Friday 26 June 2015

Book notes #6

Notes and ratings from TQF50 and TQF51 for books I didn’t review. Credits from Goodreads; apologies to anyone miscredited or missing.

Fear Itself (Marvel), by Matt Fraction and Stuart Immonen. An underwhelming crossover story. Odin has given up on Earth, but Thor and the Avengers think there is still hope. ***

G.I. Joe: Classics, Vol. 4 (IDW Publishing), by Larry Hama, Rod Whigham, Frank Springer, Mark Bright, Bob Camp and Rod Wigham. Collection of Marvel’s attempt to create decent comics based on the daft soldier toys. ***

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlepig (Beale-Williams Enterprise) by Tad Williams. A novella about an angel advocate trying to help out a werewolf client. ***

God’s War (Del Rey), by Kameron Hurley. Grimdark science fiction about an unlikeable mercenary and her gang. Nyx used to be a Bel Dame, sent by the government to take the heads of boys running away from the war, but now she’s freelance. Her world is one of strong religion and what seems to us like magic, where insect life is the basis for technology and wombs can be dropped off at organ banks to avoid putting them in any danger. It’s a bit of a grind, full of torture, misery, and characters who hate each other, but it was good. Reminded me of things like John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley. A bit like 2000AD if it were written by John Brunner instead of Pat Mills & co. ***

Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God (PS Publishing), by Lavie Tidhar. Not, as a previous issue of this magazine had it, Gorel and the Pot-Bellied Pig! This is, as its subtitle tells us, a guns and sorcery novella. Gorel was “cast out of Goliris”, “exiled to the harsh lands of Lower Kidron”, where he makes his way as a hired hand, riding an insectoid Graal, hoping always to return home to avenge his family and punish his betrayers. In this story he encounters the froggish falang and the god they worship. This novella dates back to 2011, and ever since this review has glared balefully at me, even while I’ve reviewed several of the author’s other books. That was just because I read it quickly in amongst a bunch of other books, not because I didn’t enjoy it enough to write a review. Far from it: I thought this was terrific, and began a run of Tidhar’s books that have made him one of my favourite authors. It’s an extremely interesting book, reminding me of Elric in the way it attacks the conventions of the genre. You read it assuming that Gorel is a Conan-type hero, but as he does bad things it’s almost as if the author is saying, this is your hero? He’s a drug addict, injecting himself with gods’ dust, and he’s still your hero? What about when he does this? Or this?! How bad can a badass hero get before the reader stops admiring them? ****

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 1: Cosmic Avengers (Marvel) by Brian Michael Bendis, Steve McNiven, Sara Pichelli, Michael Avon Oeming and many others. This shows up as a 350pp book on Comixology, so I was expecting an epic in the style of DC’s three-issue crossover Invasion. Sadly not; most of it is a series of single panel guided view strips; the real story is only ninety pages or so. Lacks the verve of the Abnett and Lanning series, but the art is nice. ***

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 1: Legacy (Marvel), by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Paul Pelletier. Inspiration for the film, with a similar spark. Here the new Guardians assemble in the aftermath of a galactic crisis. ***

Monday 22 June 2015

Jurassic World | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Record-breaking, bone-crunching, message-bearing MONSTER of a film.

“No one’s impressed by dinosaurs anymore.” So says marketing executive Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) of Jurassic World, a theme park dedicated to giving its visitors the ultimate dinosaur experience. Here visitors navigate glass-enclosed gyrospheres amid brontosauri and triceratops, or get splashed by a gigantic sea creature that eats a shark carcass as if it were a Skittle.

Claire’s statement reverberates powerfully in a society whose members are constantly hankering for the newest gadget, the biggest thrill, or, dare I say, the latest blockbuster film. How many of those who helped Jurassic World, directed by Colin Trevorrow, claw and tear its way past The Avengers (2012) to achieve the highest-grossing opening weekend ($208.8 million U.S.) of all time were lured by the preview featuring that aquatic colossus?

Sure, tons of advertising and the strength of three previous films propelled Jurassic World’s box office blitzkrieg, but that doesn’t discount the film for what it is: an action-packed adventure and, to the more perceptive, a cautionary tale regarding mankind’s unceasing craving to control nature. Jurassic World comments on the potential catastrophic results of our collective quest to get the biggest and the best. By the way, try to see it in IMAX and 3-D.

The Rex Big Thrill
Though the Jurassic World theme park has achieved a ninety-plus percent satisfaction rate, market research reveals its visitors are still looking for the next big thrill. Thus, the scientists in this sprawling, corporation-owned campus cook up a genetically modified badass of a dinosaur and give it a name wrought with fear (and marketability): Indominus rex! It’s bigger and badder than the T-rex. And just imagine that name stretched across a 64-ounce cup of soda!

Of course, Indominus rex escapes.

The rest of the film unfolds entertainingly, if unsurprisingly. When the creature escapes, Claire’s nephews get stuck in the park. So she runs to Navy vet Owen (Chris Pratt), a kind of dinosaur trainer stationed on the Jurassic World grounds. Together, the prudish Claire (she never takes off her heels) and the gruff, yet sensitive and sagely Owen—think Patrick Swayze—set out to save the nephews and thwart the beast. The special bond that Owen has developed with four velociraptors (the roving thugs of previous Jurassic Park films) will come into play. Make no mistake: these things are still capable of tearing off Owen’s or anyone else’s face.

Jurassic World’s taut story and jaw-dropping special effects make it a pleasure to watch. However, between the roars, the screams, and the crunching of bones, the film does whisper an important message.

It’s About Control
There is a scene about two-thirds into the film—I’m not giving anything major away here—in which a group of commandos approach the island via helicopter. One of them sees a pterodactyl flying peacefully alongside the chopper, blows it away, and then smirks. It’s a jarring scene, and it begs further exploration.

Perhaps the bearded gunman is best viewed in light of an earlier, more touching scene in which Claire and Owen comfort a dying brontosaurus. Owen, surveying a landscape littered with dinosaur corpses, makes a conclusion about the escaped Indominus rex: “She’s killing for sport.” Thus, this destructive creature, made by man, has adapted a very human trait. We need only to look to the barbarian in the helicopter to see it played out.

The theme of Jurassic World is best summarized by the word “control”, which comes up often. The scientists exercise a fallible control as they Frankenstein the ultimate dinosaur, while Claire controls her perception of the beast as a means to strengthen the bottom line.

However, nobody lives up to the control label more than the chief bad guy Hoskins, played by the ever-cocksure Vincent D’Onofrio. Hoskins, eager to prove his theory that dinosaurs can be the ultimate war machines, repeatedly butts heads with Owen. After the chaos is unleashed, Hoskins stands on a platform overlooking the park and gleefully observes the dinosaur mutiny. What better way to test Hoskins’s theory than with Owen’s foursome of velociraptors?

Knuckleheaded Love
The romantic tension between Claire and Owen—their one date didn’t work out—will appeal to the inevitable knucklehead who needs a side order of love with his or her blockbuster. Claire is the uptight, childless professional. Dressed in a pristine, almost virginal white blouse, skirt, and heels, Claire is the statistic-spouting moneymaker whose soul has been sucked out by the corporation. What better match than the motorcycle-riding Navy vet with a Tarzan-like connection with the beasts? A great pairing on the silver screen. A catastrophe in real life.

Dr. Henry Wu, Jurassic World’s unscrupulous lead scientist, says, “To a mouse, a cat is a monster. We’re just used to being the cats.” Perhaps this statement best explains Jurassic World’s strongest lure: MONSTERS!

The film exploits this fascination from the opening scene, which not only starts with the antagonist (typically a no-no), but also replaces the anticipated cute creature emerging from an egg with a menacing-looking black claw. With apocalyptic fiction all the rage, Jurassic World hatches at just the right time, perpetuating the man vs. nature mythos.

No one’s interested in dinosaurs? Au contraire. Jurassic World’s opening weekend has 208.8 million reasons to prove that we most certainly are. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Friday 19 June 2015

Book notes #5

Notes and ratings from TQF50 and TQF51 for books I didn’t review. Credits from Goodreads; apologies to anyone miscredited or missing.

Doctor Who: Lights Out (Puffin), by Holly Black. The twelfth Doctor is buying coffee for Clara when another person in the queue falls down dead. Somehow manages to have a good handle on Peter Capaldi’s Doctor despite being written before his first full episodes were on. ***

Doctor Who: Something Borrowed (Puffin), by Richelle Mead. The sixth Doctor and Peri encounter an enemy, who is about to get married. Captures very well what came closest to being good about that period of the show. ***

Doctor Who: The Chains of Olympus (Panini UK Ltd), by Scott Gray, Mike Collins, Martin Geraghty, Dan McDaid. Eleventh Doctor adventures from Doctor Who Magazine. The Doctor meets the Greek gods. ***

Doctor Who: The Ripple Effect (Puffin), by Malorie Blackman. A nice little Doctor Who book. The seventh Doctor and Ace land on Skaro, centre of learning and peace, the Athens of space. Nice to read a Doctor Who book that is actually aimed at children. ***

Doctor Who: The Roots of Evil (Puffin) by Philip Reeve. The fourth Doctor and Leela land in a giant tree. That is a space station. That has been programmed to kill the Doctor. A neat premise, deftly handled. ***

Drunk with Blood – God’s Killings in the Bible (SAB Books), by Steve Wells. Eye-opening account of how many people get killed in the Bible, often for the silliest of reasons. At times you’d think it was the Master or Lex Luthor messing with history. The stuff in here makes the Red Wedding look like a pleasant family gathering. *****

Edison Rex, Vol. 1 (IDW Publishing) by Chris Roberson and Dennis Culver. This Lex Luthor type was right. His Superman was a dangerous alien with a hidden agenda, and Edison Rex managed to get rid of him. Now he wants to make the world a better place, but everyone still thinks he is a supervillain. A quick read. Text pages flesh it out a bit. ***

Edison Rex, Vol. 2: Heir Apparent (IDW Publishing) by Chris Roberson and Dennis Culver. Edison Rex is still trying to establish himself as a hero, but the former members of hero teams The Peacemakers and Teenpeace are suspicious, and he’s not keeping a close enough eye on his allies. Enjoyable, but a bit thin: of its 139 pages, 30 are single panels with white backgrounds of Edison talking to ROFL, this world’s Mister Mxyzptlk. ***

Fables, Vol. 16: Super Team (DC Comics) by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Terry Moore and Eric Shanower. Mister Dark attacks, and in response Pinocchio and Ozma create a super-team to fight him. Meanwhile the North Wind has resolved to kill one of the Big Bad Wolf’s children. This is the sixteenth book in the series, and I’ve only previously read the first couple, but it was easy enough to pick up. Good story, with excellent artwork. Shame about the repetitive borders on the main story, which take up a lot of screen space when reading it on a tablet. ***

Fantastic Four, Vol. 1: New Departure, New Arrivals (Marvel) by Matt Fraction, Mark Bagley and Mike Allred. Slightly muddled collection of two separate but related titles, as Reed Richards realises he is dying and takes the family off to find a cure – without telling them. Loved the pages with Mike Allred art. ***

Fatale, Vol. 1: Death Chases Me (Image Comics), by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Graphic novel written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Sean Phillips, who previously collaborated on several well-regarded crime comics. It is the story of Jo, an ageless, beautiful femme fatale (on double duty as this book’s McGuffin), and the men who enter her life. In the forties that was a US soldier, who has become by the fifties a corrupt, dying police officer who barely visits her any more, ashamed of his own ageing. Dominic Haines is a married journalist who meets her in the fifties. Nicolas Lash is Dominic’s inheritor, who discovers among his godfather’s papers an unpublished manuscript from 1957, “The Losing Side of Eternity”. But before he can read it weird guys with bowler hats, round glasses and guns pull up outside. “And I realised exactly how far out in the woods I actually was. And how far away the police would be.” Jo comes to the rescue (well, almost) and the convalescent Lash reads his godfather’s story, of black magic, cultists and Lovecraftian gods. Dave Stewart (presumably not the one with spiky headphones) does a wonderful job on colours, finding exactly the right tone. ****

Friday 12 June 2015

Book notes #4

Notes and ratings from TQF50 and TQF51 for books I didn’t review. Credits from Goodreads; apologies to anyone miscredited or missing.

Captain Marvel, Vol. 1: In Pursuit of Flight (Marvel) by Kelly Sue DeConnick. Ms. Marvel aka Warbird aka Carol Danvers drops her swimsuit costume for a more practical outfit, adopts the name Captain Marvel, starts wearing her hair in an odd combover, and takes a flight in her idol’s aeroplane to try and beat a record. She gets thrown back in time and teams up with a band of grounded female pilots. The cover art led me astray: I expected art in the line of Frank Quitely, but it’s more like Dan Brereton. Good in itself, but not what I’d been looking forward to. Sending the character into the past at the beginning of a new series gives the impression of not knowing what to do with her in the present, but the feminism is welcome. The elephant in the room is that while Ms. Marvel is reluctant to take on the name of her predecessor, he nicked that name himself from the real Captain Marvel, the Big Red Cheese, Billy Batson. ***

Captain Ultimate (Monkeybrain) by Benjamin Bailey, Joey Esposito, Boy Akkerman and Ed Ryzowski. Amiable all-ages comic about an old-time superhero who returns to action at the behest of a little boy. I liked the way the Captain was depicted in old-fashioned four-colour dots, but apart from that it didn’t quite hit the spot for me. Likeable, but not quite funny enough. ***

Child of a Hidden Sea (Tor Books), by A.M. Dellamonica. Liked the book, loved the protagonist. A young woman is whisked off to a fantasy world that has the same moon as Earth, where magic works and her birth mother was part of a family of elite couriers. What I liked best was the way she’s keen to get photographs of the wildlife and things like that, and is careful to keep her camera charged. The idea of taking a solar powered charger to a fantasy world tickles me. Reviewed for Interzone #253. ***

Cloud Permutations (PS Publishing), by Lavie Tidhar. Terrific novella about a boy who wants to fly on a world where it isn’t allowed. ****

Criminal Macabre Omnibus, Vol. 1 (Dark Horse Books), by Steve Niles, Ben Templesmith and Kelley Jones. From the writer of 30 Days of Night. Cal McDonald is the American equivalent of John Constantine. He is drunker, druggier, more screwed-up, and prefers his friends dead to begin with so that they can’t get killed. Weird creatures seek him out and his job is usually to kill them. Stories involve ghouls, vampires, werewolves, a haunted car and a succubus. First half has impressionistic artwork by Ben Templesmith, and the second half has cartoonier art by Kelley Jones, which I think suits the OTT stories a bit better. ***

Deadpool Classic, Vol. 1 (Marvel) by Fabian Nicieza, Rob Liefeld, Mark Waid, Joe Kelly, Joe Madureira, Ian Churchill, Lee Weeks, Ken Lashley and Ed McGuinness. The early adventures of the mouthy mercenary, illustrated for the most part in ghastly Liefeldesque style. Marvel at its pre-Quesada worst. The book collects a pair of woeful four-issue miniseries which feature lots of shouting, contorted posing and bursting through walls, plus a couple of other issues. The final story, from the first issue of his monthly series, is an improvement. *

Doctor Who: Hunters of the Burning Stone (Panini UK Ltd), by Scott Gray, Martin Geraghty, Mike Collins. Eleventh Doctor adventures from the pages of Doctor Who Magazine. Sees the return of Ian and Barbara. ***

Doctor Who: Into the Nowhere (BBC Digital), by Jenny Colgan. Novella by Jenny Colgan about the eleventh Doctor and Clara, who end up on a rather nasty planet where skeletons have a tendency to rise up from the ground. An enjoyable little book, perfect for a rainy afternoon. Colgan captures the relationship of Clara and the Doctor rather well. Steven Moffat deliberately built lots of tie-in friendly gaps into their television adventures, so there’s plenty of scope for the two of them to travel together again. ***

Friday 5 June 2015

Book notes #3

Notes and ratings from TQF50 and TQF51 for books I didn’t review. Credits from Goodreads; apologies to anyone miscredited or missing.

Bone and Jewel Creatures (Subterranean Press), by Elizabeth Bear. A superb novella about an elderly woman who takes in a feral child and fits it with a new arm made from jewels and the remains of its own original arm, while facing the challenge of an evil necromancer. It’s a Subterranean Press book, but the ebook was available at a very reasonable price via Weightless Books. ****

BPRD, Vol. 1: Hollow Earth and Other Stories (Dark Horse Comics), by Mike Mignola and friends. Collects one-shots and other stories about Abe Sapien and the other members of the BPRD, the organisation Hellboy works for. ***

BPRD, Vol. 2: The Soul of Venice and Other Stories (Dark Horse Comics), by Mike Mignola, Scott Allie, Michael Avon Oeming, Guy Davis and friends. More great stories about Hellboy’s friends and colleagues. ****

BPRD, Vol. 3: Plague of Frogs (Dark Horse Comics), by Mike Mignola, Guy Davis and Dave Stewart. The first BPRD volume to collect a single mini-series, this spins out from events in the first Hellboy book. I’d forgotten how much I loved Guy Davis’s art on Sandman Mystery Theatre; it’s brilliant here. ****

BPRD: Hell on Earth, Vol. 1: New World (Dark Horse Comics), by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Guy Davis and Dave Stewart. Some time after the events that began in Plague of Frogs reached their conclusion, the BPRD are working for the UN and investigating the matters the UN wants investigating. Abe Sapien heads off to the woods and encounters an old friend and a demon baby and its giant-sized twin. I enjoyed this a lot. I really like Abe, more even than Hellboy. ****

BPRD: Vampire (Dark Horse Comics), by Mike Mignola and Scott Allie. A member of BPRD has had a pair of vampire souls trapped within him (I think) and he wants to find out more about the creatures. I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, but it looked terrific. I’ll probably need to re-read all these Hellboy books and spin-offs in order once I have them all. ***

Bravest Warriors, Vol. 1 (KaBOOM!), by Joey Comeau, Mike Holmes, Pendleton Ward and Ryan Pequin. Based on the new science fiction cartoon from the creator of Adventure Time, and just as much fun. ****

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8, Vol. 6: Retreat (Dark Horse Books), by Jane Espenson, Georges Jeanty and Joss Whedon. I can’t hate any Buffy comic, but didn’t enjoy this as much as hoped. ***

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8, Vol. 7: Twilight (Dark Horse Books), by Brad Meltzer, Georges Jeanty and Joss Whedon. The series gets a bit wobbly. **

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8, Vol. 8: Last Gleaming (Dark Horse Books), by Joss Whedon, Georges Jeanty and Scott Allie. A disappointing end to a series that had begun so promisingly. ***

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 9, Vol. 1: Freefall (Dark Horse Books), by Joss Whedon, Andrew Chambliss, Georges Jeanty and Karl Moline. An improvement on Season 8, which by the end I’d gone off so much that I would never have bought this if the Kindle edition hadn’t been on sale. ***

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 9, Vol. 2: On Your Own (Dark Horse Books), by Andrew Chambliss, Scott Allie, Georges Jeanty and Cliff Richards. Feels more like a continuation of the TV series. ****

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 9, Vol. 3: Guarded (Dark Horse Books), by Andrew Chambliss, Jane Espenson, Drew Z. Greenberg, Georges Jeanty, Karl Moline and Joss Whedon. Buffy has a go at being a bodyguard, but can she put work before her true calling? Enjoyable but the emphasis on how easy the zompires (zombie vampires, created after Buffy’s world was sealed off from magic) are to kill is making them feel like a negligible threat. ***

Captain America, Vol. 1: Castaway in Dimension Z (Marvel) by Rick Remender, John Romita Jr, Klaus Janson, Tom Palmer, Scott Hanna, Dean White, Lee Loughridge and Dan Brown. A thrilling book where Captain America is taken to another dimension for a lengthy stay, a dimension of monsters ruled by Arnim Zola and his horrible experiments. The spirit of Kirby is strong in this one. ****

Monday 1 June 2015

Poltergeist | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Rockwell’s performance shines in otherwise blasé remake

Advertisements for the Poltergeist remake feature a malicious-looking clown, a black background, and the hashtag #WhatAreYouAfraidOf. It looks scary, and it’s a smart way to link one of the most enduring images from the 1982 original with contemporary lingo. Too bad strong ads aren’t predictors of strong films.

The first Poltergeist was a big deal. The supernatural extravaganza struck fear into the hearts of kids and paved the way for many horror films. The 2015 rehash offers a similar storyline embellished with a few technological adornments (to show it’s contemporary): a teen texting, iPads, a video drumming game, and even a droid.

Sadly, Poltergeist’s resurrection, despite its respect for the original and a competent performance by male lead Sam Rockwell, comes up a bit flimsy. This one isn’t going to make it onto many people’s #WhatAreYouAfraidOf list, especially when it’s compared to recent haunted house films like Paranormal Activity (2007), Insidious (2010), The Conjuring (2013), and The Babadook (2014). Even the hyped up clown plays a minuscule role and the preview gives away its chief scare.

After getting laid off, Eric Bowen moves his family to a more affordable Illinois suburb. Unfortunately, the foreclosure-ridden neighborhood sits atop a former Indian burial ground. As the family attempts to settle in, strange things start happening… with toys, trees, electricity, and appliances. Then, you know the words. Come on… sing along! The supernatural entities get angrier, the threats increase, the paranormal investigators show, the family members undertake heroic efforts to save their loved ones. There’s the weird little boy, the ball moving on its own, and the stay-at-home mom who has it in her to be a great artist (in this case it’s a writer) if only she wasn’t tied down by her kids.

The only novel technique this film employs involves flying a drone through the house and into the transdimensional portal. However, it doesn’t really add anything to the film.

Most of the film’s attempts at humour fall short. I hoped that Jared Harris’s take on TV celebrity/spiritual medium Carrigan Burke would transcend the norm. Alas, plopping an Irish accent on what has become a cookie cutter paranormal investigator doesn’t do the trick. One relationship that could have been played up was that between Burke and his nerdy but endearing ex-wife Dr Brooke Powell. The film’s funniest scene involves a minor character: a young investigator who loses his drill on the other side of the closet wall as he tries to install a monitoring device. When the spirits on the other side use the young man’s drill to “screw” with him, it’s hard to keep from laughing.

All’s Well with Rockwell
Sam Rockwell all but carries this film. In a genre in which the male lead is often unmemorable at best, Rockwell injects verve and individuality into a character who would be easily forgotten in less capable hands. Eric Bowen, victim of the corporate juggernaut, is down-to-earth and humorous, yet flawed… the kind of guy you’d like as your next-door neighbour. Bowen gives his kids high fives, plays with his wife, eats chicken nugget covered pizza, talks while chewing, and pretends he’s getting attacked by a killer squirrel. When the tears well as Bowen says all he wants is for his daughter’s safe return, Rockwell is, despite the absurdity of the situation, believable. That’s the sign of a good actor.

It’s entertaining to watch Bowen’s spendthrift leanings exacerbate the guilt he feels for his inability to be a provider. One night, he comes home with gifts for each family member. In one of the film’s most compelling scenes, Bowen tries to make light of the situation when his credit cards don’t work at a home improvement store.

One could argue that this film would have been much more interesting if all the supernatural hocus pocus were stripped away and instead it tightened the focus on the familial and financial challenges of this character.  

Frightening Doesn’t Strike Twice
Ultimately, this movie suffers from the requirement that it must pay homage to a film that made an impact thirty years ago. As time passes, social norms change. What was scary thirty years ago isn’t scary today.

One need look no further than the film’s most recognized line (“They’re here…”) to see the degradation that has occurred. The original Carol Anne’s utterance is cautionary, yet playful. Carol Anne’s 21st century reincarnation Madison treats the line in a way that’s best described as dispassionate.

Maybe, for this one, the spirit of the original is best left at rest. – Douglas J. Ogurek ***