a Comixology sale. If I had paid the current price of £25 for it on Comixology, or even worse the current Amazon prices of £32 for the Kindle edition and £45 for the hardback, I might have been significantly less happy with it. ****

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Jimmy’s Bastards, Vol. 1: Trigger Warning, by Garth Ennis and Russ Braun (Aftershock) | review

Jimmy Regent is MI6’s number one man, if we can trust the word of the terrorist on this book’s first page. Regent is a deadly shot with Dan Dare eyebrows and a fine line in double entendres. As his new partner Nancy McEwan discovers, though, he’s not quite the git you might expect. He’s so exceptional with women that he can tell if they aren’t interested, so he’s not a sleaze, and he fights to defend a parliamentary democracy because he believes in the notion of social progress. McEwan wonders if it’s more that he gets to shoot whoever he likes, drive far too fast, and “have sex with beautiful morons”, but he says those are just the fringe benefits. However, although he may have treated women well while he was with them, he didn’t stay with them long, and the consequences of a lifetime of love affairs and one-night stands are going to catch up with him.

Aftershock is a new publisher to me, but the list of other titles at the back of the book includes creators like Paul Jenkins and Mark Waid, so hopefully they’ll be around for a while. This volume collects issues 1 to 5 of the ongoing title, and the story ends on a cliffhanger, which some readers may find disappointing in a short book that’s going for about fourteen pounds in the UK. The title is also a clue that this will not be for everyone, since the very idea of triggering is treated as a bit of a joke throughout, and similarly the phrase “safe space” seems to be used in an odd way, as if it’s been mixed up with “happy place” – e.g. Jimmy tells one enemy who is trying to set him off that he doesn’t “have a safe space”, but of course for someone like Jimmy Regent, a white, male killing machine, everywhere is a fairly safe space, even when bullets are flying!


Nevertheless, I enjoyed it very much. It’s rather like Archer, if Archer was British, intelligent, and not such a dinosaur. Or indeed like James Bond, if Bond had a much more colourful rogues’ gallery. It may not yet have reached the heights of The Boys or Sixpack and Dogwielder, but it definitely made me chuckle, and I’ll be reading it to the end. Stephen Theaker ****

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Starstruck, by Elaine Lee and Michael Wm. Kaluta (IDW) | review by Stephen Theaker

Reviewing Starstruck is difficult, since I barely understood a word of what was going on. In that sense, as well as in the detailed art, lettering and beautiful colours, it reminded me of reading French graphic novels – in French. There are people, in space. A ruler, who has a son and daughter who fight. A girl becomes an Amazon and as part of her initiation must battle some half-naked trolls. A psychic little girl climbs into an aquarium exhibit to communicate with the psychic aquatic life forms on display, sending her talent into overdrive, and when she’s older is placed with a fraudulent society of nuns. There’s a lot more going on, and a lot to take in, and I failed at that. Any individual page of it is glorious, and as a whole it’s admirable if baffling. Text pages at the end reveal that it’s all a prequel to a stage play, which helped me to understand it a little better: if I’d read it with a better idea of which characters were the protagonists, and what I was supposed to be rooting for, I would probably have enjoyed it more. And in a print edition, I might have realised sooner from flicking through that there was an extensive glossary; that would have helped too. New readers might be better off starting two hundred and thirty-eight pages in, with the stories of young Brucilla in the Galactic Girl Guides, since they are easier to follow and provide a more straightforward introduction to this universe. Overall, I enjoyed it, I think, but I started reading it in November 2013, and finished it in November 2017, which tells its own story. I would only recommend it if it sounds like something you’d really dig, if you like spending lots on time on each page of a comic, and plan to read it in print or on a tablet with a big screen. Having said that, its fans must have been delighted to have the whole saga collected in one book. ***

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Proof of Concept, by Gwyneth Jones (Tor.com) | review by Stephen Theaker

Kir is a young woman with an AI embedded in her head, and this was done by her mother, Margrethe Patel, who adopted her precisely for this purpose. Kir was born in one of the heavily irrradiated and ever-growing Dead Zones that cover the Earth while most people cram into overcrowded dictatorial Hives. Mum trained her as a scientist, while touring the world so that people could pay for the use of her onboard computer, and now they have gone deep underground on the Needle Voyager mission, in a massive cavern deep under the Giewont mountain in Poland. There are habitats on Mars and the Moon, but the future is not looking great for humanity, and so the hope is that Margrethe and her team can find a way out. Unfortunately part of the deal is that the scientists are joined in the base by the irritating future equivalent of YouTubers, and as events unfold Kir’s trust in her mother is put under increasing stress. Short novels are one of my favourite things, and at 140pp this hits the sweet spot. Yet even I was wondering, with sixteen minutes of reading to go, how it could possibly wrap up all the (personal, political and criminal) plotlines without at least a few hundred pages more. Somehow it does. There’s room for sequels, and people may be surprised by the suddenness of the ending, but no one could complain that they didn’t get enough story. And it’s an inventive story with strong characterisation. It’s impossible not to sympathise with the difficult situation in which Kir finds herself, to worry for her as she sneaks out of the base to chill out in the black abyss, or to keep one’s fingers crossed as she takes her first tentative steps towards a romantic relationship. ****

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Atomic Robo and the Ring of Fire, by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener (Tesladyne) | review by Stephen Theaker

The tenth volume in the Atomic Robo series is back in the present day, or at least 2015, with the robot hero out of action and his buddies scattered. His adventures in the Wild West (see Atomic Robo and the Knights of the Golden Circle) left him out of power, without a body, and time-travelling the long way round, while the Tesladyne Organisation has been turned into Task Force ULTRA, a nefarious governmental agency. In this book ULTRA decides that the fight against the giant Japanese monsters known as biomegas is too important to be left to Science Team Super Five, while escapees from Tesladyne’s Venezuelan branch try to revive Atomic Robo before it is too late. As the biggest biomegas to date attack, people are going to have to learn to work together, and Atomic Robo will have to go into space.

In an afterword the writer describes this book as a cross between the Jason Bourne films and Pacific Rim, which seems fair; an alternative comparison might be Hellboy meets Neon Genesis Evangelion. Unusually for a long-running comic, Atomic Robo has featured the same writer and artist since the beginning, and it makes for a consistent and reliably entertaining series. The art always looks good, looking not unlike a series of animation cels, and if it’s not always immediately obvious what’s going on, that’s because (again, like Hellboy) the art here needs to be read, not just the words. I first started reading this title because it was one of the few books of interest on the ComiXology iPad app in its early days, and even though Marvel, Dark Horse and DC have since joined the party it continues to hold its ground. A good book, well worth reading. ***

Monday, 3 December 2018

The Wildlands Hunt by Martin Charbonneau and Gary Chalk | review by Rafe McGregor

The Wildlands Hunt is the second instalment of the new Lone Wolf gamebook series, which began with The Pit of Darkness in 2017, and follows the adventures of New Order Kai Konor Autumn Snow. Like its predecessor, The Wildlands Hunt is crowdfunded, with progression from funding to delivery proceeding much quicker and smoother the second time around. The project was launched on 28 January 2017, received the required initial funding of €4000 the following day, received €15,000 within a fortnight, and the volume was published in October 2018. Megara Entertainment was founded in 2007 and director Mikaël Louys appears to have been transparent about the company’s financial situation throughout. In March this year, for example, Megara published a hardback collector’s edition of Grey Star the Wizard. This was the first in a short spin-off series – The World of Lone Wolf – that followed the adventures of Grey Star, a Shianti wizard. The four books were written by Ian Page, illustrated by Paul Bonner, and edited by Joe Dever, creator of Lone Wolf and Lone Wolf’s world, Magnamund. Grey Star the Wizard (1985) was succeeded by The Forbidden City (1985), Beyond the Nightmare Gate (1985) and War of the Wizards (1986), making 1985 the most prolific year for the franchise, with The World of Lone Wolf 1–3 published alongside Lone Wolf 4–6 (The Chasm of Doom, Shadow on the Sand and The Kingdoms of Terror). On the Kickstarter updates, Louys reveals that Megara published Grey Star the Wizard at a loss, selling a disappointing two hundred copies. He seems undeterred, however, and after revision of the production model, launched The Forbidden City project as Grey Star the Wizard was released. The campaign has reached €11,845, exceeding its €8000 goal, although the stated delivery date of December 2018 is likely overambitious. For those who have followed the vicissitudes of Lone Wolf publication (which I related in my reviews of Lone Wolf 21: Voyage of the Moonstone and Lone Wolf 29: The Storms of Chai), it will come as no surprise to hear that Megara are currently in the midst of financial problems. The Wildlands Hunt is printed in the same format as The Pit of Darkness (medium octavo hardback), retails at €40 (delivery included), and is only available from the Megara website (www.megara-entertainment.com).  I ordered my copy on 12 October (the transaction cost me a total of just under £37, but no doubt this will rise in direct proportion to Brexit chaos). On 12 November, I received an email from Louys stating that there had been a delay caused by issues with investors. The book arrived on 24 November, along with a free copy of the collector’s edition of Fabled Lands 1: The War-Torn Kingdom by Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson (first published in 1996; published by Megara in 2014). My assessment is that Megara are scrupulously honest, but that until the publishing uncertainty is resolved, buyers should be wary. On a related note, I must admit to not contributing to either Autumn Snow Kickstarter project – as much as I long for more Lone Wolf gamebooks, past experience has made me wary of paying any small presses upfront.

Like The Pit of Darkness, The Wildlands Hunt has been released in French and English and combines the literary expertise of Martin Charbonneau with the artistic expertise of Gary Chalk. The volume is a perfect companion to The Pit of Darkness, with another wonderful colour cover by Chalk, twenty new full-page black and white illustrations, and several smaller ones that I didn’t recognise from previous publications.  Chalk’s artwork is widely-praised for an instantly-recognisable style that foregrounds clear lines, the use of negative space, and deliberately disproportionate figures. His drawings are also incredibly expressive, as a quick comparison of the illustrations for sections 65, 140 and 318 reveals. The first depicts the Ragadorn city guard, three men oozing so much menace and hostility that the picture alone motivated my decision to avoid the encounter. The Red Mask slaver in 140 looks just as deadly and dangerous, but Chalk’s representation provides a subtle invitation to the player to take up combat. Finally, the stagecoach ticket-seller is depicted with consummate pathos, imprisoned behind the bars of his counter, lending a melancholy mood to what purports to be an occasion for celebration. In keeping with The Pit of Darkness, there is no colour map in The Wildlands Hunt (these have been a mainstay of the Lone Wolf series to date), but my parcel arrived with a separate map (in colour) of the city of Ragadorn (where the second part of the adventure takes place). While I appreciate the gesture from Megara, I thought it detracted from the high production values of the gamebook, a laminated A4 sheet (too big to be slipped inside the book) that is functional rather than artistic and also superfluous to play (I didn’t use it at all). My review of The Pit of Darkness was critical of the number of typos and formatting errors, but there are much fewer of the former and none of the latter in the second instalment of the series (in my gameplay, anyway). There are, however, occasionally unusual turns of phrase and I wonder if this is a consequence of translation from the original French. At times these can simply read a little awkwardly, but one instance seems to make a racial slur against a particular character – which, permissible though it might be in a fantasy world is unnecessarily provocative in the context of publication and incongruous with the humanism that pervades the franchise. (I have not read the French version, though, so it may well be the result of a loss in translation.)

I gave The Pit of Darkness high praise for its balance in terms of gaming: difficult but not impossible; solving the perennial problem of healing and endurance point recovery; and presenting progressively more challenging encounters. The second and third of these hold for The Wildlands Hunt, which adds two more welcome elements. First, the use of the Kai disciplines is perfectly pitched – they all prove useful somewhere and no one in particular is essential for completing the gamebook. Second, there is a clear game (although not narrative) structure: the adventure begins with Autumn Snow held prisoner on a pirate ship; she must then navigate the trials and tribulations of Ragadorn; finally, she ventures out into the Wildlands that separate Ragadorn from her homeland of Sommerlund. My only complaint with respect to the game is that I found it too easy. Granted, my version of Autumn Snow is now an Aspirant, able to use six rather than five Kai disciplines, but as she failed to accrue anything of great value in The Pit of Darkness, she isn’t particularly powerful. I have always equipped my various Kai characters – Lone Wolf, True Friend (in the New Order series), and now Autumn Snow – with a bow and this was especially useful in The Wildlands Hunt. On reflection, I wonder if it was too useful and that without it the Wildlands would have proved much more dangerous than they were in my gameplay. My main criticism of the gamebook is its narrative. Despite the exemplary game structure, the story itself fails to fit the overarching narrative initiated by The Pit of Darkness and to match the internal rigour of the various Lone Wolf series so far. The Pit of Darkness concluded with Autumn Snow losing her Kai mentor and discovering a Nadziranim (evil sorcerer) plot set to unfold in the Maakenmire swamp. The final section saw Autumn Snow on the island of Kirlu, headed for Misty Bay and thence to Sommerlund, where she would report to her Kai superiors in the hope of being dispatched on the mission to the Maakenmire. The title of the second adventure was revealed as Slaves of the Mire, which appeared to reference this mission. When the title was changed to The Wildlands Hunt, I assumed this would chart the journey of the mission from Sommerlund to the Maakenmire through the Wildlands. When I began playing The Wildlands Hunt, it seemed as if the slings and arrows of fortune had taken Autumn Snow off course and the hunt of the Wildlands would feature her as the hunted, attempting to reach Sommerlund by land rather than by sea, fleeing from enemies in Ragadorn. Instead, Autumn Snow is the hunter in the Wildlands, having teamed up with an new ally – Athania, captain of the Valkharim (personal guard to the Overlord of Ragadorn) – and pursuing an exciting but irresponsible digression from her duty to report to her Kai superiors. While in the Wildlands there is a further twist setting the whole campaign in a different direction, although the title of book three is (once again) Slaves of the Mire… so perhaps the overarching plot has not been lost after all. This sense of meandering over mission is replicated internally and while the whole game is fast-paced, much of the action seems incidental or supplementary. This is the first gamebook set in Dever’s Magnamund that has, in consequence of his untimely death in November 2016, been published without his guiding hand. Dever’s influence as a master gamer and accomplished storyteller defied detection, but is revealed in its absence – the lack of the economy, artifice and vision that have underpinned all of the previous gamebooks, including The Pit of Darkness. I concluded my review of the latter by stating that the series could be the best addition to Magnamund since the Magnakai campaign ended in 1988, but I fear that it has, like Autumn Snow herself, lost direction.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

The Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock | review by Stephen Theaker

This book (Tor Books ebook, 7569ll) tells the story of Michael Moorcock, a hard-working writer of fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction plagued by the noise of a mysterious swarm. As a teenager, already at work in publishing, Moorcock meets Friar Isidore, who takes him to Alsacia, a magical Sanctuary with connections to all time and space by way of the moonbeam roads. There he meets people like Dick Turpin, Jim Bowie and Buffalo Bill.

At first he thinks them all actors on a film set, and later he comes to think the whole experience must have been a dream, but then comes the whispering, beginning shortly after the birth of his children, at which point it is but the “faintest of distant murmurings”, growing into “a torrent of unfamiliar, whispering voices”, and later becoming so unbearable that he can “barely ignore it for seconds at a time”.

That noise abates only in Alsacia, so he decides to stay there. He eventually becomes friends with the four musketeers and Prince Rupert of the Rhine, and thence involved in the war between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers. Drawn into a desperate plot to save King Charles from Oliver Cromwell and the scaffold, Moorcock must balance principle, friendship and his own responsibilities, choosing to help his new comrades though they must surely fail.

His story is told in the first person, and the reader may find themselves wondering how much credit these adventures are owed. The whispering begins when he has been “worrying what was best for the baby, where we should move and so on”, and much of his time in Alsacia is spent romantically with Moll Midnight, the inspiration for his most popular historical fantasies, while his wife and children believe him to be recuperating at a retreat.

Moorcock married young, to Helena, and they had children when young, and though his love for those children isn’t in question it doesn’t feel like he was ready to have them, and the character’s justifications for his absences fall flat throughout. At times it feels like the whole thing is a tall tale told to his children to explain away the times when he abandoned them, a fanciful excuse for a mundane affair.

He takes them to the cinema and the roof garden of Derry and Toms, but isn’t always there for everyday life. He comes across pretty badly. He takes lots of drugs (“where the coke and the speed met the mary jane and the wine my poor, puny little ego decided that promises were negotiable”), decries “unhappy women who eroticised inequality”, and at times becomes “briefly, a roaring monster with my friends or Helena”.

It is easier to cheer on his successes in publishing, from Tarzan Adventures and Sexton Blake Library to New Worlds, Elric, Jerry Cornelius and American success, “going instantly from work-for-hire hack to literary novelist”. He explains the two strands of his writing career thus: the fantasies are paperbacks and take three days to write, while the literary books appear in hardcover, are reviewed by the mainstream press, and take ten days to write.

His encounters with writers, editors and publishers make the book unmissable for publishing geeks and fans of the new wave, whatever its merits as a novel. He has a “desultory correspondence” with William Burroughs, trusts Barrington J. Bayley with the secret of Alsacia, and goes to the pub with Harry Harrison, Ted Carnell and John Wyndham. He helps “barmy, brilliant, treacherous old Phil” K. Dick get a publishing deal with Jonathan Cape.

E.C. Tubb tries to get off with Moorcock’s mum at a party. John Brunner gets it in the neck – “I tried to tell him he irritated people” – but gets credit for writing “with tremendous brio”. Other names are somewhat familiar, like Jack Allard, Jack Slade and Rex Fisch, though it’s worth remembering that the book tells us: “All of the characters ... are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.”

The narrative is straightforward and linear, so it’s not a difficult book, but it is peculiar. Like The Coming of the Terraphiles it may divide its readership. The autobiographical elements will fascinate fans, but if the book weren’t stretched out to fit those facts it might have felt a bit tighter and less repetitive. Bored readers should skip to chapter forty-one before giving up.

That’s when the book springs to life, with the mission to save King Charles. Moorcock, Rupert and the musketeers sneak into Whitehall with an unwitting impersonator, then try to escape down the frozen Thames at night while hunted by Cromwell’s men. Like his fictional equivalent, our Moorcock has few equals when writing adventure tales, and the last forty thousand words here comprise one of his best. ****

This review originally appeared in Interzone #258.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey (Tor.com) | review by Stephen Theaker

In March 1857 Albert Broussard proposed the Hippo Act, which would bring hippopotamuses into the United States to be raised for meat. Hippo ranches began to open in August of that year, and by November the Mississippi river was being dammed to create extra marshes for all the hippos to live in. This area was known as the Harriet. Unfortunately, by January the following year hippos were on the loose, ranching in the Harriet became much more difficult, and in time the area came to be dominated by criminals and cutthroats. Nevertheless, pansexual Blackpudlian Winslow Remington Houndstooth tried real hard to get a ranch going, and he was well on the way when malice struck. Some time later, he’s accepting a mission from the federal government. They want the feral hippos cleared out of the Harriet. He gathers a team: heavily pregnant contract killer Adelia Reyes, explosives expert Hero, meteor-hammer wielding Regina “Archie” Archimbault (and her boy assistant Neville), and fastest gun in the West Calhoun Hotchkiss. The government expects them to catch the feral hippos one by one and escort them off the territory. Houndstooth has a rather quicker method in mind, and he’s also hoping to squeeze in some revenge along the way. One problem they’ll face is that the local crime boss rather likes having the wild hippos around, since they keep civilisation out of the area, making it perfect for his needs, and give him a convenient way of disposing of his enemies.

This violent novella feels like a men (and women and Hero) on a mission story, but almost as soon as the team is put together, it begins to fall apart. There’s nothing wrong with subverting expectations, but it does feel unsatisfying. The villain’s plan is hard to understand – he seems to be caught unawares by the completely predictable consequences of his actions – and for the most part the feral hippos function quite similarly to piranha fish, swarming upon anyone they catch in the water. It becomes more interesting on the occasions when individual hippos step into the limelight. It’s got a good cover and a high concept, and that’ll be enough to carry a lot of readers through the book quite happily, but for others it’ll probably feel a bit thin. I found the characters likeable and interesting, especially Houndstooth, Archie, and the enigmatic Hero, whose preferred pronoun is they. The book doesn’t always handle this well: in a sentence like “Hero had grinned and gone back to work, and Archie had caught Houndstooth beaming at them” the reader has no way of knowing whether Houndstooth is beaming only at Hero, which would have romantic implications, or at both Archie and Hero, which would just be jolly. ***

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Attack on Titan, Vol. 1, by Hajime Isayama (Kodansha) | review

For the last hundred years, the world’s last surviving humans (so far as anyone knows) have lived safely in towns protected by a series of concentric walls, built so long ago that a religion has declared them the work of their god. The walls are tall enough to keep out the giants that have devoured the rest of humanity, but smaller towns are used to focus the titans’ attacks in predictable locations. Only the Survey Corps venture outside, in hope of finding a way to reclaim the world from the titans.

Eren Yeager (who will later develop a dramatically interesting skill), Mikasa Ackerman (who will become an awesome fighter) and Armin Arlert (whose strength lies in his brains) are three children, very close pals, who live in Shinganshina, one of the districts used as titan bait. And they are there when a new type of titan takes that bait: a colossal, intelligent titan who can see over the wall and kicks a hole open for its smaller friends to pile through. This leads to trauma for the three friends, and sets them on a path to the Survey Corps.

Slightly disappointingly, this long-running manga series is not set on Titan, so far as we can tell — Attack on the Titans might have been a more descriptive title. It seems to be set in Europe, going by the names of the children’s future colleagues in the Survey Corps (Jean, Annie, Bertolt, Marco, Reiner, etc), while Mikasa is the only living human of Asian appearance, making this a Japanese property Hollywood could adapt without getting into trouble for whitewashing. Although in theory this is a review of the first book, I’d read the first five volumes before writing it, and by the time this review is published there’s every chance I’ll have read all twenty-two volumes from the Humble Bundle. It’s extremely compelling, and a very quick read. I want to know what happens, where the titans came from, and what was in the secret basement of Eren’s mysterious father?

From page to page it wasn’t always clear to me what was happening, but that may be just because the visual grammar of manga is still pretty new to me, and I didn’t understand what kind of sounds the sound effects were supposed to represent – e.g. whether they were alarms, or a howling from the titans. Frequent recaps, information pages, and character introductions at the start of each book soon caught me up.

What makes the books so uncanny is that the naked titans have such gormless faces, a genius touch which makes it all the more frightening when they chomp on human beings. They are genuinely weird and disruptive. They don’t even digest us, they just seem to do it for fun! Rather like The Walking Dead, the series makes the oppressive sense of danger and frequent deaths of favourite characters bearable by frequently providing the cathartic slaughter of many enemies. Stephen Theaker ****

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Richochet Joe, by Dean Koontz (Amazon Original Stories) | review by Stephen Theaker

Joe lives in a small town called Little City, where he attends Little Junior College, in hopes of one day becoming “an English teacher or an advertising copywriter, or maybe a destitute novelist”. While volunteering for litter-picking in the park and considering whether to ask Portia on a date, he is seized with the urge to say “Corvette!” and to then run off towards one. When he touches the car he shouts “But stop!” and then carries on to that, and thus from one clue to the next till he gets to the source of the trouble. Hence the nickname, Ricochet Joe. It’s a funny idea, and one with obvious potential for television or film, but as a book this would seem a little old-fashioned were it not a Kindle in Motion title. The plot, the writing style, the way Joe talks about Portia (and “her delightfully distracting presence”) make it feel like something from the fifties or sixties, like one of Robert Heinlein’s more fantastical stories. But the Kindle in Motion elements make it feel very modern, Oliver Barrett’s art brought to striking life by Belief Agency. The only downside is that having those media elements enabled also fixes the background colour of regular pages to a grubby white. Worth a download, if only for the novelty of the moving pictures. ***

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Priestess, by Justine Geoffrey (Martian Migraine Press) | review

My first taste of Cthulhu erotica, and I wasn’t left with a shadow over Innsmouth, if you know what I mean. My Dunwich was not fully horrored. The thing remained on the doorstep. Doom did not come to Sarnath. This 2013 ebook brings together four previously published titles: Anicka and Kamil, Red Monolith Frenzy, Yvette’s Interview and Green Fever Dream. It starts with a dedication to “Ramsey Campbell, the first man to render my veils” (sic). Anicka, “teen witch of Stregoicavar and High Priestess of the Black Stone”, is trying to summon Daoloth, from Campbell’s story The Render of the Veils, and she goes about that by having sex with her brother and anyone else she can lay her hands (and inhumanly long tongue) on. Favourite phrase here: “Daoloth activates your hyper-chakras”! The Render puts her on the trail of Justine herself, who might become the next priestess, and does become the protagonist for the rest of the book. The sex is usually gross but consensual, except when Justine breaks out “the Triple Word of Power”; the descriptions of unfortunate people like “the pinheaded mongrel freak” are much more offputting. The dialogue all appears in italics rather than within speech marks, which is a bit distancing, and a lot of apostrophes are missing, which is not at all sexy. The synonyms used for relevant body parts (“dripping vacancy”, “orgone-sheathed cockmeat”) can be quite amusing. Not my kind of thing, but I’m glad I gave it a try, and people in the market for Lovecraftian erotica may well find that it calls their Cthulhu. Stephen Theaker **