Monday 31 October 2016

The Flash, Season 1, by Andrew Kreisberg and many others (Warner Bros Television) | review

The Flash is a name that has been used by a series of DC Comics characters: Jay Garrick in the forties, Barry Allen from the late fifties, Wally West from the late eighties, and probably a couple more since. The Flash of this television series is Barry Allen, a police scientist who is struck by lightning and becomes the fastest man alive. Before that happened Barry appeared in episodes of Arrow, and so, like the forthcoming Legends of Tomorrow and Vixen animated series this is part of what’s sometimes called the Arrowverse. Gotham probably isn’t a part of this continuity, nor was Smallville, nor are any of the planned DC films, but Supergirl is in a nearby dimension, and Constantine was added after-the-fact once he had appeared in Arrow. That’s quite the little universe that has grown out of Arrow, a show with such unpromising beginnings. The Flash gets off to a much better start than its big brother. The big change from the comics (or at least the comics I’ve read) is that the lightning storm is brought on by an explosion at STAR Labs, after Harrison Wells turns on his particle accelerator against the advice of his colleagues. This explosion acts much like the meteor crash in Smallville, providing an origin for most of the superpowered beings we meet in the programme. (One whose powers don’t come from there is Captain Cold, played brilliantly by Wentworth Miller in several episodes.) Wells, along with high-flying assistants Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes) and Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker), helps Barry to master his powers, as step by step he becomes the Flash we know and love. Grant Gustin is likeable as Barry Allen, determined to clear his father for the murder of his mother (he saw red and yellow blurs flashing around her in the room that night...), and in love with journalist Iris West, daughter of the police officer who became his guardian once dad was in jail. There is so much to like about the show: its confident handling of story arcs and mysteries, its excellent special effects, the speed with which it builds up a roster of great supporting characters, the diversity of its cast and characters, and how it draws on all the riches of the character’s history. This is Barry Allen, but there’s a lot of the Wally West stories in here too: fingers crossed for Chunk in season two! For those who have read Flashpoint, the risk that this Barry might create that dark universe looms over the season’s events. The main villain is properly scary, with his glowing red eyes and readiness to kill. I could live with less mooning over Iris in season two, but the programme originates on The CW so that rather goes with the territory. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday 28 October 2016

Y: The Last Man, Vol. 4: Safeword, by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, Goran Parlov, and José Marzań, Jr (Vertigo) | review by Stephen Theaker

Yorrick Brown is left alive after a plague killed every other man in the world – and every male creature but one, his monkey Ampersand. In this fourth book, collecting issues 18 to 23 of the original series, he is still travelling across America with Dr Allison Mann and Agent 355. They hope to reach Mann’s lab and figure out his immunity, and find a way for the human race to start reproducing again. That’s the long-term plan, but right now Ampersand is ailing from the cut he picked up in the previous book. While Agent 355 and Dr Mann go off to get medicine, they leave Yorick with one of 355’s retired colleagues, Agent 711. His experiences in her log cabin are eye-opening, to say the least, and we learn that Yorick isn’t quite the happy-go-lucky type we had imagined. In the book’s second story, “Widow’s Pass”, the interstate route is blocked by a small but heavily-armed militia, convinced the government is behind the plague and ready to beat any government employees to death until they confess. It’s another terrific volume of this series. The story is gripping, both in the day to day events and the ongoing mysteries. The artwork and colouring is perfect, the action always totally understandable without giving up any dynamism. And this book gives us many more layers to Yorick’s character, as we learn more about his life both before and immediately after the disaster. Best of all is the thoughtful storytelling of the sort that gives us Dr Mann explaining which animal species will die out first, because of their short life cycles: the apocalypse isn’t yet over. Very good indeed. Stephen Theaker ****

Wednesday 26 October 2016

The Hounds of Hell, Book 1: The Eagle’s Companions, by Philippe Thirault and Christian Højgaard (Humanoids) | review by Stephen Theaker

During the sixth century CE, the Emperor Justinian reigns in Byzantium, but dreams of reclaiming the western Roman empire, which has fallen to the barbarians. Angles and Saxons here in the UK, Vandals in Corsica and North Africa, Visigoths in Spain, and Ostrogoths in Italy: Theodoric, king of the Goths, has been named imperial regent. Justinian’s young wife, Theodora Augusta, a worshipper of Pluto, sets in motion a plan. Epidamnos, the warrior-magus, also called Avian, is tasked with reuniting his colleagues, the most fearsome band of mercenaries to ever exist. Or at least those of them that survive: there was a reason they split up. Camarina the Panther, deposed princess of Thrace; Triada, an Amazonian archer (called here the archeress); the Eagle, a scarred general: he summons them all by means of their Edessa stones. Khorsabad Three-Hands he recovers from a prison in the district of thieves. Their mission: to recover the treasure offered by the Roman emperors to the old gods as an apology for ditching them in favour of Christianity. Or at least that’s what they think. This digital album is the first in a series of four (all of which are also available in a single paperback collection), and it does a good job of drawing the team together, showing us what is special about each of them, and getting them started on their adventures, as well as dipping back into their histories. There’s some unpleasant sexual violence, but otherwise it’s an exciting, intriguing adventure that is impeccably drawn and coloured. ***

Monday 24 October 2016

Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1: Unmanned, by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra and José Marzán, Jr (Vertigo) | review

Every man and boy in the world starts throwing up blood and drops down dead, all at the same time. Is it because the Amulet of Helene has been taken out of Jordan, bringing on an ancient prophecy of catastrophe? Or because Doctor Mann gave birth to her own clone? Or because Yorick Brown proposed to his best friend with a ring he bought in a magic shop for half the money he had? The only man who might find out is Yorick himself, because he’s the only man to survive (at least so far as we know from this book). All the male non-humans died too, except for his capuchin monkey Ampersand. Others might have seen the resulting situation as a golden opportunity for a healthy young man, but not Yorick, he’s in love with Beth, and she’s in Australia, so like James Garner in Support Your Local Sheriff that’s where he’s heading, whatever else distracts him in the meantime. It’s a dangerous world for a man, where anyone he meets could want to sell, kill or enslave him, but his mother asks him to go with the awesome Agent 355 to find Dr Mann – together they might be the best hope for the world, especially if they can figure out why Yorick survived. This is an excellent book. It has a great premise, and this volume begins to explore the ramifications of that premise in fascinating ways. For example, Yorick’s mother is a representative in Congress, and because the Democrats have more female representatives there than the Republican, they become a majority when the men die. Pia Guerra and José Marzán, Jr’s art is perfect, reminiscent in its clarity and structure of Steve Dillon’s work on Preacher for the same publisher, but with character all of its own. The book’s weakest link is probably Yorick himself, who isn’t half as interesting and charismatic as the female characters that surround him. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday 21 October 2016

Jessica Jones, Season 1, by Melissa Rosenberg and chums (Marvel/Netflix) | review by Stephen Theaker

Jessica Jones is a private eye, and she’s down on her luck, doing jobs for a shady lawyer that don’t always bring out her best side. Traumatised by having fallen under the mental control of a powerful psychic for a long period, and the things he forced her to do during that time, she’s drinking too much and not looking after herself. She has a couple of things going for her: superstrength (though no more invulnerability than is required to punch people very hard without breaking your own arm) and a good friend, former child star Patsy Walker. (Their friendship and its history is one of my favourite things about the programme.) Sadly, we’re not joining Jessica at the point where things start to pick up for her. She does meet a new guy, Luke Cage, who seems able to deal with the worst drunks in Hell’s Kitchen without taking a scratch, but it’s not one of those relationships built on mutual trust, at least at first. And she’s beginning to think that Kilgrave, her psychic tormentor, might be back, and it’s impossible to make anyone believe her when he can just order people to forget that they’ve ever seen him. He is back (and played with a gleefully childish lack of conscience by David Tennant), and he’s going to cause a lot of trouble before the thirteen-episode series is over.

Jessica is played by Krysten Ritter, from Don’t Trust the B– in Apartment 23 and Veronica Mars (fans of that show may also enjoy this darker take on the same genre). It’s not the most obvious casting, since she’s best known for comedy, but she’s very good, conveying all the moods and troubles of her character perfectly. Everyone in the programme is equally well cast, and it’s well directed, and always interesting. Overall, I enjoyed it, but it drove me up the wall, the longer it went on. Some people might see the problems I had with it as nitpicking, but to me they were fundamental flaws. Jessica and her friends are trying to defeat an enemy who can order anyone to follow his instructions, but they don’t use earplugs, they don’t wear noise-cancelling headphones, they don’t do any of the perfectly obvious things you would do to cope with someone who has those powers. And they can’t convince anyone to believe he has powers, even though SHIELD, at the very least, know of an Asgardian with the same gimmick, and everyone would know about the superpowers of Thor and the Hulk. It might have been better if Kilgrave and his powers had been brought to the fore a bit later in the series, coming in for the finale rather than being the main antagonist for the whole thing, because, much as I like David Tennant and love his portrayal of this repellent character, his powers don’t stand up to twelve hours of scrutiny – even if the show does find interesting ways to use them. I’m looking forward to season two, though. ***

Wednesday 19 October 2016

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, by Thomas Ligotti (Penguin Classics) | review by Rafe McGregor

In issue forty-nine I reviewed Thomas Ligotti’s The Spectral Link (2014) and described him as the most accomplished practitioner of weird fiction today. As such, it is satisfying to see that he has finally been admitted to the canon of twentieth century horror fiction by inclusion in the Penguin Classics series, which has recently taken an interesting turn with the publication of relatively obscure works of classic pulp horror fiction, like Clark Ashton Smith’s The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies (2014). This is particularly satisfying in Ligotti’s case as although he is in his fourth decade of publishing to great critical acclaim, he has failed to achieve mainstream success – understood in terms of mass market paperback sales. I think there are two reasons for this: although he has published sixteen books to date (excluding the Penguin release, but not The Spectral Link), they have all been collections of short stories, short novellas, or poetry rather than the novel so beloved by commercial publishers. Second, there is the – and I know no better term – weirdness of the stories themselves, which I imagine will not have an appeal beyond horror aficionados in the way that, for example, Stephen King’s work does. Ligotti has nonetheless remained a firm favourite of a limited audience and I was lucky enough to pick up Volume 9, Number 1 (1989) of the long-abandoned Crypt of Cthulhu magazine, with nine short pieces by him, at a recent book fair. The price was very reasonable – too reasonable – and I wish there was more demand for his work.

Penguin have overcome the problem of the public’s preference for substantial volumes by compiling Ligotti’s first two short story collections for their series. Songs of a Dead Dreamer was first published in 1985 and contains nineteen stories and a curious (but fascinating) lecture; Grimscribe was first published in 1991 and contains thirteen stories and an (also curious but fascinating) introduction for a total of thirty-four short works preceded by a foreword from Jeff VanderMeer. VanderMeer is best known for his Ambergris and Southern Reach series and, with his wife Ann, as the foremost anthologist of weird fiction in the twenty-first century. The foreword is everything one would hope from a preface: laudatory without being slavish and informative without being pedantic. VanderMeer is quick to mention “the author’s unique way of seeing the world”, which is precisely the reason I differ from him in my description of Ligotti as a writer of weird tales. VanderMeer sees Ligotti as “always passing through” the weird to the literary, but I do not consider classification as both weird (understood as a subgenre of horror) and literary as incompatible, even if Ligotti’s work is uniquely classified as such.

In my previous review, I focused on two themes explored by Ligotti: the difference between things as they really are and things as we perceive them and the sinister implications of the meaning of “demoralization”. The first story in the collection, “The Frolic”, evinces both of these, but it is the former that has the greater resonance in Ligotti’s oeuvre. In my review of David Tallerman’s The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories (2016) in issue fifty-five, I mentioned S.T. Joshi’s definition of weird fiction as embodying a distinctive world-view by the author. There is a sense in which Ligotti’s distinctive world-view is one that explores the deconstructive criticism that was so popular and so infamous towards the end of the last century. There has been a great deal of nonsense written about (and some would say by) Jacques Derrida, who popularised the approach in the sixties, but the basic idea behind deconstruction is simple: human beings (subjective experience) can only gain access to the real world (objective reality) through concepts, which are articulated through language. The worry, which stems from curiosities such as the fact that languages not only use different words for the same concept, but have different concepts that cannot be translated in their entirety, is that no human language and therefore no human conception maps perfectly on to reality. There is obviously plenty of overlap – otherwise we would not be able to build bridges, cure diseases, invent the internet, and fly to the moon – but there is no identity relation between concept and reality. The space that this opens up is the difference between the world as we think it is and the world as it really is, where aspects of the latter are understood to remain permanently inaccessible to us. Ligotti takes this difference and scrapes away at it, making it larger and more frightening. In “The Frolic”, a prison psychologist states of his paedophile patient: “He says he just made the evidence look that way for the dull masses, that what he really means by ‘frolicking’ is a type of activity quite different from, even opposed to, the crimes for which he was convicted.” The actions of the patient are even more horrific than they initially appear for they are not only a form of torture, but a reminder that we live in a world that we are incapable of fully understanding.

One of the features of deconstructive criticism is that it undermines commonly accepted logic and Ligotti’s tales follow suit. A basic principle of logic, for example, is the law of noncontradiction, which states that something cannot be both true and false at the same time, but the narrator of “The Frolic” demurs: ‘“It’s as if I know something and don’t know it at the same time.”‘ He is subsequently shown to both know and not know – knowing where the evidence points and also knowing that his grasp of reality is subjective rather than objective. And later, from “Dream of a Manikin”: “Accredited studies notwithstanding – as I’m sure you would contest – suppose the dreamer is not a man or butterfly, but both … or neither, something else altogether.” This is the most distinctive and the most disturbing element of Ligotti’s horror, the way it deconstructs reality in the philosophical sense. Even if we have good mental health, reality is revealed only through fallible conceptions and this lack of fit between words and world is a frightening subject of contemplation, a gap through which monsters of all kinds can enter. It is not that Ligotti’s monsters are more frightening than those of other authors, but that he exposes our world as a place that remains essentially – necessarily – unknown to us and, as H.P. Lovecraft proclaimed in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927), there is nothing more frightening than the unknown.

The influence of Lovecraft is strongly felt in many, if not most, of these stories – but this is a genuine influence, of his cosmic futilitarianism rather than his strangely named gods and books. Occasionally, it is explicit: the end of “The Last Feast of Harlequin” reveals the story’s dedication to Lovecraft and is a re-writing of “The Festival” (1925) without that story’s flaws (and also acknowledges the influence of Edgar Allan Poe with mention of “the Conqueror Worm”). Mostly, the influence is implicit, from the suggestion of an alien presence in “The Frolic” to the distant similarities between “The Dreaming in Nortown” and “The Shadow Out of Time” (1936) and the more obvious similarities between “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World” and “The Colour Out of Space” (1927). The latter story by Ligotti, the last in Grimscribe, is particularly interesting in that it throws up one of the two major differences between Ligotti and his predecessor: Ligotti is not only a much better writer than Lovecraft, but where Lovecraft was fascinated by rural and far-flung locales, Ligotti’s focus is on urban settings. This choice makes his writing even more unnerving for it is in the towns and cities, where we have self-evidently shaped reality to our own ends, that we should feel most at home in the world – but where the cracks between perception and reality are at their widest.

Monday 17 October 2016

Doctor Who, Season 9, by Steven Moffat and friends (BBC) | review

Peter Capaldi returns for a second season as the Doctor, Jenna Coleman for a third as Clara, and Steven Moffat for his fifth as head writer. Not a surprise then that this feels like the work of people who really know what they are doing with these characters. The Doctor at first is travelling alone, having the party of his life in medieval times because he knows there’s trouble up ahead, while Clara is teaching at Coal Hill, where it all began. They are brought back together by Missy, Davros and the Daleks, and by the end of the year they’ll have encountered Odin, the Zygons, ghosts in an undersea base, an immortal girl running a sanctuary for aliens, and the creatures that grow from the sleep in your eyes if you leave it unwashed for too long. They’ll travel to the very end of the universe and back, while ending every other episode on a cliffhanger.

Though this is a very modern series of Doctor Who in most ways, the special effects, writing, sound design, direction and acting always excellent – I’d say film quality at times, if more films were actually this good – it feels like Steven Moffat’s stab at writing a traditional season of the original show: split these episodes in two and you could have five four-part stories, a two-parter, and a six-parter. It’s exciting throughout, different again to Moffat’s previous seasons, always looking for new ways to test the format, expand its possibilities, and hammer at the Doctor’s weaknesses, while also giving children new playground games to play and good advice for life: next season may well focus on the ramifications of the Doctor’s mistakes this time around, but an episode in there about the importance of brushing your teeth would be very helpful. And it is immensely generous, leaving galaxies of room for future writers of novels, comics and audio adventures to explore. Moffat’s plots wind up into tight little knots, but there’s always a thread left for others to follow.

That the new programme is still going a decade on is an incredible achievement, that’s it’s still so brilliant is unbelievable. A credit to everyone who worked on it. Stephen Theaker *****

Friday 14 October 2016

Fear the Walking Dead, Season 1, by Robert Kirkman and chums (AMC) | review by Stephen Theaker

Travis Manawa (played by Cliff Curtis) and Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) are a married couple trying without much luck to blend a family. He is divorced, she is a widow. Travis has a son who lives with his ex and doesn’t want to see him at the weekends, Madison has a son, Nicky, who loves heroin and a daughter, Alicia, who hates long trousers. When Nicky wakes up in a drug den to find his girlfriend eating someone’s face, he thinks he’s gone mad, and so does his family, but it won’t be long before everyone is caught up in that madness. When a riot breaks out in the city centre, Travis and his son take refuge in a hairdressers with a family of three, emigrants from El Salvador, not realising that from now on, all refuge will be temporary.

American television has a lamentable tendency to suck the vitality out of any successful television programme by creating licensed rip-offs and copycats. For every worthwhile Xena or Angel there are a dozen NCISes: LA or CSIs: New York that overstretch the premise or divide the writing staff. Fear the Walking Dead spins out of a programme that itself has sometimes been spread a little thin, despite its quality, having to ration the appearances of some cast members. But this spin-off has one big selling point: where the usual colonates just show us slightly different people doing a slightly different job under a slightly different colour filter, Fear the Walking Dead can show us a crucial part of its parent’s story, one that viewers missed while Rick Grimes was sleeping in hospital: how the apocalypse went down. Part of the reason we didn’t see that before was that it had been shown in so many films, so why repeat it? Get to the stuff we don’t know! But that world means more to us now. We know how bad it is going to get for these people, we shout at the screen as they waste batteries, and cringe at their pitifully small fences!

As slowly becomes clear, there is another difference: while the characters on The Walking Dead have generally made the right decisions, have usually been the good guys, these people aren’t. They aren’t the kind of people who think to close the door behind them after they escape a zombie hideout, not all of them would rush out to warn people in danger, and some of them don’t care about the consequences of their actions at all. This first season is only six episodes long, and while the first couple are more about junkies and family drama than the undead, it gets better as it goes on, and from the beginning it has a undeniable heft, borrowed from its parent show, admittedly, but very real nevertheless. It doesn’t yet have a central performance to match Andrew Lincoln’s in The Walking Dead, but neither do any other programmes, and these characters haven’t yet been stripped so raw as Rick Grimes. It will come. ***

Wednesday 12 October 2016

A Song of Shadows, by John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton) | review by Rafe McGregor

A Song of Shadows (464pp, £3.85) is the thirteenth “Charlie Parker thriller”, as the series is described by Hodder & Stoughton, first published in hardback in 2015. First and foremost – and quite possibly because of rather than in spite of the criticisms I shall make – the series is extremely successful, regularly ranking high on various bestseller lists and regularly receiving rave ratings from the most trusted crime fiction reviewers. I must confess to not having read all of Parker’s cases, which began with Every Dead Thing in 1999 (and was, as an example of my previous claim, the L.A. Times Book of the Year), but I have read the first two and most recent two and can confirm that there has been no fluctuation in quality. Connolly is not one of those writers who rests on his laurels, resorts to repeated uses of the same formula, or tires of his protagonist. My gripe, and I think it is more than mere whimsy on my part, is the idiosyncratic mix of crime and horror Connolly has weaved around Parker.

In his helpful guide to the series on the Crime Fiction Lover website, David Prestidge writes that: “The books are peopled with genuinely mean human criminal types, but Connolly introduces supernatural foes in the novels as well.” The books are billed as dark crime fiction in the same way that dark fantasy is now a distinct subcategory of the fantasy genre. To sacrifice accuracy for brevity, dark crime fiction is crime fiction written by a horror writer or a mystery told as a horror story or crime fiction that gestures towards but does not quite cross over into horror fiction… basically, a crime fiction series that is situated just this side of the crime–horror border. The two genres are, of course, complementary to a great extent and it is no surprise that Edgar Allan Poe was such an important figure for both, that Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is billed as both a great crime story and a great horror story, or that may of H.P. Lovecraft’s weird tales take investigators of some sort as their protagonists. Prestidge continues: “Yet he never uses the paranormal to explain away loopholes in the plot.”

The issue isn’t using the para-normal to fill normal loopholes in the plot, but rather integrating the mystery and horror elements of the narrative such that they complement rather than counteract one another and this is where several weaknesses emerge. First, the books are longer than most mystery novels, the length exacerbated by the often slow and leisurely build-up to the main plot. This would not be problematic were the denouement worth the wait, i.e. a clever or original mix of mystery and magic, sleuthing and the supernatural. But, as Prestidge correctly notes: “There aren’t any [loopholes], and the Charlie Parker books all offer solid and original mysteries. He is a PI, after all.” Crime fiction readers, particularly those who prefer “thrillers” to “mysteries” are accustomed to fast-paced plots and the slower the action, the more drama they demand in the climax. The fact that all supernatural elements are always (at least in the four I have read and according to Prestidge) peripheral to the main plot – always, in other words, a subplot at best – makes me think of the series as crime-dressed-up-as-horror – in a pejorative sheep-in-wolf’s-clothing sense. Parker’s living daughter (Sam) can see the dead and sense evil and the spirit of his dead daughter (Jennifer) communicates with both him and Sam in A Song of Shadows. There are at least two events in the novel – a young girl sleepwalking and the earth opening up under a villain – that are presented as supernatural, but then quickly rationalised (as the dream of a young girl with a neurological disease and as a rare but not improbable geological phenomenon respectively). I found the subsequent debunking of these at times gripping supernatural scenes something of an anti-climax and that term really sums up my whole experience of the book.

Connolly takes a big risk with his villains in using war criminals from the Second World War. Assuming that the events of the narrative are supposed to be contemporary (there is nothing to suggest otherwise) and that National Socialist Germany in extremis may have used sixteen-year-olds as concentration camp guards – and granting that the camps were maintained until the very end of the war – the youngest possible war criminal would be eighty-six. Given the separation of the supernatural from the main plot, the criminals involved are men rather than demons and eighty-six-year-old men are not very frightening – unless, of course, they are million- or billion-aires at the head of a new evil empire. The Nazi-turned-businessman is something of a cliché, but in avoiding the cliché Connolly presents his readers with a group of evil old men doddering around New England, unworthy antagonists for super-sleuth Parker even if he is recovering from the multiple wounds sustained in his previous case. What makes this even worse for me is that the revelation of the main villain occurs relatively early on (for a mystery, that is), which once again creates a sense of… anti-climax.

Connolly’s fans – and there are dozens, probably hundreds, of thousands of them – may well think I haven’t read the book because Goodreads (to name but one forum) has many reviewers writing about the suspense being maintained to the last page and the jaw-dropping conclusion. I think I know what they have in mind, but I am baffled that it should generate such excitement. And yes, I have read all four books carefully from first page to last. Parker is a likeable sort of chap who leads an interesting sort of life, but neither Parker nor his life justifies the many hundreds of pages that each case generates. As mystery stories, the series is far too slow-paced; as horror stories, the continual and continued relegation of the supernatural to the side-line is disappointing; as a combination of mystery and horror, I can’t help but feel that a writer of Connolly’s undoubted skill could have merged a hardboiled PI with a setting that is both gritty and realistic on the one hand and populated by the angels and demons which the series often promises but never delivers on the other. It is only the worry that I have missed some obvious virtue of the novels that kept me coming back, but I’m afraid I’ve decided that life is too short to attempt a fifth… I’m sure Parker and Connolly will both do fine without me.

Monday 10 October 2016

Trials Fusion Awesome Max Edition, by RedLynx (Ubisoft) | review

The Trials series of games are, to the casual glance, so simple that they could have been made on a Spectrum, and, indeed, pretty much were, as fans of Codemasters’ ATV Simulator will remember. You’re just driving a bike along a straight line that sometimes goes up, sometimes goes down, while you lean back and forth to keep it balanced. It’s like the old TV show Kickstart, except you can’t even turn the handlebars. And yet that’s just on the surface. The Trials games put that simplest of ideas into a world built with individual objects and subject to physics, where the slightest nudge here or there can make the greatest difference, and where your rider dies horribly at the end of each level. On some levels it’s a thrill ride, hurtling down a snowy mountain like you’re chasing James Bond, while on harder levels it’s the world’s toughest platformer, as you take a hundred attempts to get over one gnarly jump. And since the levels (once you get the hang of them) only take a few minutes to complete, the games are endlessly replayable in search of a better time. This Xbox One expansion of Trials Fusion improves upon the Xbox 360 version to the extent that it’s well worth a separate purchase. It includes all the DLC, so immediately has an immense range of tracks to ride on, from deserts and ski resorts to various distant, destroyed futures. To cap it all there’s a series of incredible levels where you play as a cat riding a unicorn! These were so popular with my children that one suspects an entirely equestrian spin-off could be very popular – they also liked being able to create a female rider for the regular levels. Another improvement is that loading times are much improved. Part of the appeal of Trials HD was the way you could rattle through half its levels in a half hour lunch break, something lost in the slovenly Xbox 360 version of this game. The checkpoints in Trials Fusion are much closer together than they were in Trials HD, making it possible to muddle your way through hard levels in a way that would have been impossible before. At first this seems disappointing, a sop to lightweights, but it’s as hard as ever to set a good time, and it’s easy to understand why the game’s makers would want lots of players to see all of the cool stuff they have created. And for anyone who misses the real teethgrinding challenges of old, the extreme difficulty levels here are as hard as ever – I’ve yet to pass the first checkpoint in any of them. The game also includes a brilliant local four-player multiplayer mode (allow bailout finishes for maximum fun), a level creator and online game modes, including tournaments where you post your best time and then wait to see where you came, prizes being awarded to those who reach certain positions. I’ve yet to mention what a pretty game it is, but it is, and it really shines with the higher definition of a next-generation console. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday 7 October 2016

Ash vs Evil Dead, by Ivan Raimi and chums (Starz/Virgin Media) | review by Stephen Theaker

Ash Williams is a sexist jerk with an unfortunate tendency to unleash the forces of hell upon the world. Thirty years ago he found a Necronomicon while on a trip to a cabin in the woods with his girlfriend, and ended up having to squash her head in a vice and cut off his own hand with a chainsaw. Neither has forgiven him. As this ten-part series starts, the Deadites have been quiet for a while, but he still keeps a boomstick in his mobile home. It proves handy after the idiot gets high with a sozzled friend and reads from his Necronomicon… The evil dead return in force, and so Ash, reluctantly, gathers friends to help in the fight. It’s all a bit daft – the spirits seem to be able to take over anybody whenever they like, so the only reason Ash survives is presumably because they like playing with him – but it doesn’t quite reach the stark raving lunacy of Evil Dead II. There are lots of good jump scares, some excellent monsters and one-liners, and it is refreshingly gory. The half hour format works well for the show – it would be hard to keep up the intensity for an hour. Ash’s boorishness and the misogyny of the language used when female characters are possessed is partly balanced by a diverse cast. Ash develops an appealing relationship with Special Agent Fisher, an African-American cop who seems to like him for the idiot that he is, and the scenes with his two likeable protégés are always watchable – they’re a bit like the Doctor, Rory and Amy, if the Doctor were a buffoon and Rory worshipped him anyway. ***

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Innerspace, by Jeffrey Boam and Chip Proser (Warner Bros. et al.) | review by Jacob Edwards

Dir. Joe Dante. 1 July 1987 (Amblin Entertainment). Genre: SF Comedy. Ratings: 81% (Rotten Tomatoes) 6.7 (IMDB).

Obstreperous test pilot Tuck Pendleton (Dennis Quaid) volunteers for a miniaturisation experiment that should see him and his ship injected into the bloodstream of a laboratory rabbit. Instead, thanks to some industrial espionage gone badly wrong, he finds himself inside hypochondriac no-hoper Jack Putter (Martin Short). Aided by Pendleton’s ex-girlfriend, journalist Lydia Maxwell (Meg Ryan), and guided from within by Pendleton himself, Putter must overcome his inhibitions, thwart the villains and recover the microchip necessary to extract the ship before Pendleton’s oxygen runs out.

Steven Spielberg virtually owned the 1980s, and as executive producer added a tenuous sort of clout to several films in which he had no real involvement. Innerspace was one such production, its title invariably being sandwiched between the words “Steven Spielberg presents” and “a Joe Dante film” (this combination having in 1984 brought Gremlins to the cinema and thus being judged likely to wow prospective viewers into the right frame of mind). But Innerspace was no Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). It was, rather, an unabashedly silly reworking of Fantastic Voyage (1966), the cold war SF-adventure that provided Raquel Welch with her breakout role and by way of its novelisation added considerably to Isaac Asimov’s renown. Although Asimov did his best to make the written version more palatable, Fantastic Voyage sacrificed science for adventure and presented audiences with several indigestible, illogical dollops of plot tripe. Innerspace proved equally loose in favouring comedy over accuracy, and despite winning an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects – the internal landscape of Putter’s body is impressively realised – clearly made no effort at all to keep the scale of miniaturisation either believable or consistent. (Hence, in accordance with industry standards for advertising, the tagline: “An Adventure of Incredible Proportions”.) But this should come as no surprise; after all, the entire movie is a paean to the culture, filmmaking and associated extravagances in kitsch of the 1980s, where over-quirky meets over-the-top and the minor characters are served up as a layered profiterole cake of coiffured oddballs. Fans of The Blues Brothers (1980) may take some heart in seeing Henry Gibson (Nazi leader) cast here as Putter’s affably anxious boss, but whereas there was a dreamlike quality in the Illinois Nazis having driven past the back-flipping Bluesmobile and off an unfinished highway ramp, thence to fall over a hundred storeys and land directly in front of that same speeding Bluesmobile, the incongruity throughout Innerspace tends more towards that of an overt, in-your-face surrealistic slap. Recently contemporaneous comedies such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Running Scared (1986) had shown what could be achieved by injecting a measure of absurdity into real character types, but Innerspace writers Jeffrey Boam and Chip Proser clearly missed this point and instead merely jabbed themselves, their butterfingers ensuring that the inherent craziness of the film becomes blurred, rather than put into sharp focus, by an extraneous excess of background weirdness. This may have been less evident to moviegoers at the time – there still being, needless to say, Martin Short jangling prominently in the foreground – but it is jarring in retrospect, and becoming more and more so as the eighties continue to recede, the perky novelty of the decade fading away amidst a Cyndi Lauper-load of bangles, leg warmers and erupting hairstyles into the nostalgic embarrassment of history.

By 1987 Martin Short already was familiar to television audiences as a performer on seasons 4–5 (1982–1983) of Canadian sketch comedy programme SCTV and season 10 (1984–1985) of America’s Saturday Night Live. His big screen breakthrough had come in 1986 alongside Steve Martin and Chevy Chase in ¡Three Amigos! while an effortless penchant for physical humour and a seemingly endless supply of woebegone expressions would later see him teamed up with Nick Nolte in Three Fugitives (1989) and then Danny Glover in Pure Luck (1991), the spirit of the times being to cast Short several times over as the hapless victim of some great cosmic irony. Innerspace, however, was very much his film and his alone, and all things told he succeeds quite splendiferously in carrying it along. The persona of Jack Putter has been scripted with a heavy hand, established only in broad caricature and then prodded to walk jerky steps along the plank and dive off into an ungainly character arc, while the plot map bears evidence of that same hand carefully marking out big Xs in crayon. Dennis Quaid’s Tuck Pendleton is not merely a ne’er-do-well, roguish stereotype, but in fact a shameless attempt at reprising (in all but name) Harrison Ford’s Han Solo (in fact, the Pendleton-Putter-Maxwell love triangle is so manifestly the same as that of Solo-Skywalker-Leia that one wonders if even today the writers are washing off stains from the carbon paper). The movie is overly manipulative in its music (Jerry Goldsmith), underwhelming in its attempts to build tension, and then again over-reliant for its impact on peak moments rather than sustained, coherent storytelling. But what moments they are: pratfalls and injuries à la Short; madcap stunts sans modern effects but heavy on flailing, panicking, Chaplinesque Short; facial transmogrifications that if played out in the political arena would have seen a Martin Short puppet battling to exorcise itself on British satire show Spitting Image; and, of course, the Jack Putter dance – that iconic, joyous, elastically uninhibited flailing about and letting loose of the inner hallelujah, Short’s comedic chutzpah burning as red-hot-poker-bright behind retinas today as it did back in 1987, and indeed having gained some extra kudos along the way through dint of blueprinting a few of Mike Myers’ moves in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997). This, in short (ha!), is Martin Short in his finest hour (and fifty-five minutes), and his performance is enough to make something eighties-memorable out of what otherwise would have been merely an over-long piece of second-rate children’s television.

Prior to Innerspace, Dennis Quaid featured in paranormal thriller Dreamscape (1984) and SF drama Enemy Mine (1985). Kevin McCarthy (head villain) had starred in SF classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Vernon Wells (psychotic henchman) played in the post-apocalyptic Mad Max 2 (1981), while Wendy Schaal (disinterested second love interest) survived an Alien-spawned turkey, Creature (1985). Robert Picardo (ostentatious latin cowboy) had a minor role in Ridley Scott’s dark fairy-tale Legend (1985), as did William Schallert (confounded scientist) in SF thriller Colossus: the Forbin Project (1970). Even William Bean (Lydia’s editor) had warbled his epiglottis in the waters of fantasy, voicing Bilbo Baggins in an animated version of The Hobbit (1977). Nor were writers Jeffrey Boam and Chip Proser entirely without spec-fic experience, the former having adapted Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (1983) and the latter having co-scripted Iceman (1984). Cinematographer Andrew Laszlo had worked on horror movie Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), as had composer Jerry Goldsmith, who also scored dystopian classic Logan’s Run (1976) and SF horror masterpiece Alien (1979), among many others. But, of course, none of that made a scrap of difference to Innerspace, which remained steadfastly a comedy, its science fiction elements having little raison d’être beyond providing an idiosyncratic vehicle by which to convey Martin Short’s virtuoso performance to the silver screen. Yes, the bunny rabbit schematic is a nice touch, but when the history books are written Innerspace might just warp blithely past the SF chroniclers and instead stooge its way into the tome dealing with humour, banging heads with the silent comics and going, “Nyuk-nyuk-nyuk!” as the first film ever to deliver a poke in the eye from the inside.

Monday 3 October 2016

Showcase Presents Ambush Bug, by Keith Giffen, Robert Loren Fleming and friends (DC Comics) | review

A 488pp black and white collection of comics, mostly from the mid-eighties. The bulk of it comes from two mini-series, Ambush Bug (1985) and Son of Ambush Bug (1986), plus a couple of specials, his story from Secret Origins, and earlier guest appearances in Superman titles. Ambush Bug is the costumed identity of Irwin Schwab, who knows he’s in a comic, talks to his writers and artists, and doesn’t necessarily go from one page to the next in the usually accepted order. His best friend and adopted child is Cheeks the Toy Wonder, a stuffed toy, and his greatest foes are the Interferer, who messes with comics continuity because he can, and Argh-Yle, a sock from a spaceship that got squashed by a radioactive space-spider, came to life and became a supervillain, and now tries to conquer the world with living socks from a chest of drawers (The Bureau) orbiting the planet. Reading that back, it’s hard to understand why I didn’t like it very much. It sounds like a lot of fun, and Deadpool has had great success with a similar shtick. But I laughed only three or four times in the course of all these pages (the best being when Keith Giffen’s famous nine-panel layouts are said to be inspired by Celebrity Squares). Maybe it’s the lack of colour in this edition, which makes all the busy, busy pages a bit hard to read, or that there’s so much frantically packed in, which might have worked better taken in single issue doses. A lot of the humour is aimed at comics and controversies in the field from the mid-eighties, and though I’ve read enough of those to get the gist, I didn’t find them funny. Maybe the clue is in the panel five pages from the end where Ambush Bug declares “I hate British humour”. Though I do appreciate the cleverness there of spelling it with a U. Stephen Theaker **