Monday 30 October 2017

Ash vs Evil Dead, Season 2, by Craig DiGregorio, Cameron Welsh, Noelle Valdivia and chums (Starz/Virgin) | review by Stephen Theaker

This is how you make a second season. It takes everything that was right about the first season – Ash the selfish jerk, buckets of blood, a teenagerish desire to shock, and an anything goes sensibility – and turns up the dial on all of it as far as it will go, then breaks the dial off, jams its own fingers into the hole where the dial used to be, and twists it even further. This reviewer and his night-time television buddy were constantly looking at each other in amazement, slapping our knees, and letting out howls at the grossness. It even led to a falling-out at one point when your reviewer was told to stop laughing so loud because it was going to stop the children sleeping, even though the thing on screen was probably the single funniest thing this reviewer had ever seen in his life.

After the events of season one, Ash and his two pals are living life large in a beach party town, but it won’t last, and soon they are on their way back to where it all started: Ash’s home town, and the original cabin in the woods. Ash meets his dad again, and his dad is played by Lee Majors. Episodes still last for half an hour, and there’s even less filler this season, each part trying to top the blood, gore and ridiculous over-the-topitude of the one that came before – and largely succeeding. My one criticism: I’m still not a fan of the gendered language thrown at women when possessed by the evil dead – apart from not enjoying those terms being used by the heroes, it doesn’t make any sense, because it’s not the women who are evil, it’s the monsters possessing them. It feels like a slander on someone who has already been unfortunate enough to die horribly. ****

This review originally appeared in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #59, which also included stories by Rafe McGregor, Michael Wyndham Thomas, Jessy Randall, Charles Wilkinson, David Penn, Elaine Graham-Leigh and Chris Roper.

Monday 16 October 2017

Rogue One: a Star Wars Story, by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (Disney) | review by Stephen Theaker

The empire has ruled the galaxy since the events of Revenge of the Sith, but the Rebellion has been growing in strength, necessitating the construction of the Death Star, a weapon of planet-busting capabilities. Jyn Erso is in the Empire’s custody, but she is sprung by rebels who hope her family connections can get them the information they need to destroy the Death Star (presumably so called because Death Sphere or Death Moon didn’t sound quite as cool). She ends up going with a ragtag band of rebels on what may be a suicide mission. She’s hoping to rescue her father (played by Mads Mikkelsen), while others in the squad have orders to kill him. Overall, this reminded me very much of the Dark Horse Star Wars comics. Respectful and serious in intent, lots of nods to the canon, well-made, but rather missing the mad invention of the six George Lucas films, which never stopped throwing new stuff at the screen even when the films weren’t all that good. One real sticking point in the film is the appearance of a character from the original Star Wars, rendered with a mix of computer animation and a body double. If this were a CGI film, he would look fantastic, but standing in a room of human actors he sticks out like a sore thumb, and one wishes they had simply recast the character. It’s not as jarring as the young Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy or the big brawl Keanu Reeves in The Matrix Reloaded, but at least in those films you could put the problems down to glitches in their electronic environments. Another problem it has is that the two lead characters are not quite as colourful as their fellow rebels. I wish I hadn’t heard that Tatiana Maslany of Orphan Black was up for the role of Jyn Erso, since she would have been so perfect for it, but Felicity Jones does everything she’s asked to do. At the last it over-reaches once again, trying for a special effect and just falling short, but if the film had ended thirty seconds earlier, one would have said it ended very well. ***

Friday 13 October 2017

Bloodshot: Reborn, Deluxe Edition 1, by Jeff Lemire, Mico Suayan, Butch Guice, et al. (Valiant) | review by Stephen Theaker

“Who was Bloodshot?” asks the first page of this comic. “Red Eyes. White skin. Guns… Lots of guns.” He was a vicious, psychopathic killer manipulated by false memory implants, working for the government, presumably in previous Bloodshot comics, but that’s all over now. At some point before this book begins he gave up his powers (regeneration, strength, aiming – basically Wolverine plus the Punisher) with the help of a woman he loved called Kay. That restored his humanity, but Kay didn’t survive, and now, six months later, he’s trying to keep calm and stay under the radar while working at a motel. Unfortunately, the nanites that provided his abilities are now taking over other people, civilians who aren’t equipped to handle them, and they are going on murderous rampages. His conscience gives him no option but to travel across the country recovering them, because at least he would be able to keep the nanites under control, but will it mean giving up his humanity once again? It’s the archetypal story of the superhero who wanted to give up the powers that were ruining his life, but can’t escape his sense of responsibility once they are gone. After that adventure is over, there’s then there’s an Old Man Loganish story set in a Mad Maxish future, where he teams up with other surviving Valiant heroes, which will probably be a treat for fans of those characters. Overall, I thought the book was a good read without being outstanding. It’s as well-written as Trillium by the same writer, and there are plenty of ideas, it’s just that it’s about a character who doesn’t massively appeal to me, and probably isn’t intended to. ***

Monday 9 October 2017

The Lego Batman Movie, by Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers et al. (Warner Bros) | review by Stephen Theaker

Lego Batman was one of the funniest things about The Lego Movie, against strong competition, and the three Lego Batman games were all terrifically successful (and great fun to play), so it’s no surprise to see him back in a film of his own. It doesn’t refer back to his adventures in the previous film, but Batman is still a master builder who knows that he is made of Lego and can rebuild and reshape the world around him at high speed. This is in addition to his usual Bat-powers: money, gadgets, fighting skills, acrobatics, and (in these films at least) the ability to shred on the electric guitar. For all his success, though, he’s very lonely, and this really comes to a head when Commissioner Gordon announces his retirement. Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) is going to take over, having cleaned up Bludhaven (this is a film made by people who have paid attention to the comics), and she’s not so keen on vigilantes. Batman also upsets the Joker, by denying the two-way nature of their relationship, and that inspires the Joker to team up with some of the greatest villains of all time, some of them (not giving away any spoilers, because the identity of these villains was a wonderful surprise for those of us who didn’t know in advance) British. A daughter of mine described this as one of the best films she has ever seen at the cinema, and it’s hard to deny that it’s a great deal of fun. Batman himself gets a little less funny as the film goes on and, as so often happens with comedies, the plot kicks in, but his brand new Robin Dick Grayson more than makes up for that, and that the two of them are played by Will Arnett and Michael Cera (a.k.a. Job and his nephew George Michael from Arrested Development), only adds to the enjoyment, as do many references to Bat-stories of old, including the Adam West film. The animation is gob-smackingly detailed, with dozens if not hundreds of characters on the screen at the same time, the cast excellent, and the script very funny, not at all the mess you would expect from a film with five credited writers. So much about this film made me happy, and a lot of it I wouldn’t want to give away, but part of it is that Billy Dee Williams, who played Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns, finally played Two-Face. It’s not the best Batman film there’s ever been, but it might be the best one not directed by Christopher Nolan. ****

Friday 6 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049 | review by Rafe McGregor

Villeneuve’s sequel replicates, reverses, and reproduces Scott’s original(s).

I qualified my review of The Voyage of the Moonstone in TQF 55 with the admission that my emotional and financial investment in the late Joe Dever’s gamebook series precluded any objectivity in my review. I must make a similar disclaimer here, although it’s more of an emotional and intellectual investment. Watching Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner at the drive-in – probably in late 1982, the year of its release – is one of my first memories of the big screen. At the time, my main interest on the small screen was cop shows rather than sci-fi, more Miami Vice than Star Trek, and my parents had told me that Blade Runner was a cop film set in the future in order to pique my interest. Strictly speaking, they were right – blade runners are police officers – and part of the film’s continuing appeal is the way it merges elements from the crime, romance, and speculative genres. Another reason for its first cult and then mainstream popularity is the number of versions that have been screened from 1982 to 2007. If we exclude those edited for television and minor alterations in the Swedish release, the IMDb lists six. Excluding the two shown as previews in 1982 leaves: the International Cut (1982), the Domestic Cut (1982), the Director’s Cut (1992), and the Final Cut (2007). The Domestic Cut is the International Cut edited for graphic violence and the Final Cut is billed as the definitive Director’s Cut, so we can concentrate on two distinct cuts, International (which was very likely the one I saw in 1982) and Final (Blade Runner: The Final Cut [5-Disc Ultimate Collectors’ Edition] has pride of place in my DVD collection).

What is particularly remarkable about these two cuts is that although they are the same length (113 minutes) and have only minor alterations, the story they tell is almost completely different. The changes are: the removal of Deckard’s voiceover narration, the change of a single word in Batty’s dialogue, the insertion of a short dream sequence, and the removal of the happy ending. The removal of the voiceover and the insertion of the dream about a unicorn combine to represent blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) as a replicant (androids that are almost identical to human beings) rather than a human being. Significantly, he does not know that he is a replicant until the final few seconds of the film, before he escapes with Rachael (Sean Young), who is also a replicant who thinks she is a human being. The narrative of the Final Cut puts the film firmly in the speculative rather than crime genre and given my early exposure to and enjoyment of the International Cut, I was deeply disappointed when I first saw the Director’s Cut at the movies in 1992. I could see how the change improved the story in some ways, but was adamant that the original combination of detective character and science fiction setting was superior in all those that mattered. Nearly twenty years later, I attended a symposium on Film, Philosophy, and Death at the University of York where a professor from St Andrews was speaking on the themes of empathy and mortality in Blade Runner. One lecture and a brief conversation later, I was convinced I’d been wrong and eventually wrote a short essay on the merits of the Final Cut for the journal Aesthetic Investigations.

Having finally (no pun intended) wrestled the problem of the better Blade Runner into submission, I was disconcerted to hear that Ford had a role in the sequel – to the Final Cut, we presume – Blade Runner 2049. Because of their potential threat to human beings replicants are constructed with a built-in failsafe, a lifespan that is limited to four years from inception. If one watches the Final Cut after the International Cut, as many viewers will have, one may carry the suggestion from the earlier film that the latest version of replicant has been allotted a longer lifespan, but one thing that replicants do not do is age. Short or long, they are automatons rather than organisms and, as the famous scene in which Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) expires shows, they simply short-circuit and become inanimate. So, if Deckard is indeed a replicant, which was the whole point of the change from International Cut to Final Cut, then whether or not he is still alive in 2049, one thing he should not be is thirty years older. Ford was forty in 1982 and is now seventy-five, reflecting the apparent aging of Deckard thirty years after all the versions of the first film, which is set in 2019. If Deckard has aged, then Blade Runner 2049 appeared to be a retcon (short for retroactive continuity) rather than a sequel or reboot. My concerns were amplified by Alien: Covenant (reviewed in TQF 60), where Scott (credited as executive producer of Blade Runner 2049) almost completely disregarded the narrative arc set up by Prometheus in the alleged sequel to the Alien prequel. As the opening date of the Blade Runner sequel drew nearer, further alarm bells were sounded with the release of Nexus: 2036, a six minute short that explained what had happened in the thirty years between the two films. I studiously avoided watching or reading about this, all the while wondering why, if there was no retcon, any explanation was required. When Digital Spy chipped in with ‘Rutger Hauer doesn’t understand why a Blade Runner sequel even exists’ (20 September 2017), I feared all was lost, and settled on the tagline: Ridley ruins reviewer’s childhood...

A more appropriate tagline might be Ridley obsessed by original as much as reviewer. Blade Runner 2049 is both a replication (pun intended) and reversal of the Final Cut, a classic dismantling and rebuilding of a narrative that raised more questions than it answered. The protagonist of the sequel is K (Ryan Gosling) and in 2049 Los Angeles all blade runners are replicants known by serial numbers rather than names. Although there is less philosophical concern with identity in this film, there is commentary on what philosopher Kelly Oliver calls the grown-made binary opposition, where priority (humanity in this case) is always accorded to the organic over the automated. The discovery that replicants – or at least Deckard and Rachael – can reproduce is the inciting incident of the film. While hunting a rogue replicant, K discovers a buried box of bones. An autopsy identifies the cause of death as childbirth. The science of replicant reproduction is never explained – indeed, unlike HBO’s Westworld for example, there was very little scientific explanation or under-the-skin revelation in The Final Cut – so it seems we must rely on a kind of Jurassic Park-style “life will find a way” to suspend disbelief. In an even closer combination of replication and reversal, Deckard’s discovery that he is really a replicant courtesy of an origami unicorn is mirrored here courtesy of a toy horse (relatively early in the film).

Blade Runner 2049 constantly refers back to the Final Cut, to such an extent that my concerns about it merely being part of a franchise are entirely unfounded. If anything, the only potentially significant fault in the film is that it is too obviously, faithfully, and closely a sequel. In consequence, I find it hard to imagine a viewer who hasn’t seen (or doesn’t remember) either the Final or International Cuts being able to appreciate (and perhaps even understand) Blade Runner 2049. This is not merely the case for the represented sequence of events, but for the shots, scenes, settings, music, mood, and characters. Dennis Villeneuve has been particularly ingenious with respect to character, performing a complex and satisfying deconstruction of the roles in the prequel such that, for example, K is not only a replication of (or equivalent to) Deckard, but a hybrid of Deckard and Batty. Similarly, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) – personal-assistant-cum-chief-of-staff to Niander Wallace (the new Tyrell, played by Jared Leto) – combines Rachael’s vulnerability with Pris’s (Daryl Hannah) deadliness in combat (although there is also a Pris look-alike who appears to share her predecessor’s function as a “pleasure model”). The revisiting and inversion twists and turns in on itself so that where Deckard was supposed to hunt Rachael but helped her, Luv is supposed to help K but hunts him. In yet another success, the story engages as both science and detective fiction, with the mystery of the replicant child becoming more complicated as the narrative progresses. Like the various Blade Runners, the film is deeply philosophical, exploring less the question of what it means to be human and more the question of how to be human: how memory, perspective, and psychological reality construct and sustain individuality.

There is a hint of retcon when Wallace confronts Deckard, but this is merely a tantalising suggestion rather than a second undoing of the plot of the International Cut and Blade Runner 2049 is ultimately a paradigmatic sequel, a model to which future directors and authors should aspire. The work provides an almost continuous and near perfect play of similarity and difference that is both similar enough to capture all that audiences enjoyed about the originals and different enough to delight, intrigue, and compel. Blade Runner 2049 is so essentially a sequel, however, that it is likely to leave most if not all new viewers nonplussed, as I noted above. The only fault from my personal point of view is that the appearance of the septuagenarian Ford is neither explained nor even commented upon. Perhaps those replicants who can reproduce must also suffer the indignities of old age and even the despair of death? Life has, it seems, found a way with one hand and taken away with the other.*****        

Superf*ckers Forever, by James Kochalka and chums (IDW) | review by Stephen Theaker

A five-issue miniseries of the utmost puerility, this is very entertaining. The Superf*ckers are a Legion of Super-Heroes-esque gang of teenagers who live inside a club house and act like complete idiots. Even Vortex, who fixes up the universe every time the others destroy it, is willing to lie down on a sofa that has just been peed on by his colleagues Jack Krak the Motherfucker and Ultra Richard (it’s better than weeing in the toilet, they decide, because you never have to clean it). The skull possessed by interdimensional super-villain Omnizod shows up, first getting turned into a lamp by stinky Grotessa, then encouraging Princess Sunshine down a megalomaniacal path. Orange Lightning is jonesing for his next fix of Grotus’s slime, Computer Fist is struggling to get his robot fists working properly, and team leader Superdan returns from Dimension Zero just in time to lead a pointless new mission into Dimension Zero. The stories are sweary, rude and gross, and all the better for it. Kochalka’s artwork is as brilliantly characterful as ever, while a series of backups by other creators show that these heroes look just as silly through their eyes. The entire series can be read in under an hour, but what a great way to spend an hour. ****

Sunday 1 October 2017

British Fantasy Awards 2017: the winners (and my guesses!)

The British Fantasy Awards have just been announced, at FantasyCon 2017 in Peterborough. I kept my thoughts about what might win to myself until now, since I might be thought to have inside knowledge about the juries I wasn't on. I didn't – my fellow jurors on the comics/graphic novel jury quite properly didn't talk about their other categories at all – but better safe than sorry. So here, after the fact, are the guesses I made, and more importantly the winners!

Winner: People of Colour Destroy Science Fiction ed. Nalo Hopkinson & Kristine Ong Muslim
My guess: People of Colour Destroy Science Fiction ed. Nalo Hopkinson & Kristine Ong Muslim

Winner: Daniele Serra
My guess: Daniele Serra

Winner: Some Will Not Sleep, Adam Nevill
My guess: Some Will Not Sleep, Adam Nevill

Comic / Graphic Novel
Winner: Monstress, Vol 1: Awakening, Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda (Dark Horse)
No guessing required, I was on this jury, and it was a fascinating experience!

Fantasy Novel (the Robert Holdstock Award)
Winner: The Tiger and the Wolf, Adrian Tchaikovsky
My guess: The Tiger and the Wolf, Adrian Tchaikovsky

Film / Television Production
Winner: Arrival
My guess: Black Mirror, Series 3, by Charlie Brooker and chums (Netflix)

Horror Novel (the August Derleth Award)
Winner: Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, Paul Tremblay
My guess: The Searching Dead, Ramsey Campbell (PS Publishing)

Independent Press
Winner: Grimbold Press
My guess: Fox Spirit Books

Magazine / Periodical
My guess: Uncanny Magazine

Newcomer (the Sydney J. Bounds Award)
Winner: Erica L Satifka, for Stay Crazy (Apex Publications)
My guess: Erica L Satifka, for Stay Crazy (Apex Publications)

Winner: The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley
My guess: Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016, Ursula K Le Guin

Winner: The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle
My guess: Arrival of Missives, Aliya Whiteley

Short Fiction
Winner: White Rabbit, Georgina Bruce
My guess: White Rabbit, Georgina Bruce

The Special Award (the Karl Edward Wagner Award)
Winner: Jan Edwards
My guess: Mark Morris

I'm surprised that I managed to guess six right. The current system is based on people, usually BFS members or FantasyCon attendees, sitting down to read the nominees and deciding the awards on that basis, and that makes it hard to predict (and indeed quibble with) the results unless you've read all of them too.

(I was terrible at predicting what would win even when I was running the awards and could read half the jury discussions!)

Anyway, congratulations to all the winners, and all the nominees, and to the awards administrator who carried it off so successfully, Katherine Fowler, who can now have a nice break all the way until, well, January, when it all starts again...!

[NB: I originally included in the list the first ever Legends of FantasyCon award, which was given to David Sutton and Sandra Sutton, after the BFS publicity officer confirmed on Twitter that it was a BFA. However, the BFS treasurer said shortly afterwards, "No, it's not a British Fantasy Award. It will be presented before the BFAs start, each year it is given out." So I've taken it off the list.]