Friday, 25 December 2015

Book notes: Star Wars Legacy and more

Star Wars Tales, Vol. 6 (Dark Horse Comics) by Jeremy Barlow. Last and weakest of the series. Too glum, too serious, and too little of the major characters, so that it could try to stay in continuity more. A lot less fun than any of the previous books. ***

Star Wars: Crimson Empire III: Empire Lost (Dark Horse Comics) by Mike Richardson, Randy Stradley, Paul Gulacy, Michael Bartolo and Dave Dorman. The third adventure of Kir Kanos, former guard to Emperor Palpatine, is the first to include Luke, Leia and Han (who seem rather tetchy), but it’s the usual story of imperial remnants fighting the new republic and each other. Often hard to tell what’s happening in action scenes. ***

Star Wars: Legacy, Vol. 10: Extremes (Dark Horse Comics) by John Ostrander, Jan Duursema, Brad Anderson and Sean Cooke. Takes the series up to its cancellation with issue 50, though volume 11 continues the story by collecting a mini-series. All the plotlines that have been running keep on running. Cade Skywalker continues to draw on the power of the dark side to fight his enemies and help his friends, while the Sith, former emperors and the remnants of the alliance jockey for galactic power. Readable without being all that exciting. ***

Star Wars: Legacy, Vol. 11: War (Dark Horse Comics) by John Ostrander, Jan Duursema and Dan Parsons. Burdened with much recapping in its early pages, the miniseries collected in this volume still does a surprisingly good job of roosting all the pigeons that flapped around in books one to ten. Cade Skywalker confronts the dark side of the force, the new alliance goes for broke, and the Sith reveal their terrible new weapon. I never grew to love this series, but I read one volume after another, and that tells its own story. It’s essentially a thousand-page Star Wars graphic novel. How could I not enjoy it, at least a bit? ***

Star Wars: Legacy, Vol. 5: The Hidden Temple (Dark Horse Comics) by John Ostrander, Jan Duursema and Dan Parsons. The story steps up a gear, but Cade is still an unpleasant protagonist with terrible hair and Darth Krayt seems more like a He-Man villain than something from Star Wars. I’ll keep reading, but only because I bought the whole series in one go. ***

Star Wars: Legacy, Vol. 7: Storms (Dark Horse Comics) by John Ostrander, Omar Fancia, Jan Duursema, Dan Parsons and Brad Anderson. More adventures in the post-Luke future of Star Wars. An imperial knight helps the Mon Calamari fight back against the Sith, underwater, and Cade Skywalker continues his aimless, charmless meanderings around the galaxy. ***

Star Wars: Legacy, Vol. 8: Tatooine (Dark Horse Comics) by John Ostrander, Jan Duursema, Dan Parsons and Brad Anderson. The most obnoxious brat in comics turns to ripping off pirates but they get wise to his force tricks and his stay on Tatooine ends up being longer than planned. Elsewhere in the galaxy far, far away we see how a Mandalorian (like Boba Fett) came to join Rogue Squadron, and what happens when his vengeful ex-wife finds him there. ***

Star Wars: Vector, Vol. 2 (Dark Horse Comics) by Rob Williams, John Ostrander, Dustin Weaver, Jan Duursema and Dan Parsons. The second half of a crossover between four ongoing Star Wars titles. This contains one story with Luke Skywalker set during the rebellion, and one set over a century later with Cade Skywalker. The connection is a long-lived former Jedi, Celeste Morne, who is bonded with the Muur talisman and the Sith consciousness within it. As well as volume two of Vector, this also stands as volume four of Rebellion and volume six of Legacy, a bizarre set-up that left me searching fruitlessly for the latter after having bought the other ten volumes in a sale. In this book Cade teams up with a trio of Imperial Knights and Celeste Morne to make an assassination attempt on Darth Krayt. It’s okay. ***

Merry Christmas everybody!

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Krampus | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Killjoys beware: this holiday horror surprises with positive message, tender moments.

A colleague expressed reservations about Krampus. How could I, he wondered, want to see a horror movie that ostensibly spits in the face of the Christmas holiday spirit?

As it turns out, this individual is way off the mark. Yes, Krampus is billed as a horror film. Yes, the demonic title character is, if you’ll pardon the expression, the polar opposite of Santa Claus. At first glance, Krampus seems little more than sprinkling some red and green on the typical B/slasher film in which a savvy monster gradually picks off unlikable or shallow characters.

What a pleasant surprise, therefore, when the film demolishes that expectation by morphing into a warm and, at times, touching commentary on overcoming the burdens that threaten to deflate the Christmas spirit. Krampus cautions the viewer to embrace what’s most important about the holiday season: family and hope.

Rarely does a film offer the range of experiences that Krampus does. Among the gifts it stuffs into our experiential stockings are humor, terror, sadness, triumph, anger, empathy, and appreciation. What more could one ask for?

Whether your fancy is spiked drinks and fireplaces, characters in conflict, or monsters, Krampus has something for you. Where else can you find a film in which a massive mystical creature terrifies a teenage girl, a character gets his “ass kicked by a bunch of Christmas cookies”, and a presumed insensitive sap offers a heartfelt apology?

Krampus rivets the viewer from its humorous Black Friday opening sequence to its not bleak, though certainly not “happily ever after” conclusion.

A Problem Much Bigger Than a Feisty Squirrel
The film kicks off in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) fashion: the Engel family (parents Tom and Sarah and kids Beth and Max) welcome to their suburban home the much more eccentric brood of Sarah’s sister Linda. Standouts include patriarch Howard (played by David Koechner), a pair of sisters who’ve been raised like boys, and the hard-drinking, ultra-blunt Aunt Dorothy.

The tension starts the moment the visitors walk through the door, then carries over to an entertaining dinner scene rife with insults, embarrassment, and humour.

The film abruptly darkens when Max gives up his hope on Santa (and, to him, the spirit of the season). Forget the squirrel that troubles the Griswolds; here comes Krampus, the horned, cloven-hoofed demon!

In an artful story-within-a-story, Omi Engel, Tom’s German-speaking mother, shares the Krampus legend accompanied by what a twenty-something creative professional might call a “sick” computer-generated comic-like scene. “Krampus came not to reward,” says Omi, “but to punish. Not to give, but to take.”

Fuelled by Max’s hopelessness, Krampus and his minions spend the rest of the film terrorizing (but also bonding) the families.

Beyond Campy
What gives Krampus more depth than the typical comedy-horror is a series of tender moments that make you fall in love with the family. It happens between the adult sisters, but even more impressively between the fathers. Tom Engel’s attachment to his obviously white collar job has caused some rifts within his family. Conversely, Howard, a toned-down version of Eddie in Christmas Vacation, is a shotgun-toting Republican with no qualms about attacking Tom’s lack of manliness. When the stakes rise and force these two to put their heads together, we see some genuinely moving scenes.

Many campy horror movies present characters that viewers want to get killed. In Krampus, the feeling is different. Squabbles are put aside. Weaknesses are admitted. Sacrifices are made. Even characters portrayed as jerks begin to warm our hearts. Suddenly, you don’t want them to die.

The Chilling Side
Let’s not forget that Krampus is, above all, a horror movie. So the question is . . . does it hold its own as a horror? The answer is a resounding yes. Though the majority of the film’s horror falls into the “cute” or “humorous” categories, there are instances of oddity and outright hair-raising spectacle.

Krampus’s initial appearance stands as one of the most well-done horror action sequences this viewer has seen in the last couple of years. One character encounters him on a snowy suburban street. The screen only reveals Krampus’s hugeness and his horns, but the simultaneous fluidity and power of his movements would strike fear into the heart of anyone.

Moreover, Krampus’s minions offer a collection of scenes both funny and chilling. A few come to mind: a kind of fireplace fishing using a cookie as bait, a mysteriously growing collection of creepy-looking snowmen, bastardized elves and reindeer, and an attic scene brimming with Evil Dead-like threats.

Watch It
Krampus catches humanity on a precipice. As the holidays approach, will we embrace the spirit of the season? Or will we fall prey to the temptations of materialism and greed?

The leading monster is not totally evil, nor is he willing to give complete exemption to those seeking repentance. Krampus might be all about taking, but the one thing he surely gives is a great moviegoing experience. So . . . you better watch it. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Friday, 18 December 2015

Book notes: Nexus, JLA, Orbital and more

JLA, Vol. 5 (DC Comics) by Mark Waidand Bryan Hitch. A disappointment. I love the JLA, and Mark Waid has written some terrific comics, but this just doesn’t work. The stories lack decent villains, and the heroes have lost all the sharpness of the Grant Morrison run. I don’t know what went wrong here. **

Nexus Omnibus 4 (Dark Horse Comics) by Mike Baron, Steve Rude and chums. Much more fun than previous volumes. Nexus himself is far less tortured and conflicted, and heads back to the bowl-shaped world to find a god who might be able to prevent the collapse of Gravity Well, an unstable power station built on a black hole that could destroy the solar system. A band of youngsters from Ylum become huge rock stars, jockeying begins for the presidential elections, and the three girls who pledged vengeance after Nexus executed their father continue their search for enough power to kill him. The backup stories are now all about Judah the Hammer, a huge improvement. The artwork and design is as ambitious and colourful as the stories. My favourite Nexus book yet. ****

Nexus Omnibus 5 (Dark Horse Comics) by Mike Baron and chums. Horatio Hellpop has had enough of being Nexus, and leaves Ylum to find himself. So the insane alien Merk grants his power to other candidates, including three vengeful sisters and a musclebound professor. Les Dorscheid’s colouring maintains a consistent look despite a succession of guest artists, but with Steve Rude largely absent this book isn’t as stylish or distinctive as earlier collections. ****

Nexus Omnibus 6 (Dark Horse Comics) by Mike Baron, Hugh Haynes and chums. Alien taskmaster the Merk made Stanislaus Korivitsky the new Nexus, but it’s a poor choice: he likes the killing way too much, and when the Merk’s power runs out Stan will team up with the Bad Brains! Original Nexus Horatio Hellpop will have to come out of his retirement to take him down. The art on this one has some very shaky moments, but once Hugh Haynes becomes the regular penciller it settles down a bit. Reading these six omnibuses has been a terrific experience, watching Ylum develop into a full-blown society, inching its way forward, making mistakes, trying to balance the varied demands of a growing population. A great science fiction adventure. ****

Orbital, Vol. 1: Scars (Cinebook) by Sylvain Runberg and Serge Pellé. A pair of novice special space agents are despatched to Senestam, a moon of Upsall, to resolve the conflict between human colonists and the aliens of Upsall, who would quite like their moon back now that valuable minerals have been found there. Excellent art, and an interesting story, but it is bafflingly split across two slim volumes and the matte printing is unattractive. ***

Orbital, Vol. 2: Ruptures (Cinebook) by Sylvain Runbergand Serge Pellé. The story concludes. £7.99 seems like quite a lot for a 56pp comic. ***

Queen and Country: The Definitive Edition, Vol. 2 (Oni Press) by Greg Rucka, Jason Alexander and Carla Speed McNeil. Collects three excellent stories about spy Tara Chace and her fellow Minders in the SIS. Like the MI:6 equivalent of Spooks. *****

Friday, 11 December 2015

Book notes: Empowered, Alien Legion, All You Need Is Kill, and more

Alien Legion Omnibus, Vol. 2 (Dark Horse Comics) by Alan Zelenetz, Larry Stroman, Frank Cirocco and chums. An okay book of science fiction war stories, with an admirable tendency to kill off its cast and explore the effect that has on the others, but… high heels on the new female recruit’s battle armour? What were they thinking? And some of the poses she appears in are ludicrous. ***

All You Need Is Kill (Haikasoru) by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. An sf take on Groundhog Day, it’s neat and thrilling without making tons of sense. Filmed as Edge of Tomorrow, where Tom Cruise plays a journalist who appears for just a second in the book. Here, it’s a soldier who keeps dying and waking up again, and gets better and better at fighting. ***

Black Hat Jack (Subterranean Press) by Joe R. Lansdale. Western adventure. ****

Elvenquest, Series 3 (BBC Audio) by Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto. An Audible collection of the Radio 4 series. The questers continue to search for the fabled sword of Aznagar, and come pretty close to it a couple of times. Along the way they’ll meet a wizard who seems rather a lot like Tony Blair, meet the father of Dean the dwarf, and fight Lord Darkness in single combat to decide the fate of the realms (or at least one of them will, and not necessarily the best equipped for the job). Always very funny. ****

Empowered, Vol. 5 (Dark Horse Comics) by Adam Warren. Bondage-prone superhero Emp learns more about mysterious Mind—, who stays up in the D10 orbital station to avoid living with everyone’s thoughts. Still a very saucy comic, and of course that’s much of the appeal, but the superhero stuff gets better and better. ****

Empowered, Vol. 6 (Dark Horse Comics) by Adam Warren. Emp grows into her role as a superhero, getting used to her new clinging abilities and even showing some leadership potential after she learns the secret of what happens to dead heroes and their powers. Villain Deathmonger is gathering and enslaving their remnants. Very funny, except when it means to be serious, and it keeps improving. The caged Demonwolf who sits on Emp’s coffee table is my favourite tamed baddie since Baytor (“I am Baytor!”) in The Demon. ****

Empowered, Vol. 7 (Dark Horse Comics) by Adam Warren. Ninjette has to deal with a team of bounty-hunting ninjas who want to take her back to the clan she fled with good reason. The book skips about in time to show us the fight, and her training with Emp, and a bathtub conversation with the caged Demonwolf, who for once stops talking like an angry Stan Lee to tell her how he really feels. There is also karaoke. The ongoing storylines progress at a snail’s pace, but it’s still a great book. The friendship between Emp and Ninjette is as sincere and meaningful as any I’ve seen in superhero comics. ****

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Inspirational series closes with a fizzle.

In Mockingjay – Part 2, the fourth and final installment of the hitherto superb The Hunger Games series, something slips. The viewer feels disconnected from the characters. Their dialogue sounds contrived and melodramatic. The emotional investment in the fate of Panem seems tempered. When characters flee from life-threatening dangers, they appear to jog rather than sprint.

The primary suspect for this tepid conclusion is the decision to split the final episode in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy of novels into two films (both directed by Francis Lawrence). It’s not impossible to do this successfully: the Twilight dynasty did it with Breaking Dawn Parts 1 and 2, and Peter Jackson segmented Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit into three phenomenal films.

Though Mockingjay - Part 1 (2014) held its own as a tense segue to a finale, Part 2 doesn’t follow through: too much time holed up in dark rooms watching televised updates. Too much chatter among humdrum characters. Too much filler and not enough substance.

Most of Mockingjay - Part 2 details protagonist Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and a small unit journeying on foot through a mostly abandoned Capitol. The group hangs back from the front line so its videographers can document Katniss, revered among rebels as the Mockingjay… the embodiment of their revolution. Katniss plays along with this charade so that she can pursue her ultimate goal of assassinating President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the Capitol’s Machiavellian leader.

On their way, the group must contend with “pods” that unleash deadly weapons and with the Capitol’s Stormtrooper-like Peacekeepers. Unfortunately, these challenges are far too scarce.

Katniss travels with competing love interests Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), but the intensity of their rivalry pales in comparison to that of, for instance, Twilight’s Jacob Black and Edward Cullen. Gale has all the personality of a robot, and Peeta’s struggle to keep himself from offing Katniss – he’s been brainwashed by the Capitol – grows tedious. One finds oneself saying, “Ah get over it, already!”

In my review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), I stated the film may have achieved the rare distinction of outshining the book. This time around, the book has reclaimed its title.

Bright Spots
Mockingjay – Part 2 certainly was not a total failure. A couple of action sequences come to mind: one in which the group faces an oil flood in an enclosed space while Peeta goes cuckoo, and another in which Katniss and company engage in an underground battle with “muttations” (aka “mutts”) with no eyes and massive teeth.

The film’s climax manages to resurface the vibe of its predecessors. Despite thousands of spectators, drumbeats make the only sound as Katniss promenades toward an action that will shock Panem. It’s a sharp contrast to the cheering and screaming that accompanied her on the same walk in previous episodes.

The talents of the film’s true stars carry over. It’s a pleasure to watch Julianne Moore as President Alma Coin, the opportunistic and manipulative leader of the rebel army. She sees Katniss as a tool to aid her rise to power and eventual usurpation of President Snow. But just how far will Coin, with her lizard-like eyes, take her Macbethian ambition?

Another treat is Coin’s constantly smirking co-conspirator, the Gamemaker and public perception guru Plutarch Heavensby, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Rarely is a know-it-all so likable.

With President Snow, Donald Sutherland offers a nuanced supervillain who stays true to his character. Whether he’s sipping liqueur amid his panderers or facing an imminent threat, Snow simultaneously conveys repulsion toward and admiration for his chief adversary Katniss Everdeen.

In the film’s most moving scene, Jennifer Lawrence once again proves her Oscar worthiness as she mourns the loss of a loved one. It’s a rage- and grief-fuelled release that brings together all the injustice and pain that she’s suffered. Brilliant.

Dystopia Denied
During Katniss’s earlier Hunger Games exploits, her mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) repeatedly advises her to better relate to her television audience. This autonomous young lady, despite her heroic feats and eventual Mockingjay moniker, has trouble connecting with others. Lovey-dovey Katniss Everdeen is not.

Moreover, the hardships that Katniss endures throughout the series arguably make her less connected, perhaps even cold. This is war, and war leaves lifelong psychological scars.

Considering this, it was hugely disappointing to watch a rainbows and butterflies conclusion that abruptly supplants a dystopian world with that of a fairy tale. It’s an insult to the sombre tone that pervades these films and the books. Katniss Everdeen is not a caretaker. Katniss Everdeen is a survivor. – Douglas J. Ogurek ***

Read Douglas’s reviews for Catching Fire and Mockingjay - Part 1.