Wednesday, 29 June 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Prepare for what might be the most entertaining action scene that you’ve ever experienced.

I thought that these X-Men movies would start running out of gas, but they haven’t… and I don’t want them to. X-Men: Apocalypse, the latest installment in the longstanding series, keeps it moving full speed ahead. Director Bryan Singer serves up his fifth X-Men work with all the ingredients of a great action/adventure: humour, loss, vengeance, spectacular visuals, great music (ranging from Beethoven to Metallica), extreme character change, and of course, violence. Plus we find out how Ororo Munroe/Storm got white hair and how Professor Charles Xavier lost his hair. Bam!

And yes, the film rather blatantly jumps on the apocalypse bandwagon, but so what? If people like the prospect of a destroyed Earth, then give them that.

In an alternate 1983, En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse, the world’s first mutant, awakens in Cairo after a 5,500-year nap. The supervillain recruits four susceptible mutants (just like four horsemen, eh?), then sets out to conquer the world. A larger group of mutants, headed by younger versions of the ever peaceful Charles Xavier and the pre-antihuman Raven/Mystique, wants to stop them.

There are many fun tidbits sprinkled throughout the film. Following are a few examples:

  • Storm hurls lightning while screaming like a tennis player. 
  • Kurt Wagner/Nightstalker wears Michael Jackson’s famous red leather jacket. 
  • Jean Grey reveals her extreme power (and a little of her mental instability).
  • After two characters say that Mystique’s heroics changed their lives, Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver says, “Mine too. I mean, I still live in my mom’s basement, but pfft. Everything else is, uh… well, it’s pretty much the same. I’m a total loser.”

Acting ranges from satisfactory to great. It reaches its peak with Michael Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto. Since the havoc he wreaked in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), Erik has retreated to a Polish village, started a family, and become a dependable blue collar worker. However, tragedy must strike to put this metal manipulator on the path to villainy. It’s difficult for an actor to convincingly convey grief in a superhero film, but Fassbender pulls it off.

Oscar Isaac delivers an enjoyably over-the-top bad guy in En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse (aren’t the most ridiculous villains often the most entertaining?). He kills people by merging them into walls or the ground. His vocals shift between a whisper and a multi-voice roar: “Everything they’ve built will fall! And from the ashes of their world, we’ll build a better one!”

A Speedster and a Maniac
Even for those who think it’s time to put a big X over this franchise, it would be downright inhuman not to enjoy the two best scenes, which are really only peripherally connected to the plot. The first begins when the film speed slows, the camera focuses on a bee, and synthesizers kick off the Eurythmics’ eighties classic “Sweet Dreams”. Then the super-fast Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters) steps into the scene. Prepare to laugh out loud and be awed as Peter attempts to save other mutants from an exploding building. Because it’s from his perspective, everything around him appears in slow motion. Watch him backtrack to save an airbound fish, then grimace as two youngsters lean in for a sloppy kiss. If you saw Peter’s talents displayed in a similar scene in X-Men: Days of Future Past, then you’re in for a treat: this one takes it to the next level. At the film’s end, the woman next to me said, “That was the best action scene I’ve ever seen.”

The second standout scene could be interpreted as a cameo trick to boost box office sales, but doesn’t everyone love a good trick? In it, a shirtless Wolverine goes on a rage-induced killing spree during which he uses his new adamantium claws to slice and impale his way through 40 or 50 men before running out into the snow. No talking. No magic. Just growling and slashing and killing. Raw power. As Wolverine retreats, a stunned Scott Summers/Cyclops can only say, “Hope that’s the last we’ve seen of that guy.”

In the Moment
Certainly there are things that the fussy moviegoer can pick apart. That’s partly because there’s so much chronological shifting in the X-Men series. So questions emerge: Shouldn’t character A and character B be closer in age? Didn’t character C first meet character D much later?

Moreover, the underdeveloped Raven/Mystique character didn’t require an actress of Jennifer Lawrence’s calibre, and the “adult” Mystique of earlier installments was more “mystiquey”.

Then there are the typical critic jabs (e.g. “tired”, “unimaginative”) that seem to come with any long-lasting series. Maybe they stepped out to sharpen their critical spears during the scenes with Quicksilver and Wolverine.

Here’s some advice for watching this film: enjoy it in the moment… – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

King Ted Reading Challenge: 50% done

My older daughter's school (nickname King Ted) sets the children a reading challenge, and I decided this year to do it too. The pupils are challenged to read two books in each of twenty categories, without counting any author more than once. I've added my own wrinkle, that a maximum of one book in each category can be from a male writer. And while the children do the challenge over the school year, I'm doing it over a calendar year (which gives me a bit longer). On schedule so far. New books in bold.

Short story zone
1. Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Diane Williams. Bright yellow collection of super-short stories published by McSweeney's.
2. King Wolf, Steven Savile. Interesting short stories about a writer and his illustrator. Review in TQF55.

Mystery zone
1. Hunters & Collectors, M. Suddain. Science fiction novel about a celebrity food critic on a quest to eat at the exclusive restaurant of an elusive hotel. Review planned for Interzone #266.

History zone
1. The Silver Branch, Rosemary Sutcliff.

Thriller zone
1. Thieves Fall Out, Gore Vidal.

Diary zone

Witch Child by Celia Rees and review
2. [Counts as two books, if you write a review.]

Biography zone
1. Leonardo da Vinci, Giorgio Vasari. From the brilliant Penguin Little Black Classics box set. Also includes the stories of two other artists.

Science fiction zone
1. World of Water, James Lovegrove. Reviewed in Interzone #265. Follow-up to World of Fire. Enjoyed them so much I bought them both for my dad for Father's Day.

Horror zone
1. I Travel By Night, Robert McCammon.
2. Amityville Horrible, Kelley Armstrong. Subterranean Press novella about a real psychic pretending to be an ordinary (i.e. fake) psychic who goes on a reality ghosthunting show. Good but it had some very saucy bits.

Fantasy zone

Comedy zone
1. The Areas of My Expertise, John Hodgman.
2. Yes Please, Amy Poehler. Listened to the Audible version of this brilliant book. Funny, inspirational and very clever in the way it plays with the form, e.g. having other people read particular passages.

Romance zone
1. Come Close, Sappho.

Friends and family
1. Patchwerk, David Tallerman.

Classic zone
1. Mrs Rosie and the Priest, Giovanni Boccaccio.

Myths, fairy tales and legends from around the world

1. The Vor Game, Lois McMaster Bujold.

1. The Caped Crusade, Glen Weldon.
2. The Accidental Indexer, Nan Badgett. I have to do a tiny bit of indexing in my day-to-day work, and I felt it was somewhere I could level up my skills a bit. This is mainly about being an indexer, rather than doing the indexing, but there's some good advice and it's really helped me improve my work.

Adventure zone
1. Jacaranda, Cherie Priest.

Crime zone

Friends recommended
1. Stet, Diana Athill. A present from my co-editor John and his wonderful family! A fascinating book about an editor who worked with big names like V.S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys, with scandalous stories about them all.
2. The Third Policeman, Flann O'Brien. Another present from John and co. Didn't get far into this before thinking it reminded me a lot of Lost – e.g. weird guys in an underground office taking measurements of reality, and a threatening ghostly figure in an abandoned house – and turns out that indeed this was referenced on the show.

So halfway through the year I'm halfway through the challenge. I'll post an updated version of the list when (or if) I get to 75% and 100%. I'm currently reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, only a decade after I bought it, which'll go into Fantasy, and A Hippo Banquet by Mary Kingsley, which'll go into Adventure.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Empowered: Unchained, Vol. 1, by Adam Warren and chums (Dark Horse Books) | review

Collects various one-shots about Empowered, most of them featuring a colour section drawn by a guest artist. One special is all about Maidman, who dresses as a maid and thus casts more fear into the hearts of criminals than anyone dressed as a bat would ever do. In others: a horny robot’s cyberfantasies run riot in a dump for the detritus of superhero battles; Ninjette explains the nine stages of her drunkenness; Empowered fights a gang of animal-themed superheroes, and explains how much more useful cars can be in battle if you don’t just throw them at your enemies; and Empowered and Ninjette take a fantastic voyage into an alien baby who is bigger on the inside. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 20 June 2016

Empowered, Vol. 8, by Adam Warren (Dark Horse Books) | review

Sistah Spooky is still devastated by the loss of her lover, and it’s made all the worse by her having kept their relationship secret during their time together. Emp is feeling terrible about it too, wondering if she could have done something different on the Superhomeys’ space station D10. So the two of them do something really stupid that involves using forbidden alien weaponry (forbidden because six years ago it created a new volcano in San Antonio) to batter at the gates of hell. We’ll learn lots more about Sistah Spooky and even a bit about Emp’s unfortunate tendency to get tied up by supervillains. This book keeps up the high standards of the series. From an unpromising beginning Emp has grown into one of the bravest, most admirable and most determined superheroes in comics. I may have only bought the whole series because it was on sale at Dark Horse Digital (it was Father’s Day and I deserved a treat!), but it’s now a solid favourite of mine. The stories take a while to bloom, but when they do you care because the roots go so deep. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 13 June 2016

Doctor Who: The Good Soldier, by Andrew Cartmel, Mike Collins and chums (Panini Comics) | review

A 128pp collection of strips from Doctor Who Magazine issues 164 to 179, plus a couple from specials, and a pair of text stories. This is the third collection of stories featuring the seventh Doctor, as played by Sylvester McCoy, not the easiest of Doctors to draw, and the twentieth Panini collection overall. As ever with this series of books, the reproduction of the artwork is flawless, as is the overall presentation. Unlike Nemesis of the Daleks, the previous seventh Doctor collection, this doesn’t include any sub-par strips from The Incredible Hulk Presents. It gets off to a great start with “Fellow Travellers”, illustrated by Arthur Ranson. “The Mark of Mandragora”, in which the malevolent and ancient intelligence manipulates the Doctor and the Tardis, has previously been collected in a Marvel graphic novel, but it’s not a patch on the title story, “The Good Soldier”, by Andrew Cartmel and Mike Collins, where the Doctor and Ace encounter the original Mondasian Cybermen on a trip to 1954 Nevada. In its look and feel it points towards how consistently ambitious the strip would become during the eighth Doctor’s tenure. The commentary section is as fascinating as ever. My very favourite panel of the book makes the writer of that story cringe! And did you know that Andrew Cartmel approached Alan Moore to write for the television programme? Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 6 June 2016

On a Red Station, Drifting, by Aliette de Bodard (Nine Dragons River)

The Great Virtue Emperor is losing control of the star-spanning Dai Viet Empire. Rebels like Lord Soi are tearing it apart. Linh, the highly educated magistrate of the Twenty-Third Planet, was induced to flee before it fell to the war-kites of the rebel lords. The shame of that flight is bad enough, but she also sent a strongly-worded report on the civil war to the Emperor, which some might see as treasonous in its questioning of his leadership abilities. Le Thi Quyen is the administrator of Prosper Station, working with the Mind – the Honoured Ancestress – who controls its every function. As well as the arrival of Linh and all the danger that brings, she must investigate the apparent malfunctioning of the Honoured Ancestress and the betrayal of her own brother, Huu Hieu, who sold off the memory chips containing the thoughts of their revered ancestors. The station’s Mind helps its inhabitants to cope with the unnaturality of life in space, sharing their thoughts and cloaking the metal and rivets with poetry and decoration, but as she loses her strength, the comfort and connection she provides ebbs away, putting the lives of everyone on the station in the hands of Linh and Quyen, and at the mercy of their quarrel. This novella is imaginative and intense, each character stretched to their breaking point, many spouses missing in the war, now struggling to cope with current crises while knowing that worse is to come, fighting their own worst impulses when the wrong word at the wrong time could be fatal. Stephen Theaker ****

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Closing to submissions till December (except for the Unsplatterpunk Special!)

We've just closed to submissions for Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #56, and looking at what we have in hand already for that issue, and the additional submissions that have come in over the last month, and the pile of material produced by all of my hard-working pseudonyms, I think we have enough now for both #56 and #57, while #58 is a special issue (see below), so I've decided to close to regular submissions until December.

The exception would be reviews, which are always welcome, and further instalments in any of our ongoing serials, which we can always squeeze in.

Frustrated? Need another outlet for your literary genius? Turn your attention instead to #58, our upcoming Unsplatterpunk Special, edited by TQF regular Douglas Ogurek: submission guidelines here for that one!

By the way, apologies for the delay in publishing issue 55. It's all my fault. Our guest editor Howard Watts completed his work a while ago and it's been waiting for me to do my bit. It'll be with you soon, and it'll be worth the wait, I promise. Issue 56 will probably follow hard on its heels.