Monday, 23 May 2016

Sinclair ZX Spectrum: a Visual Compendium, by Sam Dyer and friends (Bitmap Books) | review

An attractive book that looks back over the lifetime of the immensely successful ZX Spectrum, which came out in 1982 and provoked an astonishing torrent of games. It has 304 pages, all as bright and colourful as the Spectrum itself. The focus is on graphics and artwork, so the interviews are mostly with artists rather than programmers. The text can be a little bit repetitive, the artists all having been asked the same questions, and giving very similar answers – graph paper and colour clash come up a lot. The company profiles are more interesting, but only five are covered: Ultimate, Beyond, Durell, Odin and Vortex. But as shown by the designer not the writer being identified as the author in the copyright notice, this is a book about the pictures, and they are great, lot of double page spreads of games that still look good today. I regret not having properly played games like Heavy on the Magick, Fairlight and Tau Ceti. There are also several nice pieces of painted artwork by the brilliant Crash cover artist Oliver Frey. Sadly, nothing appears from my absolute favourite Spectrum games, the Gollup brothers’ Rebelstar, Chaos and Laser Squad, though there’s a loading screen from their Lords of Chaos. One surprise was seeing games we had at home that none of my friends had ever heard of, like 3D Tanx, Wheelie and Harrier Attack! Another was realising how few of these games we actually bought, an initial C90 and C60 from a work friend of my dad giving me the trading power to build up a massive library of cassette copies. Tut, tut, young me! A third surprise was to see on the copyright page that the Sinclair name and brand is now owned by BSkyB – can’t imagine why they wanted it! Overall, it’s a very expensive book, so not one for casual fans. There are cheaper retro bookazines to be found in WH Smiths. But it’s very lovely to look at, and my money, at least, was well spent on it. Stephen Theaker ***

Captain America: Civil War reviewed by Douglas J. Ogurek

More heroes… more fights… more fun! 

Every time a new Avengers offering comes out, the filmmakers have to raise the bar for the easily distracted contemporary moviegoer ever poised to grow weary of today’s superhero blitz. The fast-paced and effects-packed Captain America: Civil War, directed by Anthony and Joe Rizzo, manages to keep the Avengers juggernaut barreling forward.

It’s the typical talk fight talk fight superhero formula. Our favorite egomaniac Tony Stark/Iron Man offers the most entertaining repartee, while the spirited battle action ranges from Natasha Romanoff’s/Black Widow’s acrobatics to the monumental airport battle that earns the film its name. These films just keep getting bigger, faster, and more intense.

Taking Sides
The action starts in Lagos, where Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch uses her psychokinetic powers to lift an active bomb out of harm’s way. However, it detonates before it gets to the top of a building and there are civilian casualties. This opens up an investigation into the many fatalities left in the wake of those thrilling Avengers battles. It also leads to the split that propels the film: in an uncharacteristic move, a guilt-ridden Stark encourages the Avengers to sign a UN-sanctioned accord that limits their previously unchecked authority. Conversely, Steve Rogers/Captain America, the hitherto obedient soldier, refuses to sign because he trusts in his own (and the Avengers’) superior morality and decision-making abilities.

Rogers has something else to worry about: protecting his mentally unstable WWII friend Bucky Barnes (aka Winter Soldier), the tenacious assassin of the last Captain America film. Bucky is a suspected terrorist and former Hydra pawn wanted by the same authorities that seek to limit the Avengers’ powers.

So Iron Man and Captain America each build a six-person army that leads to the airport conflagration. But none of this is all that original, is it? After all, we’ve seen this kind of freaks versus commoners and superhero infighting since X-Men (2000). However, what follows shows how Captain America: Civil War takes things in a new direction.

Battle Aftermath Exploration
For a couple decades, we’ve watched mutants, shapeshifting robots, and superheroes tear apart a variety of settings in their epic battles. However, as we chomped our popcorn, did we ever think about the toll that all this destruction takes on bystanders? In a brilliant “What if…” consideration, the makers of Captain America: Civil War pose this challenge to the heroes and in so doing, explore the pros and cons of utilitarianism.

It’s About the Conflict Within
Captain America: Civil War does have a minor villain (with a strong motivation). However, unlike X-Men, this film focuses on the conflict between our beloved heroes, and it’s a strategy that makes the logical viewer uncomfortable. It’s impossible to choose a side; they all think they’re doing the right thing. Every time Iron Man blasted away at Captain America, I cringed. Every time Captain America hammered away at Iron Man, I cringed.

Stark: “I’m trying to keep you from tearing the Avengers apart.” Rogers: “You did that when you signed.” Yikes!

New Characters
Note that the movie poster for Captain America: Civil War shows a faceoff between two sets of five characters, yet I said that each side has six. That’s because two characters new to the Avengers universe make an appearance. The filmmakers make it seem like these two characters are a secret, knowing full well that they will build buzz for the film. That’s a brilliant marketing strategy.

Scott Lang/Ant-Man enters the scene like a little boy, thrilled just to be asked to be part of Captain America’s team. Look for the film’s funniest quote when Ant-Man takes off his helmet after one skirmish.

A barely post-pubescent Peter Parker/Spider-Man takes a bit more convincing to join Stark’s side. Parker has homework, after all. In the film’s most entertaining talk scene, Stark drops in on the apartment of Parker and a refurbished (and much more attractive) Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Tom Holland’s Parker is an energetic and chatty “little guy” who adds some youthful zeal to the Avengers, like when he refers to “that really old movie Empire Strikes Back.”

“That Cat Guy” 
Do we really need the hero that one audience member referred to as “that cat guy?” Or was T’Challa/Black Panther, with his cat ears and metal claws, just thrown into the fray because the filmmakers couldn’t afford The Hulk or Thor and they needed a sixth man to round out Stark’s team? And how come this Black Panther, not genetically modified like Rogers or Bucky, can run fast enough to keep up with cars?

However, in Black Panther’s defense, he does bring a kind of peripheral motivation to the conflict: his singular goal is to kill Bucky.

This is a minor irritant in an otherwise absorbing film that offers everything from the clashing humor of Captain America driving a Volkswagen Beetle to the expression of virtue through action (or inaction). I am tempted to conclude this review with some witticism regarding the brilliance of this film. Alas, instead I resort to the comment of a boy: “those fights were awesome!” – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Check out Douglas’s reviews of The Avengers (2012) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).

Monday, 16 May 2016

An Occupation of Angels, by Lavie Tidhar (Apex Publications) | review

Secret agent Killarney pursues a cryptographer, Dr Eldershott, across cold war Europe, fighting enemy agents on the Trans-Siberian Express and discovering secret bases carved out of rock. But this isn’t the world of James Bond. Thirty-five years ago the angels came, and now their obese bodies lounge within places like Notre Dame and Saint Paul’s while the angels extend their influence over human affairs. At least until the assassinations begin. Who is behind the killings, and what is the being that occupies Sophie Stockard’s body, and speaks in such a terrible voice? Killarney has some experience of angel-killing herself, but must stop this wave of deaths before the balance of power is broken and the cold war goes hot. Yet another good novella by Lavie Tidhar. The pace is fast, jumps in time making each chapter begin with a snap, and there are surprises and new ideas all the way through. Killarney herself seems to have secrets that are only hinted at here. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 9 May 2016

Vince Cosmos: Glam Rock Detective, by Paul Magrs (Bafflegab Productions) | review

January 1972, and Poppy Munday (played by Lauren Kellegher) moves down to London, where she feels at first like she’s living in a movie. She moves in with a friend, but then struggles to find work, and her favourite pop star is shot while playing live on radio. Things are getting a bit miserable before she gets a frantic call from her mum back home: Poppy has won a competition to attend the launch of Galactic Cinders, the new album by her favourite, Vince Cosmos. He’s a lot like Bowie/Ziggy, full of facets and wearing make-up and feeling the zeitgeist and talking about the cosmic godhead. Weirdly, the creepy, angry little man who lives in the flat above hers is at the launch too. Is he there to assassinate Vince? This two-part story feels like a pilot, in that we’re a long time into the story before we finally get to spend time with Vince himself. I expected to love Julian Rhind-Tutt in this – he was brilliant as a similarly foppish character in the highly underrated sitcom Hippies – but somehow it doesn’t quite work, maybe because it doesn’t feel like he believes the more pretentious Bowie-like utterances of his character. He’s knowing when he should be oblivious. He does a good job with Vince’s songs, though, and by the end I wished that he’d been in it more. I also enjoyed the links to a classic piece of sf literature, and to the Brenda and Effie stories: the ventriloquist’s fuzzy bat out of hell shows up here at a royal variety performance, still in his pomp. Stephen Theaker ***

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Freewrite: first impressions

Yesterday it finally happened! My Freewrite (originally known by the more distinctive name the Hemingwrite) arrived! Anyone who follows me on Twitter, or has not yet unfollowed me on Facebook, or indeed has stood next to me at a bus stop, is bound to have seen my excitement about this device.

It is basically an upgrade of the wonderful Alphasmart, which got me through the writing of a fair few novels, or going back even further the Sharp Fontwriter on which I bashed out Professor Challenger in Space: a dedicated writing device.

Where it scores over the Alphasmart is that it has a proper keyboard, and the files are backed up constantly to the web. I loved my Alphasmart (and still do, I'm not about to throw it away), but I would rarely have chosen to use it at home in preference to Scrivener and my Das Keyboard. The Freewrite shares the Alphasmart's portability, single purpose focus, and long battery life. To those it adds an e-ink screen that can be read outdoors. And where the Freewrite scores over the Sharp Fontwriter is that it doesn't have a big heavy printer built in!

So, what are my first impressions?

I like it a lot. I'm writing this blog post on it, and it's a really nice typing experience. The screen is easy to read whether I lean back or lean forward, and the keys aren't as noisy as I had expected – it's much quieter than my Das Keyboard, while being just as nice to type on. You probably wouldn't want to take it into a quiet meeting, but no one will hear it over the racket of a Nanowrimo write-in at a coffee shop.

(Oh, how sales of this device will soar once that crowd sets their eyes on it!)

The only big problem so far for me is that the device hasn't shipped with the promised Dvorak support in place, which reduces its usefulness dramatically for now. I can tap out a blog post or book review in Qwerty, but it'd be a pain doing a whole novel like that. Never mind, though, because the manufacturers have said it's coming soon, and you can understand why building and shipping the physical devices will have been their focus up till now.

Another slight niggle is that the frontlight, a last minute addition to the device, which is a great option to have, can't be turned off. It's not like the Kindle Ghostlight, which was totally spoilt by the permanent green tinge of its frontlight, but I'm glad that the option to turn it off is on the way.

Would I recommend the Freewrite?

That depends on how you go about your writing. If you like to start at the first word and keep typing till you reach the last word, like I do when I'm writing novels and my shorter TQF reviews, you'll like it, and probably adore it, if you can spare the cash. It'll fit the way I write to a tee.

If, however, you're the kind of writer who writes a line, then goes back to add something to the previous paragraph, then goes back to the beginning to tweak that, you'll find it practically useless, because there are no cursor keys. The only way of going back into the text is to use the backspace button. There are page up and page down buttons, but just for looking back over your text, not for editing. That suits me fine, it keeps me moving forward, but it's not for everyone, especially at this price.

Is it going to be the life-changing device I thought it would be when I bought it? Might be, once it has the Dvorak layout. Just knowing it's always there, always ready to be typed on, will be massive. What the Kindle is for books, I think this could be for writing, at least for me. Fingers crossed. Quite literally, since I'm typing this in Qwerty!

Friday, 6 May 2016

Elektrograd: Rusted Blood, by Warren Ellis (Summon Books) | review

A private eye with a habit of shaking down his clients has been murdered in Mekanoplatz, the northernmost district of Elektrograd, the city of the future, or at least it was, back in the early twentieth century. The idea was that it would be an experimental city, where new forms of architecture and living and work could be tried out. In Mekanoplatz the buildings can walk, reconfiguring themselves to meet new manufacturing needs. They’re in the middle of a change now, though homeless people remain where they are, living in the hollowed-out carcasses of abandoned construction robots. Even a beat this dead has a cop who cares: Detective Inspector Ervin Stross, driving an old car that could explode at any time, trailed by a rookie and an ambitious detective sergeant. Behind the murder lies a mystery, and it’s a mystery that doesn’t want to be uncovered. This is a good novella by a writer better known for his comics like Transmetropolitan and the immensely influential The Authority, but he spins a good story in prose too. This is like a science fiction version of a satisfying episode of Columbo or Luther. Warren Ellis’s original plan was to write a novella in each region – hope he finds time to write them. It would be great to see more of Strauss’s investigations in this fascinating city. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 2 May 2016

The Huntsman: Winter’s War | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Angry, beautiful women with ostentatious wardrobes cast spells, voyeuristic tiny creatures hide in trees, and much more.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War, directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, gave me what I expected, and I’m good with that. This sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) isn’t mind-blowing. It doesn’t present anything staggeringly original, nor will it change your life with some profound message, but it will allow you to escape into a fantasy world rich in costumes, effects, atmosphere, and justice.

When jilted by her forbidden lover, Freya (Emily Blunt) discovers her ability to conjure and manipulate ice, then retreats to “the north” to build an empire. A reclusive ice queen? Hmm . . . that sounds a lot like Elsa from Frozen (2013). However, Freya’s blood runs much colder: her manipulative sister Ravenna (Charlize Theron), now trapped in Snow White’s famous mirror, is the spellbinding supervillain who fumed and enchanted her way through the first film.

Queen Freya seizes children to raise as an army of fierce warriors (the huntsmen), which she uses to expand her kingdom. She imposes only one rule on her adult “children”: no love allowed! But huntsmen standouts Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain) aren’t having it. So Freya uses her sorcery to separate the lovers.

Years later, Eric and Sara reunite, albeit discordantly, on a quest to retrieve the now lost magic mirror before Freya gets it and catastrophe ensues. They are joined by four dwarves, highlighted by Nion (Nick Frost) and the feisty widow Mrs Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith).

Though Winter’s War advertisements exhibit the villainous sisters in all their regal splendor, the film offers a more traditional hero. Eric faces the dual challenge of finding that mirror (i.e. saving the world) and convincing Sara of his constancy. Our hero smiles, chuckles, and tosses around his machismo in typical Hemsworth fashion.

It’s Not Plot
And what will this band of likely and unlikely heroes do when it gets the mirror? Does it really matter? The mirror is really just a device holding things together. The strength of Winter’s War lies not in plot or concept, but in the special effects that, like the gold flakes around Ravenna’s eyes, sparkle throughout the film to create an atmosphere.

Besides the sisters’ conjurations—more on this later—the special effects engineers rise to the challenge with a collection of CGI creatures that populate this fairy tale world: too-small-to-see sprites that leave light trails in their wake, bright red squirrels, swarms of butterflies hitching a ride on a hedgehog, bling-wearing goblins that look and move like apes but have ram-like horns, and turtles and snakes with skin made out of grass. Then there are the voyeuristic, pint-size slender creatures that hide in vegetation and silently watch the adventurers. Creepy. Cool.

Winter’s War also offers several rousing fight scenes, especially the quarrels at the palace entry and tavern. The tension builds, the outnumbered heroes remain remarkably calm, the enemies assemble, and then the powerful Eric and acrobatic Sara deliver a beat down . . . or get beat up. The lack of music during these scenes adds to the intensity by emphasizing the thumping, crashing, and other skirmish sounds.

Sisters Sorcerous and Sexy 
Someone once said, “There’s nothing quite like angry, beautiful women in glittering regalia working magic.” Actually, I don’t think anyone said that, but there is some truth to it.

The film treats Freya and Ravenna with the reverence that royalty commands. For instance, the grandeur of the sisters’ costumes gets elevated by audio embellishments such as the chain-like slinking of Queen Freya’s train as she promenades toward her captives, or the metal finger claws that Ravenna taps and scrapes on various surfaces.

Freya is the subdued, though still highly dangerous version of her older sister. Her finery glistens like frost and offers a contrast of colourless austerity and glittering flamboyance much like the character. Example: she might tear up while she casts a spell that ruins a person’s life.

But don’t expect any tears from Ravenna, unless they’re tears of rage. The only criticism of Theron’s ruthless sorceress is that she isn’t on the screen more. Indulge in Theron’s mastery of her craft as she greets Eric after a long absence, slathers a supervillain laugh over her adversaries, and seduces her chess partner.

During the climax, the sisters use Freya’s royal hall to put on a rock concert of sorcery, their instruments being ice (Freya) and tar-like tentacles (Ravenna) that aim to impale.

When life’s pressures mount, mindless fantasy films like this one offer a much-needed respite. I’ve seen characters using magic powers to freeze stuff. I’ve seen goblins and dwarves. I’ve seen super clear distinctions between good and evil. And I don’t mind seeing it all again: that stuff’s therapeutic. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Friday, 29 April 2016

All-Star Section Eight, by Garth Ennis and John McCrea (DC Comics) | review

A six-issue spin-off from Hitman (the comic not the game) which was itself a spin-off from The Demon. Tommy Monaghan, the hitman with x-ray vision and a heart of gold, was introduced in the latter during one of DC’s dafter crossovers (invading aliens whose attacks gave some people superpowers). He once tried out for the JLA, but the funniest parts of his comic were usually when he ran into alcoholic Sixpack and his band of hopeless heroes, Section Eight, including characters like the Defenestrator, Dogwelder and the pervert Bueno Excellente. Here, at last, they get their own comic, or at least the survivors do, as Sixpack tries to get the team back together. After adding The Grapplah, the demon bartender Baytor, Powertool, Guts and a new Dogwelder (who found the previous guy’s outfit in a junk shop), he gets up to seven members, and then tries to persuade the stars of the (New 52) DC universe to fill the last slot. The Martian Manhunter, Wonder Woman and Superman all show up; none seem likely to take the bait. It’s funny and gross, Sixpack’s snot, drool and wee depicted in repulsive detail, but also surprisingly moving, by the end reminding me of the classic Doctor Who strip by Scott Gray and Martin Geraghty, “The Land of Happy Endings”. Super-heroes may be dumb, but as Garth Ennis writes here, “As dreams go... Well. I suppose you could do worse.” This mini-series may not mean very much to people who didn’t love The Demon or Hitman, but it’s a must-read for those who did. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 25 April 2016

Doctor Who: Echoes of Grey, by John Dorney (Big Finish) | review

This sixty-seven minute play checks in with Zoe Heriot, now in her fifties after being returned to her own time by the Time Lords. They wiped her memories of her travels with the Doctor, leaving her with just the recollection of his visit to the Wheel in Space to fight the Cybermen, but she has an eidetic memory, and she can tell that there’s a discontinuity in her mind. It has made it difficult to form relationships; she feels like the ghost of herself. Then she meets Ally Monroe, whose life she apparently saved during one of the adventures she can’t remember. Ally thinks her alpha wave gadget will help, and slowly Zoe starts to remember the time she, Jamie and the second Doctor encountered the Achromatics, grey beings who declare their love for you while draining away your life. It’s a second Doctor story in the classic style, of slow-moving monsters in a confined space, with all the creepiness that brings. When they chase the Doctor around a room (he has a plan, but “no other ideas at all!”) it’s easy to imagine how it would have looked on screen. Wendy Padbury is as adept at voicing the Doctor and Jamie as when playing her younger self. The framing device is cleverly done, and by the time it ends the play’s title turns out to be clever too. It’s a good story, though its ramifications are potentially tragic: if Zoe and – as we’ve learned in other stories – Jamie have recovered some of their memories, did the Doctor make a terrible mistake in the Tomb of Rassilon? Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 18 April 2016

Doctor Who and the Ark in Space, by Ian Marter (BBC/Audible) | review

The fourth Doctor, only recently regenerated and accompanied by journalist Sarah Jane Smith and U.N.I.T. medic Harry Sullivan, lands the Tardis on the Nerva Beacon. It seems to be abandoned, but further investigation reveals slimy trails, as if of a giant slug, and then freeze-dried humans, packed away in storage for thousands of years to survive a stellar disaster. The first humans to wake up suspect the Tardis crew of sabotage, a fatal distraction from their true, hidden enemies: the Wirrn, a race of giant locust-like insects with a grudge against humanity, and a gruesome purpose for these survivors. “The Ark in Space” was originally a television story, and this is the Audible version of the Target novelisation from the eighties, written by the actor who played Harry Sullivan. He wasn’t in the Tardis long, sadly, having been cast as the Chestertonian man of action, an entirely redundant position after Tom Baker took the role of the Doctor. It is read by Dead Ringers star Jon Culshaw, who first became famous for his wonderful telephone impersonations of Tom Baker’s Doctor. That ability makes him perfect for this audiobook, though ironically this comes from a time when the fourth Doctor wasn’t particularly funny – for much of this story he’s indistinguishable from his previous, rather serious, incarnation. He narrates in his own reading voice, and keeps the tension high. For a children’s book it is surprisingly gory, with talk of suppurating stumps and smouldering bodies welded to panelling after being repeatedly shot, and in the audio version there’s no bubble wrap to break the spell. Sarah Jane’s long, arduous and essential crawl through a narrow duct is as stressful as ever, no matter how many times we’ve already seen her succeed. The fate of one human infected by the Wirrn bears repetition in full: “with a crack, like a gigantic seedpod bursting, his whole head split open. A fountain of green froth erupted and came sizzling down the radiation suit…” There’s a reason these were my favourites as a child: other books were, quite literally, bloodless in comparison. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 15 April 2016

Doctor Who Comic #7, by Robbie Morrison, Brian Williamson and chums (Titan Comics) | review

A wonderfully substantial publication that collects four issues of the ongoing US format comics, one each from the twelfth and tenth Doctors’ comics, and two from the eleventh Doctor’s title. In “The Fractures, Part 2”, by Robbie Morrison and Brian Williamson, the twelfth Doctor and Clara are trying to help a UNIT scientist from another dimension. His wife and daughters died in a car crash, and they live on here, but when he crossed the void between dimensions he attracted the attention of the Fractures. Visually it’s not up to the standards of the strips that appear in Doctor Who Magazine, but it’s enjoyable enough. The eleventh Doctor’s story “The Eternal Dogfight” (complete in this issue), by Rob Williams, Al Ewing and Warren Pleece, sees him accompanied by three new companions: a shape-changing alien, a depressed assistant librarian, and a chubby David Bowie type. An everlasting dogfight between two fleets of alien combatants has drifted into Earth’s vicinity, and if the Doctor and friends can’t bring it to an end there could be eight billion civilian casualties. All very entertaining, in thanks part to the intrigue of each new companion’s ongoing story, and the jolly artwork. It reminded me of the early Tom Baker strips in Doctor Who Weekly. The tenth Doctor is also joined by a new companion – Gabby, an American from New York – for his story, “The Weeping Angels of Mons, Part 2”, by Robbie Morrison and Daniel Indro. The statuesque monsters of the title are snatching soldiers from the trenches of World War I. It’s an interesting story, and the artwork (including the colouring by Slamet Mujiono) suits it perfectly, the expressions of the angels being as alarming as one would hope never to see. I liked each individual story, but it’s the cumulative effect of reading almost a hundred pages of new Doctor Who comics that makes it so rewarding. I subscribed before getting even halfway through it. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 11 April 2016

Penny Dreadful, Season 2, by John Logan and chums (Sky Atlantic) | review

A coven of (often naked) witches is determined to bring Vanessa Ives to meet their master, and they have identified lonely Sir Malcolm Murray, so much in need of comfort after the events of season one, as a weak point in the Penny Dreadful gang. Meanwhile, Doctor Frankenstein makes the mistake of falling in love with the bride his creature has demanded, and Dorian Grey shows how romantic he can be. Ethan Chandler has a particularly hairy time of it in these episodes, but his relationship with Vanessa Ives deepens, particularly during a short break in her holiday cottage at the coast. The reverse of season one, this run starts slowly but ends well. The blood and gore continues at a level appropriate for a programme with this title. The announcers on Sky Atlantic typically warn that viewers may find some scenes disturbing, but there are scenes in this series that only a psychopath would not find disturbing. And yet there is noticeably more smiling this time around, even from tortured souls Ethan and Vanessa, perhaps to alleviate the bleakness. Eva Green as Vanessa is once again the star of the show. While the other characters, at least in the early episodes, feel rather like a league of boring gentlemen, she looks like she was drawn by Kevin O’Neill and brings Mark Hamill levels of belief and commitment to every scene. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 8 April 2016

The Technopriests, Vol. 1: Techno Pre-School, by Alexandro Jodorowsky, Zoran Janjetov and Fred Beltran (Humanoids) | review

Albino the Supreme Technopriest is on a spaceship with five hundred thousand of his brethren, travelling from one galaxy to another, where they hope to start a new society, where healthy relationships will count for more than scientific advances. It’s the perfect time to kick back and think over his eventful life to date: this first book in the series begins with the horrific events that led to his mother’s pregnancy. Understandably consumed by bitterness, she vows revenge on Ulritch the Red and his fellow pirates. Young Albino is left to feed at the breast of a guanodont, and grows up working in his mother’s cheese factory, with only computer games and little Tinigrifi, a talking (android?) bunny, to keep him sane. Eventually she arranges for him to attend the Technopriest training school of Don Mossimo, where his cleverness attracts the attention of a Techno-Bishop, while she amasses enough money to hire the mercenaries she needs for her revenge. The artwork by Janjotov and the colouring by Beltran are tremendous throughout, detailed and fascinating, only let down by some jarring computer graphics used to illustrate scenes of virtua-walking in cyberspace. This boy lives in a weird world full of peculiar people, not least his own family, and that side of it was good, but there’s an awful lot of sexual violence, right at the heart of the story, and the “Tee hee” from Tinigrifi that follows one event feels misjudged, to say the least. As well as individual digital volumes, the entire series is available in a single hardback omnibus. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 4 April 2016

Game of Thrones, Season 5, by David Benioff, D.B. Weiss and chums (Sky Atlantic) | review

Tyrion crosses the sea in a crate, reluctantly, to start a new life working for Daenyrs, the mother of dragons. She’s having trouble keeping control of her city, the previous ruling class refusing to accept the changes she has made. Jon Snow and the men of the Night’s Watch must consider what to do with the defeated Wildlings. Winter is coming, and if humanity doesn’t stand together, even the scruffy ones with bad hair, they’ll all be killed by the zombie army of the White Walkers. And then be revived to join that army! Winterfell suffers under the heel of a mad tyrant, while further south King’s Landing falls prey to religious mania. Elsewhere, Arya learns what it takes to become an assassin like the Faceless Man. This is probably the weakest season of the programme so far, and the level of violence towards women and children is extremely uncomfortable at times. But it’s still very good. By now we care about these characters; we’ve watched some of them grow up, we’ve seen what they’ve been through, and their lives matter to us. The effects are of a very high quality. The Wildling giant, in particular, is magnificent. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 1 April 2016

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), by Felicia Day (Simon & Schuster/Audible) | review

This is the story of how a badly home-schooled violinist grew up to become a god among the virtual geeks. The face of Felicia Day will be familiar to many more people than actually know who she is; she had a spell as the background photo of some YouTube apps, she sang viral hit “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?”, and had eye-catching guest spots in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse (the episodes set in the future) and Supernatural, where her red-headed hacker is the fun kind of friend Sam and Dean badly need in their ever-tortured lives (the episode where they join her at a fantasy battle re-enactment is a classic). Understandably, this book focuses more on her own creative achievements, though it does give us a striking portrait of what it’s like to be a struggling (and then a doing-fairly-well) actor in Hollywood. Before that, and after an introduction by Joss Whedon in which he sounds remarkably like Ultron, listeners learn about Felicia Day’s childhood, where a miscalculated attempt to get out of some religious nonsense led to her mum withdrawing her from a good school, her education going badly astray from there until violin skills got her a college scholarship at the age of fifteen. Though fierce competitiveness made her the college valedictorian, she didn’t love the violin enough to make it her life, and so began her acting, and eventually a desire to write her own scripts. One of the most interesting parts of the book describes the support group of aspiring women she joined, and then constantly lied to about the progress on her script: the pilot episode of The Guild, which would eventually become a successful web series. It’s only after she comes clean about her fibs, and her addiction to World of Warcraft, that the dam breaks, the members of the support group become her producers, and the programme ends up a huge Xbox-endorsed success. It’s a good story, and it’s bracing to hear all the hard work that went into Day’s success, as well as all the failures that led up to it. Later in the book comes a dark period after she takes on too much, develops health problems, lets people down, and loses good friends, but there’s always the sense that she’s determined to do the things she wants to do, and any bumps in the road are eventually going to get flattened. The penultimate chapter is about her well-publicised run-ins with online boors, which events are all the more unfortunate given the positive light in which gaming (WOW aside) and the internet are seen throughout the book. Overall, it’s funny, rather inspirational, and sweet-natured, in a steely sort of way. The highlight, I think, is an excruciating scene where a fan recognises her in a build-a-bear workshop, leading shoppers who don’t know who she is to act as if she’s impudent for being recognised. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 28 March 2016

Daredevil, Season 1, by Drew Goddard and chums (Marvel/Netflix) | review

Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer affronted by the injustice he sees in his home of Hell’s Kitchen, a part of New York damaged badly in the battle between the Avengers and Loki’s army of alien invaders. Property developers are moving in, but some of the current inhabitants don’t want to move out, and that’s the kind of case that the newly established firm of Nelson and Murdock can be persuaded to take. What the two lawyers don’t know at first is that behind it all is a shadowy kingpin, who is bringing together Russian, Chinese and Japanese gangsters in one great criminal enterprise. Anyone who dares to utter his name – Wilson Fisk – is killed for their indiscretion, making it impossible to pin anything on him. It would be an impossible situation were it not for Matt’s unusual abilities. The chemicals that took his sight enhanced all his other senses – taste, touch, hearing and balance – and he was trained in combat, at least for a time, by the mysterious Stick. These skills let Matt fight for the city, at first in a black mask, and by the end of the series in the distinctive red suit of Marvel’s Daredevil.

This is an extremely violent series, much more so than Agents of SHIELD or Agent Carter, not suitable at all for children. Matt Murdock tends to get very badly wounded, since he’s often fighting against the odds. A fight in the second episode is the best I’ve ever seen on television, like looking down the classic corridor scene in Oldboy. Wilson Fisk is an utterly brutal villain, his fists the piledrivers they are in the comics, Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance so chilling, so physical and intense, that he’d have had awards nominations if this wasn’t a series about a superhero. (I hope we’ll see him face off against the Avengers or Spider-Man or Daredevil himself on the big screen at some point.) It draws on many periods of the comics, in particular those written by Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Waid, to create a classic version of the character. The mood is dingy and grim, though Foggy brings just the right amount of humour to stop it getting too gruelling – and were those the stilts of Stilt-Man I saw in the background of one scene? Its pace is very much its own; this couldn’t be a network show, with the constant need to cue up adverts that has made programmes like The Big Bang Theory little more than a series of vignettes. The episodes stretch out fully over their running length, building up to moments of sudden, shocking violence. My only grumble is about the frequent discussions about the existence or not of god (Matt Murdock being a Catholic and Wilson Fisk an atheist), which seem bizarre given that the season’s plot follows on from a battle between Loki and Thor. Would people keep believing in other gods, or for that matter remain atheists, when real gods have been seen on television? Perhaps they would, but it makes Matt seem a bit daft. But that’s just a minor issue. I wouldn’t just rate this higher than the other Marvel television series, I’d rate it higher than most of the movies. And season two is going to feature the Punisher and Elektra! Let’s hope a change of showrunner doesn’t put a billy club in the works. Stephen Theaker ****

10 Cloverfield Lane | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Character, tension reign in masterwork of claustrophobic uncertainty.

The mind-numbing sameness of many films has trained viewers to expect a narrow list of possibilities as a story unfolds… either this will happen or that will happen… character x is either all this or all that. 10 Cloverfield Lane, directed by Dan Trachtenberg and based loosely on the alien attack extravaganza Cloverfield (2008), plays upon this tendency to pigeonhole outcomes and characters. Set mostly in a bunker beneath a Louisiana farm, the film serves up a potent “he’s coming/who’s out there?” tension gumbo whose ingredients range from bold (and sometimes shocking) actions to more ordinary, yet still highly charged situations.

Aspiring fashion designer Michelle, whose marriage is on the rocks, crashes her car, then wakes up chained to a wall in a kind of cell. Her warden Howard claims that “there’s been an attack” and that he’s brought her down into his bunker to save her from contaminated air. Michelle then meets farmhand and fellow bunker guest Emmett, who says that Howard also “saved” him from the event. Ex-Navy man Howard gives Michelle a tour of the space that will indefinitely serve as the trio’s living quarters.

So begins a play-like film that tangles the viewer in a world of uncertainty controlled by an eccentric doomsday enthusiast (Howard). Michelle, uncertain of her keeper’s trustworthiness, enlists Emmett. They gradually uncover more about Howard’s mysterious (and absent) daughter Megan while Howard goes to greater lengths to preserve his domain and manage his tenants.

Goodman Leads Great Cast
Interstellar travel and exotic planets dominate the contemporary sci-fi film landscape. 10 Cloverfield Lane stands apart by confining its activities to a small set with a bare bones cast of primary characters, all of whom perform superbly.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle is a pragmatic young lady: she can devise makeshift weapons and manipulate conversations. Emmett, played by John Gallagher, Jr, serves as a kind of intermediary between Michelle and Howard. Though he first presents as somewhat dim-witted, Emmett quickly proves to be a more thoughtful individual. In one scene, Michelle and Emmett each share a regret story that reveals more about them. By the film’s end, both will have an opportunity for redemption.

The most compelling character of 10 Cloverfield Lane is John Goodman’s Howard. From the moment that Howard roughly opens the door and clomps into Michelle’s cell, Goodman captivates. You never know what he’s going to say or do. He is a commanding figure with little tolerance for horseplay.

Goodman is at his best in scenarios that would typically be seen as ordinary or even banal… eating dinner or playing a game, for instance. When the trio plays a guessing game, Emmett points at Michelle and says, “Michelle is a…” Howard repeats “girl” and grows frustrated as he is unable to come up with the word “woman”. In the end, the best Howard can do is “princess”. Howard’s inability to conceive of Michelle as a woman shows his desire to be a father figure. This fits with the territoriality he expresses toward Michelle throughout the film, such as when he brings her ice cream or chides Emmett (“No touching!”) for grabbing Michelle’s arm while she stumbles.

A Study in Ambivalence
What makes 10 Cloverfield Lane such an effective film is its reliance on the viewer’s uncertainty. It starts with the trailer: Tommy James and the Shondells’ upbeat “I Think We’re Alone Now” accompanies warm and fuzzy scenes like Howard bobbing before his jukebox and the trio playing games. You’d think this was a resurrection of Goodman’s Dan Conner from the nineties sitcom Roseanne.

But as the trailer and the film prove, 10 Cloverfield Lane is far from the Chicago suburbs where Roseanne was set and Howard is nothing like Dan Conner. Howard is not gregarious. He is controlling. He is short-tempered. He is utterly devoid of a sense of humor. Still, we can’t help but wonder: is Howard, despite his oddities, correct in his assertions? The questions build: Is Howard lying? Is he crazy? Is the air contaminated? Are we “alone now?” One isn’t even certain that Emmett can be trusted.

Then there are the bigger concerns: Will Michelle get out? And what happens if she does?

The tenuous connection to the film Cloverfield is another master stroke of ambiguity. For instance, the occasional rumblings the group hears above the bunker could be aliens (like Cloverfield), or they could be a misdirection… cars, helicopters, maybe even something that Howard manufactured.

Strange Creatures
To see 10 Cloverfield Lane in a theatre or even in a dark room is to descend alongside Michelle into Howard’s shelter. During your journey, you’ll crawl through confined spaces, and you’ll participate in escape attempts both subtle and blatant.

“People are strange creatures,” says Howard. “You can’t always convince them that safety is in their best interest.” On Howard’s turf, you can never be safe in your assumptions about just what is going on.

Can this film, which boldly refuses to conform to Hollywood tropes, even be classified as sci-fi? There’s only one place to go to find out: 10 Cloverfield Lane. - Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Friday, 25 March 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, by Lawrence Kasdan and chums | review by Jacob Edwards [spoilers]

Déjàvooine Sunrise.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (if we may be allowed a scrolling preamble) has been released with considerable fanfare and after much anticipation. Like the birth of Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, its arrival brings together a nation of fans united in pride, patriotism, hope and nostalgia (and, be warned, young George, with a bevy of concealed weapons held at the ready). At last! A renewal of the franchise that blew up the box office in 1977 and grew quickly to become – for some people quite literally – a cinematic religion. But those who queue for midnight screenings do so with some trepidation. Given the false dawn of the prequelogy (Episodes I–III), will this merely be more of the tepid same? How will the new film tie in with the Expanded Star Wars Universe? Will the original characters return and stay true to memory three decades on? Will director J.J. Abrams bring with him an unconscionable crosspollination from the Star Trek franchise? In short, will Star Wars survive its metamorphosis to the post-Lucas era? The story continues…

If cinemagoers expected or feared change, their first impressions must have been reassuringly to the contrary. George Lucas may have been bought out by Disney but the men and women with mouse ears made certain to retain John Williams, whose magniloquent orchestral scores swept audiences away and complemented so well the epic scope of the original movies. Star Wars without John Williams would be like early PC games without MIDI-pop soundtracks, only louder in the absence. Thankfully, The Force Awakens features Williams in all his incomparable pomp and majesty, reprising earlier themes where appropriate and showcasing new compositions through which sizzling lifeblood Star Wars is enabled to soar anew.

Bringing back the (quote) good bits of Star Wars seems to have been a large part of J.J. Abrams’ modus operandi. This is evident not just in the score but in his favouring of scale models, location filming and practical effects over the glitzy do-anything wowbagging of CGI. George Lucas is said to have criticised the film’s retro tone – something he himself strove to avoid in the prequels, with lamentable consequence – yet by returning to the roots of what made the original trilogy great, Episode VII recaptures the sense of enormousness that Episode IV brought so singularly to the screen. For want of a better word, The Force Awakens makes Star Wars feel big again.

A New Hope dazzled in part by way of its originality, so recapturing its spirit would necessarily encompass a certain amount of modernising. This accounts for such curiosities in The Force Awakens as the mediaeval-styled light-longsword (verdict out; those handguards look likely to endanger the user) and a buzzing new piece of stormtrooper kit (in essence a riot stick energised for duelling against lightsabers). It also explains why droid favourite R2-D2 is side-lined in favour of the equally inspired BB-8 and why C-3PO is limited to one resplendent cameo. In a similar vein, Chewbacca and his bowcaster are depicted more powerfully, while the formerly disposable stormtroopers are transformed from candy-coated featherweights into genuine enforcers. In this instance, to Abrams’ great credit, the spirit of yesteryear’s Star Wars has been bolstered by a logic and gravitas A New Hope sometimes lacked.

Which brings us to the original cast [and hereafter, major spoilers].


Monday, 21 March 2016

Redhand: Twilight of the Gods, Book 1: Son of Oblivion, by Kurt Busiek and Mario Alberti (Humanoids) | review

A party of highly religious, spear-carrying hunters stumble across a strange place while fleeing Kiotha slavers. It contains many dead bodies suspended in liquid within green tubes. But as the slavers attack, it turns out that one of the men in the tubes lives! He emerges naked, and fights mindlessly, but elegantly, like an automaton. Afterwards, his first words to the hunters become his name, because he doesn’t know who he is: “Red… hand…” Returning to their home, he faces the usual problems of the man with no name after the battle is done: hardly anyone wants him to stick around – except the pretty girl, and she has a jealous and angry admirer. This is a beautifully drawn graphic novel, every panel full of detail and interest. The story is one we’ve heard before, but it never gets old, and this version takes some surprising turns as it progresses. This should appeal greatly to anyone who yearns for new stories in the style of the early Elric books. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday, 18 March 2016

Stoker’s Manuscript, by Royce Prouty (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) | review by Jacob Edwards

Neither fading nor impaling into insignificance.

There are numerous ways to kill a vampire; somewhat fewer to keep him dead. Many a blood-curdling tale has been told. But the modern brow frowns upon capital punishment, so nowadays we prefer neutering (in the sense of making something ineffective). We strap vampires to the operating table and infuse them with a ghastly blend of garlic sauce and teenage hormones. We turn them into that which they most despise.

Throughout history, humankind has taken refuge in dark humour, chuckling grimly where otherwise we might have succumbed to fear. But comedy is not to blame for disempowering the vampire. Programmes like Count Duckula – spoofs within genre – were never going to have that effect. Laughter plays its part, yes, but the true weapon has been love: we have pulled vampires unto our collective bosom, discarding our crucifixes so as to subsume them within society’s warm embrace.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer brought vampires into the trialled and tribulated domain of teenage life. It used their dark renown as currency against which to stake kick-ass girl power. Buffy’s rise brought with it inflation, to the point where individual vampires became virtually worthless. You couldn’t give them away. The exception was Angel, but only because he was Buffy’s love interest: dark, broody and… good. To survive, it was no longer sufficient for vampires to steer clear of daylight, wooden stakes and razor-sharp chin-up bars. They had to renounce their very identity. They had to reinvent themselves.

The Twilight Saga brought this process to its wretched conclusion, firmly establishing vampires as mysterious, hunky, angst-ridden and easily besotted. Where once they were fearsome and otherworldly, now they manifested as mysterious but desirable; where formerly a different species altogether, now they were no different from any other lugubrious teen: living apart from the rest of the world, self-absorbed and misunderstood. They had issues.

Vampires, in short, became just like anybody else. To use the word pejoratively, they entered the mainstream. Gone was the unspeakable predator; the physically superior, morally bereft killer; the legend and lore; the monster hiding behind a facade of ancient nobility. No longer was there a sense of darkness; no terrible secret underpinning our fear of the unknown. These days, vampires are creatures of the everyday. There is nothing foreign (let alone alien) about them; nothing out of the ordinary in the hungering urges and bloody depravations that once constituted a force beyond reckoning. The vampire, in flaccid truth, was taken out of Transylvania, and so too was Transylvania taken out of the vampire.

In both cases, Royce Prouty has endeavoured to put it back.

Stoker’s Manuscript (Prouty’s debut novel) is centred around the original, unpublished prelude and concluding section of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. These documents are to be auctioned, and antiquarian expert Joseph Barkeley is engaged to verify their authenticity and deliver them to an anonymous buyer in Romania. Having returned thus to his homeland, Barkeley – an orphan of Romania’s communist regime under Nicolae Ceauçescy – finds that the excised chapters have a significance far beyond their literary worth… and not just to the reclusive buyer who resides deep within Bran Castle.

Perhaps the most satisfying feature of Prouty’s writing is the realism – seemingly innate – with which he grounds his story. There is a veracity to his characters, an immediacy to the setting, which together echo the literature of bygone days in hinting at fictionalised autobiography. Joseph Barkeley could be a real person, as could his brother or indeed any of the humans portrayed. Where popular fiction would have them splatter the screen or ink-smudge the written narrative with their motivations, instead these remain unobtrusive, the players sure-footed in gracing the pages of Prouty’s book. Romania itself is brought to life with a perspective that makes it eminently believable, both as a country in the throes of hardship and as the dark spawning ground of those undead creatures of legend.

Stoker’s Manuscript is a work of supernatural horror, but it is steeped in history and far from whimsical. The unreal elements seem disconcertingly plausible. The horror, though sparse, is all the more gruesome for the matter-of-fact way in which it is depicted. No aspect is played up merely to shock the reader; rather, the scenario is allowed simply to unfold, intrinsically horrific. The vampires, when they appear, lay claim to absolute dominion. The humans remain helpless; forsaken. Both sanity and sanctity are drawn in to be consumed.

Vampires, before we saw fit to humanise them, had the power to drain us not only of lifeblood but also of spirit, merely through dint of their existence. Occasionally we still tap into the fundamentally chilling dichotomy between them as predator and us as prey – Blade, for instance, before it impaled its own premise upon two splintered sequels – but for the most part we seem now to invite vampires into our homes and hearts, the nature of Dracula’s progeny becoming just one more trendy accessorising of our own human traits.

Royce Prouty, thankfully, makes no such concession; and where the mainstream would have us be enthralled by a boy crying wolf ever more loudly, ever less plausibly, Stoker’s Manuscript instead leaves the warning unuttered. Whatever secrets lay buried within Stoker’s original manuscript, we don’t need to be told that we disinter them at our peril. Yet, in Prouty’s world – looming more genuine than many a reality we fashion around ourselves – the vampyres of old remain a force to be reckoned with. Restored of both pride and place, they are more truthful to Stoker’s original than just about anything that has arisen in the hundred-odd years intervening. Prouty may not be long in the tooth as a novelist, but evidence suggests he might well prove long-lived. Jacob Edwards