Monday, 26 December 2011

Novel Review - Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Lots of nice things have been said about Pratchett's writing: his wit and humour, the wackiness, the power of the Discworld as a satirical tool and the general reflectiveness of his work. One piece of praise that I never really hear, however, yet seems to me as true as any of the others is this:

Hot damn can that man write an action set-piece.

Not that you should expect an action packed book, however: this is perhaps the most meandering Pratchett book I have come across. The plot is unusually woolly; there is both an antagonist and a destination, but neither are as present or as emphasised as you would expect. Whilst his scene construction, sleight of hands left right and centre, are as nuanced and brilliant as ever, this is a very unusual problem to come across in Pratchett's writing. Some of the threads that are introduced are left hanging, once again rather unusually. Nonetheless, it's a coherent plot that is paced well and tied strongly to the characters and themes.

Pratchett is a writer who knows how to write as well as anyone, and his technical skill is fully exposed here. He builds tension, creates a memorable villain very quickly, misdirects and plays an incredibly subtle hand with symbolism. As well as being layered, this novel displays Pratchett's abilities in an area I tend to underestimate him. Stylistically, Snuff is memorable, quotable and sharp - his descriptive powers are equal to many, and the way he laces thematic echoes into his work is really the work of a storyteller still at the height of his prowess. The use of limited perspective is about as good as you'll find anywhere.

Another strength that is ably on display in Snuff is Pratchett's ability to introduce conflicting ideologies into the story without ever really taking a side from the point of narrative. Characters will often contradict each other, and the book will never tell you which to believe - you will have to make up your own mind. This is true of the themes too, with the old class issue being giving a good seeing to. Much of what happens here is Pratchett as usual - if you have read the Watch books, you know what you are in for.

Nonetheless, Snuff is a great read. Sharp, funny prose; intelligent writing; engaging and nuanced characters: there's a lot on offer here, and even if this is a slightly more flawed affair than your average Pratchett book, it's still a remarkably good book even before you consider the author's health. If you are a Discworld fan, read it - if you're new, go read Guards! Guards! and work your way to this book.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Merlin, Episode 10 - Herald of a New Age

Howard Overman, you're a good writer. I know you are. Misfits may struggle to find tonally consistency, but it's sharp and original and fun with flashes genuinely brilliant characterisation. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (all one episode of it) was one of the best things I have seen on television in a while, on a par with the Dr Who Christmas Special even.

Yet when I went back and watched Howard Overman's first episode of series 4 of Merlin - The Wicked Day - I found something that was too fast paced and crammed with awkward dialogue. Less than stellar acting did not help. So approaching this, Overman's second episode, I felt that my expectations were that this would be an improvement. Certainly, the trailer promised a creepy concept that looked like a welcome break from the norm.

Five minutes in, and I've given up. The banter between Arthur's harem of knights is stilted and awkward enough that I can only imagine the writer was contriving to bad writing. Like The Wicked Day, Herald of a New Age seems to be going too fast, delivering perfunctory and economical dialogue without an ounce of weight to it. Anything that we need to know is telegraphed to us, and the performances do not help.

The director does know how to direct horror, it seems, and build tension. This story certainly seems like it has   a touch of Ring inspiration somewhere in there, as the choice of a pale, corpse-like child who is constantly dripping evokes deja vu rather too potently to be coincidence. Either way, the choice is a good one, as the child's presence is genuinely eerie, and some really good atmosphere is built up.

It seems to me, however, that the better the story in Merlin, the worse the episode. Merlin does silly campy fun, and when it tries to tells really good stories, it's shortcomings get in the way. These characters, written as they are and acted as they are, can hold up lightly entertaining nonsense, but when something of more depth or more interesting plotting is attempted it serves only to draw attention to insufficiencies of the series.

The attempts to deal with the emotional impact of last episode's events are rather badly misjudged. They seem to just be thrown out in a cursory manner, used as devices to justify certain plot elements rather than actual deal with the emotional ramifications of recent events. When the episode then goes on to deal with and resolve totally separate character issues, it makes the whole thing feel very muddled.

This was a fun episode at times, and genuinely creepy, but ultimately a failure. Merlin is a place of mindless fun, not of sophistication, and so I come to the baffling conclusion that this story would have been better were it worse.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Choice Words - Haruki Murakami's After Dark

"Eyes mark the shape of the city.

Through the eyes of a high-flying night bird, we take in the scene from midair. In our broad sweep, the city looks like a single gigantic creature - or more likely a single collective entity created by intertwining organisms. Countless arteries stretch to the end of its elusive body, circulating a continuous supply of fresh blood cells, sending out new data and collecting the old, sending out new consumables and collecting the old, sending out new contradictions and collecting the old. To the rhythm of its pulsing, all parts of the body flicker and flare up and squirm. Midnight is approaching, and while the peak of activity has passed, the basal metabolism that maintains life continues undiminished, producing the basso continuo of the city's moans, a monotonous sound that neither rises nor falls but is pregnant with foreboding."

And that's after it has been through the translator. It's a testament to both Murakami and the translator Jay Rubin that this retains such descriptive power.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Okay, so I need to restore some sort of life to this place...

But in lieu of saying anything substantive (that's coming), here's some music:

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Warren Ellis's Planetary - Series Overview

Warren Ellis's Planetary is a comic-literary comic. As I've gathered from fans of the work and essays written online about it, it is very much about comics. It's plain enough to see the pulp tradition that runs through the stories, which evokes more or less every conceivable major genre within pulp. Sci-fi, horror, western, exploration, mysteries, conspiracies and so on fill the story of the organisation, Planetary, a team of archaeologists meta-humans.

In a very real sense, this comic isn't for me. Aside from the central figures, pretty much every character that appears in this book is a direct reference to someone else, and I only got the most obvious of these allusions. Where I did recognise them I saw just how clever they were, but nonetheless my lack of familiarity with comics put me at something of a disadvantage.

The fact that I am not all that familiar with comic pulp tradition, on the other hand, perhaps makes me the ideal reader of the book. Someone entrenched in modern comics, being given the key to a rich pulp history and being shown just how much greatness there is to be found there. And that is without doubt part of Ellis's mission here, as our archaeologists are more storytelling archaeologists than anything else, uncovering a time when stories in comics were more diverse and routed in a rather more basic discourse.

Further, Ellis looks to incorporate it all into one coherent world in Planetary. We are repeatedly told by Drummer, a character with the ability to manipulate information, about how magic and science and the superpowers that exist in this universe are all just part of some larger code. This is a really cool idea that never comes across particularly convincingly. Ellis's attempts to create a coherent narrative from all of these different genres shows no lack of ambition and no little amount of skill, yet never end up working. Really, it drains the narrative of a central driving force and a slows character development down to a crawl.

Where I really felt the story suffered was in it's characters. Elijah Snow, Jakita and Drummer are not badly written or badly conceived characters, but there's no point of connection between us and them. They develop slowly, often pushed to the side by other narratives, and it often feels like there is no destination. I'd argue that only one of them really gets a resolution, and the emotional core of their story comes out of left field to a great extent. The characters are not all that engaging, and although subtly developed in many respects, there is too little to latch onto.

Warren Ellis is well known for his decompressed storytelling, and this is my first real experience with it. Personally, I found it made the stories rushed and overly terse, leading to the sense that none of the little stories told within Planetary felt entirely satisfying. The artwork is very pretty and detailed, but  also a little too static and clinical. To a great extent, much of my disconnect from the comic was due to the art. Very good nice looking art, but nI never felt it was great at telling a story.

What is otherwise a very good plot suffers because of many of the above factors. Make no mistake, Warren Ellis is certainly a very skilled writer, the story being subtle and complex whilst never overpowering, but without the clear direction and character investment I found it hard to really get into. Even after what's conceptually a very strong chapter, the overriding feeling I had upon putting this book down was "meh".

I've went rather hard on this series, but for what it's worth it is original, inventive, subtle, pretty looking and does not suffer from a lack of depth. Upon execution, all these great plans and ideas were never really translated into a cohesive story, and a sense of balanced to keep everything in check is really needed in this series. If your a fan of more intelligent comics, or of pulp comics or of Warren Ellis this is certainly worth giving a look, but I can't look past it's core problem of being unable to engage me as a reader.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Film Review - Contagion

tl;dr Well made and intense, this is a more than competent disaster flick.

Feeling a bit poorly? Stuck as a scene in worldwide montages? Electronic music pulsing in your head, with an understated intensity? Sounds like you're contagious. Not to worry, for a large cast of characters across America, and even in China, are working hard to find some sort of resolution. This a large experience in every sense, covering almost half a year, with a large cast of characters and a disease that is rampaging across most of the world.

Yet Contagion is also a movie of the small details. It's terrifically shot, and the emphasis on small details is what makes the experience so powerful a one. There's a big emphasis on the way infections spread from small touches or shared air. Melodrama is mostly avoided by letting us react to situations, rather than showing the characters reacting. The scenes of death and suffering and chaos are fairly minimal. By avoiding gratuity, a real weight is brought to proceedings.

The characterisation is all the better for being all the briefer. With a central conflict for all of them to deal with, characters all have an arc to go through and the fact that the movie never overplays it's hand is how it keeps such a large cast well balanced. It knows how to be impactful with little, and avoids the temptation to go for something rather more blatant or cliche or even a bit safer.

It also asks questions without hammering them in. The subplot in China very quickly could have turned overwhelming and evoked a sense of xenophobia. Instead, there's a very potent question asked about priviledge in the face of tragedy, and how help is distributed.

It's not a perfect movie. I found that it was a movie I could appreciate, but all of this heaviness and anxxiety kept me from every really having any fun. It stressed me out, and as well made and affecting as the movie was, I never really found it an experience I enjoyed. That's not to say all films should be fluffy escapism, but rather that the disaster genre holds little for me, personally, to enjoy.

This film is never really gonna surprise or stretch you, and I feel it's greatest weakness actually lies with the characters it chooses to develop the most. Whilst the family who lose the first American casualty is a story that tries to give us a personal connection to the tragedy, as we see a man trying to cope with the loss of his son and wife and the knowledge his wife was having an affair and his daughter who has to cope with a lost brother, mother and imposed isolation. It's well enough done, but feels out of place in the movie and something of a betrayal of the subtlety that had been running through the piece. Plus, it's emotional messiness gives us not much real resolution and - once again this is probably more to do with me - is just a kind of downer throughout.

If you fancy it, it's worth a look. If you like disaster movie, definitely see it. Not one I really enjoyed though.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Doctor Who Series 6 - Some late thoughts and rantings

So Dr Who, Series 6, came and gone a few weeks ago. At this point we've got over the lack of Who on our Saturday nights, and the series is settling into it's place at the back of our mind with many of the other series past. As much as I've loved this series (and goddamn, have I ever), critical reaction seems mixed. To great deal of people, Moffat's as bad as RTD ever was it seems. River's been labelled a Mary-Sue willy nilly, the heavy through line has alienated more than a few and accusations of inconsistency are not hard to find.

Having just watched this video, in which an internet reviewer accuses Moffat of betraying the fanbase and emotional integrity of the characters whilst simultaneously undoing a whole series worth of development, I feel that I need to get my own thoughts out of my system.

I'm getting married tomorrow

Firstly, I'd like to recap the overall message of series five, as in many ways it pretty much tells us how six wil end. Five had the idea of fairy-tales and growing up. Amy spends her whole time running away from her wedding, travelling in the TARDIS as a way of escaping that responsibility and commitment. In the end she does both, and goes travelling in the TARDIS with her husband. She grows up whilst having childish fun adventures, and affirms that one does not need to exclude the other.

On her home planet, "Doctor" means "Warrior"

The overriding theme of series six seems to have been The Doctor's effect on the Universe, and the irresponsibility of his actions. This idea really first reared it's head during Smith's tenure when, in The Pandorica Opens, all of his greatest enemies descend on him. This is a direct subversion of one of Moffat's favourite tricks. Multiple times, The Doctor only needs to invoke his name to defeat his enemies, the very fear he induces being enough to tame them. As we hear in Forest of the Dead:

"You're in the largest library in the universe. Look me up."

The implication, of course, being that his name will be scattered throughout history, as well as records of all of his victories. He's using his long and actually fairly violent history self-knowingly, and that's bound to have an impact. In The Pandorica Opens, all of his enemies are able to team up against him as they believe he can destroy the universe. Fear of him drives them together, and when he, once again, invokes his name to scare them off, there is no small amount of irony. It's his history that has caused his enemies to get together at all.

This theme comes to it's climax in A Good Man Goes to War, when it's revealed that The Doctor is the target of the Silence's campaign.

"A war? Against Who?

Against you, Doctor."

The Order of the Silence, an organisation that calls think of themselves as the guardians of history, think they are at war with The Doctor. Between the army girl Lorna and River Song's speech, we are left with no doubt that this is an ongoing critique on the way that The Doctor travels and fights and destroys.

This is further hit home in the centre-piece of the secodn part of the series, with The Girl Who Waited and The God Complex. Both of these utterly brilliant episodes do incredibly interesting things with The Doctor. The God Complex couples him with the evil minotaur god that feasts on people's belief, suggesting he cultivates adoration from his companions and that he can only bring them harm. The Girl Who Waited plays an even more subtle and complex game, casting The Doctor as the villain in a tragedy that sees Rory have to let Amy die. Not only is The Doctor getting told he's doing the universe harm, but also his closest friends.

One of the best things about The Wedding of River Song is that it's rejection of such ideas. This may have been a series long deconstruction of The Doctor, but The Wedding of River Song is a reconstruction. His companions love him, and won't let him traipse off alone into that byronic hero suit that RTD was so keen on dressing Tennant in. Let's Kill Hitler hints at this, with the Tesselecta's obvious veneration of The Doctor, suggesting his death to be one of the worst events in history. If The Silence represents the negative legacy The Doctor leaves behind him, the Tesselecta shows that this view is not one shared by the rest of the universe. River Song shows him the signals that come through the stars, the replies to her distress call. The Doctor is loved, throughout the universe, and if he's had a negative impact he's made a stronger positive one.

He may have had a past that's been littered with conflicts, but he's also brought hope and made friends aplenty.

Even you cannot change this

The series starts with a prophecy: The Doctor will die by Lake Silencio. He has to die; we saw it happen. This is where series six both starts and ends, and much of The Doctor's fretting revolves around accepting his own mortality. The series is littered with things that must happen: River's already played out future, The Doctor's death, Melody's indoctrination. The Silence's ability to subconciously control people seems to suggest a certain element of people's future beyond their own control. In The Wedding of River Song, Amy and Rory get together again in a different time stream.

Much of the build-up, especially after Dorium's words, seems to point towards The Doctor accepting his own mortality. It's even suggested that it's for the good of the universe. So when The Doctor cheats this inescapable death, does that detract from all of his brooding over it, and attempts to come to terms with it? Funnily enough, River seems to have given us the answer already, all the way back in The Forest of the Dead:

"When you run with The Doctor, it feels like it'll never end. But however hard you try, you can't run forever. Everybody knows that everybody dies, and nobody knows it like The Doctor. But I do think that all of the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever, for one moment, accepts it."

"He just can't do it, can he? That man. That impossible man. He just can't give in."

The Doctor is not going to lie down and die. The Doctor will find a way, a third option, because he's The Doctor. He'll cheat time and history, and convince everyone he's dead if he has to. But that he finds a way out, rather than accepting that he has to die, is exactly what The Doctor would do. Or, at least, what Moffat's Doctor would do.

So basically...

Series six's finale is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a subversion. It takes the ideas that had been proposed so far, the nuanced deconstructive work, and considers them, but ultimately turns into a celebration of the aspects of The Doctor that get lost in all the navel gazing. It's not undoing the work beforehand, but rather leading us to a different conclusion. It's not pulling new ideas out of it's ass, it's reminding us of how much more The Doctor is than all of that frowny stuff.

Series six was a messy affair, at times convoluted, and not as consistant as it should have been. A betrayal, however? No. It's not at the fanbase Moffat's sticking his middle finger at, but rather the idea that The Doctor has to be some kind of tragic, dark, lonely hero. He's taken The Doctor apart and put him back together again. Concluding the deconstruction with a celebration seems the only way to resolve it.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Film Review - The Three Musketeers

tl;dr Silly, colourful fun with not a lick of depth.

So, Paul W.S. Anderson. Surely if ever there is a name that marks out a movie for critical success, it is his. Though his craft is obviously very much lacking in many areas, there's nonetheless a cathartic enjoyment to be extracted from his movies. I certainly would not object to a night in front of Mortal Kombat if there was nout else to do.

Like Mortal Kombat, the key to approaching The Three Musketeers lies in it's brainlessness. This is Hollywood cheese, The Cheddar Strikes Back, and there's something glorius about the combination of the film's earnestness and knowingness of many of the performances. There's no doubt that this movie is reading from the how-to handbook authored by The Pirates of Carribean, and if that pseudo-historical bombast is your thing, this movie delivers it with an extra helping of goofiness.

At this point, a kind of summary of the plot would be useful in grounding you in the movie, but really you can fill it in yourself. England and France (read: the world) are on the edge of war and the three musketeers, buoyed on by young country bumpkin-cum-fencing master d'Artagnan, are tasked with the job of stopping this fiendish plot. It's competently executed and kinda fun cliche after cliche, but leaves little impression. As a lead d'Artagnan almost brings the entire house of cards down on everyone's heads, but he'll have his moment in the spotlight later in this review.

Rather, I'd like to take a moment ruminating on the more enjoyable characters. The Three Muskateers plays host to a wide range of one-noters who manage to become engaging and memorable due to the cartoonish nature of their costume design, performance and writing. Rushford, Milady, Buckingham, the Three themselves, the Cardinal and King Louis are all entertaining company with which to spend your time. Even Planchet doesn't detract from the experience, despite the unfortunate fate of also being James Corden. Sure, the Three themselves could have used far more screen time, most noticeably Aramis played by Luke Evans. Yeah, it does look like Anderson is trying to sell Milla Jovovich (Milady) in a sex slave auction much of the time. Nonetheless, this is a strong set of characters for the type of film being presented to us.

The film is also littered with touches that are better than they probably should be. Anderson's direction, for example, is actually quite good at times. It's accompanied by a strong score. It looks very nice - fake, but enjoyably so. There's a neatness and fakeness that almost seems to enhance rather than detract from immersion, and it very much fits the pantomimic tone. It's bright and colourful and it very much does look rather good. The set pieces are silly, yet somehow managed to avoid the label of contrived. It's a big film, a crazy film and a fun film.

Short too, at least by today's standards. The running time of roughly one hundred minutes allows the film never to outstay it's welcome. Really, films like this have no business being any longer. Transformers, Pirates of the Carribean and other brainless action romps that feel it's a good idea to go beyond two hours really hurt themselves by doing so. On balance, the running time has to be one of the best things about The Three Musketeers, showing that the filmmakers know what it is that they are making.

But, alas, there must be negatives. The lack of depth probably does not count as a real criticism; why should a film like this have depth? That's not what it's for. No, the big, massive, absurdly huge, carbuncle that threatens to eat this movie whole manifests itself on-screen as our protagonist, d'Artagnan. I understand why they made him an American, and it's actually kinda ingenious. Contrasted against the city folk as unsophisticated, they work with the connotations we attach to each nation. Americans are known as brash and rude and gung-ho, whilst the English are more softly spoken and cultured and horribly repressed. Thus, when we have the American d'Artagnan coming in and being noisy around the English Musketeers we already understand the dynamic they possess based only on their accents.

Pity it comes across as another piece of American triumphalism, this idea that their aggressive and blunt minded culture that is demonstrated here comes in and teaches all of those English how to be the type of people that win. Like America! Not that I think Americans are fairly represented by those stereotypes either, them being stereotypes and such, but nonetheless this subtext is, probably accidentally, shoved into our face. It comes across as pandering and, as someone who comes from Britain, will automatically bias me against him and the film as a whole.

Beyond that, d'Artagnan is a unlikeable prick. Wise cracking and hyperbolically smug, we never get any sense he's earned any of this. He waltzes into the fray and upstages the greatest fighters in France and goes on to get the girl. Throughout the film he also delivers thematic speeches, imparting his wisdom to other characters. He doesn't learn anything or change, the world just grows to realise that he was just born awesome and they should feel privileged he chooses to share it. The world has been served to him on a plate, and there's nothing more grating and less engaging than someone who has to work for the good things, rather than just having them drop out of the sky and onto his head.

As emphatic as that rant may have been, this is still a movie worth watching if it takes your fancy. It's enjoyable and light-hearted, and the cheesiness is well handled. At times surprisingly good, and very colourful, I had a good time with the movie.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Film Review - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

 tl;dr Understated and powerful, TTSS is most definitely a successful adaptation and movie of not inconsiderable tension. Brilliantly shot, well acted and subtle. Not for those with a short attention span.

And it's a double bill of le Carre's spy goodness, and I'm not even just copying and pasting the last review on top of this! Actually, the last review I did does impact this one in a very meaningful way. I've read the book; I know the plot and the twists going into the movie. As a story based, to a great extent, on mystery and tension, my foreknowledge of events was always going to affect the way I watched the movie. How closely they stuck to the book for instance (very close) and how they interpret the source material was very much an interesting watch, but also not really appropriate for a review.

What I will say is that the direction is incredibly strong. They translate le Carre's style with incredible skill and capture the understated, repressed atmosphere extremely well. A lot is left unsaid, and dramatic moments are made dramatic through understatement. On top of the skillful and striking directing, there is the plethora of, perhaps inevitable considering the cast involved, great performances. The large cast doesn't allow anyone who isn't Oldman or Cumberbatch to have much time to shine, yet most do nonetheless, making a strong impact with very little.

This is not an all-action affair, a story of talking. Distrust and betrayal are the major themes, and the atmosphere is in the focus far more than the action. This is not a movie that engages you in a normal manner, instead focussing on the slow and mundane side of the business, and it is no less compelling for it.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Book Review - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I've had limited exposure to spy fiction, in book form. What I've read of James Bond's adventure failed to impress, and my solitary Ludlum experience was a solidly written but utterly empty one. Then came le Carre's intense The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, an inensly lonely and savagely tragic affair that stayed with me after it finished. Even now, the cold intensity of the finale has the power to make me shiver.

So it's with no modest expectations that I finally pick Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, buoyed by the newly released movie to finally do so. TTSS concerns the efforts George Smiley, a retired member of the UK's secret service, in uncovering a spy that  has dug it's way into the very core of the secret service's command. With the help of his assisstant, Peter Guillam, he plunges into the past in order to discover where the corruption happened and who did it.

The book doesn't exactly get off to a thunderous start, as it quickly becomes mired in set-up. Towards the beginning le Carre's style is very much a drawback, although it later becomes one of the novel's greatest strengths. It's not clear who does what, exactly, and what is going on much of the time. le Carre writes with a kind of assumed knowledge that makes the world he writes of feel really big and complex, but also incredibly unclear and confusing. When you do know the world it becomes a tool with which he subtly characterises and it even conveys a sense of poignancy through it's distance. During only one section of the first part of the novel did I feel myself really drawn in, and that is always going to be a big difficulty of the novel's.

Patience, however, has a rich reward here: TTSS is something of a masterful novel. It's not exactly fast pace soon serves to draw the reader in and keep them guessing. Through a range of characters we go, getting a very distinct impression of most despite (or rather, because of) le Carre's de-emphasis on characterisation. Many of the scenes in this book are one person telling another a story, and no one is really trustworthy nor is any account strictly true - it's the nature of the novel that he manages to take small moments and make them seem like the world is turned upside down. There's no action in this book at all, mainly descriptions of action, yet as a thrillers it's incredibly effective. Everything understated and little is presented in that dramatic a fashion. Built-up to dramatically, sure, but executed with an understatedness that has more power than any shouty dramatic moment could have.

Truth is, I'd reccomend TTSS easily despite the slow beginning. Once I had finished it, I immediately ordered the sequels, and I can't wait to get my mitts on them and find out where the story goes from here. And if that isn't the highest praise I can give a book, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Film Review - The Troll Hunter

tl;dr This a strong monster movie, and an amusing and quirky comedy. Worth checking out.

So, there's trolls living in the wildlife in Norway. It's true, but we never get hear about them. One man, a troll hunter, is responsible for keeping these creatures from causing too much havoc, whilst the government covers up there existence. This is the central conceit of The Troll Hunter, a Norweigan film very much in the vein of The Blair Witch Project whilst also living comfortably within the monster movie genre.

This is a subtle and amusing movie, leant a very genuine feel by the improvisation of much of the film's scenes. There are no real jokes, exactly, but an amusing look at the potential workings of real life trolls. Perhaps some of the cultural riffing is inevitably lost, but there is an entertaining value to the way they play the premise with what seems to be a straight face.

Perhaps, however, the best thing about this film is that it is able to create suspense as well as comedy, and balance the two side by side so that one never overpowers the other. As you journey for the first time with the team of amatuer journalists you know enough about what is coming up to instil anticipation, but not enough to take the edge off of the taut atmosphere. There's a very legitimate threat to the safety of our protagonists too, as they blundered blindly forward.

The trolls look fantastic. Whilst they are CGI, they are so well done that you are unlikely to give a damn. They sound tremendous too, and the incredible spectacle of these creatures is likely to be lost once the experience is translated onto DVD. They are creative and slightly odd looking, whilst not leaning too heavily on our suspension of disbelief. The wide selection of them keeps you interested in the mythology at work, and as a monster movie, they make a successful one.

Not much in the way of character or plot here, really. The cast are not stock characters and there are plenty of subtle touches scattered throughout, but this is an incredibly simple affair. Come for the humour, the creativity, the spectacle and the experience of watching a different culture reinterpret their own mythology. Expecting a full plot with lots of characterisation would be a mistake. Nonetheless, I think there is more than enough here to justify a watch.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Doctor Who Series 6 - Ranking worst to best

So yeah, Dr Who series six is done and holy shit was it good. I don't think I'll really be able to make my mind up about Moff's writing until his tenure is over, but as showrunner he has worked with fellow executive producers to create two series that have put Russel T Davis and Judie Gardner's time to shame. I'm putting the episodes into order of how much I liked each. Will only summarise my thoughts, as probably will do more detailed look at each ep. at some point. Bare in mind this a series of unprecedented quality, so it's only how good I think each was in context of its own series.

11 - Curse of the Dark Spot

This was a stinker; the worst episode Smith has been in as far as I see it. Coming off of the blistering opening two-parter and preceeding Gaiman's Dr Who debut, this was an episode surrounded by a lot of hype: there was pressure on it to be a strong bridging point, although no one was expecting anything particularly special. What we got felt like it had been brutalised under the editors knife, more than anything else, but happened to include some bad acting and bad directing it looked cheap as hell.  Although I liked the central concept, and the episode did get better towards the end, this is a lesson in piss-poor execution over ideas.

10 - Night Terrors

This one was well directed and, once again, a good concept. Night Terrors delivered strong atmosphere and even lead to a few genuinely scary moments. To call the story more than mediocre, however, would be exagerating. Though Matt, Karen and Arthur are as good as ever, the rest of the cast are rather lacking and there's a cheesiness that both works and doesn't. This is a simple story, but also kinda unremarkable.

9 - Closing Time

After the surprise emergence of The Lodger as one of the stand-out episodes of S5 - what with the abominable James Corden guest starring - this sequel has had, at the very least, some decent levels of anticipation. Whilst Closing Time does not equal it's predecessor's quality, it's nonetheless a highly enjoyable and decently crafted affair. Craig is given a new problem to face, and is perhaps a more compelling character than before, and the humour and lightheartedness are a welcome addition to the seiousface tone of the S6 overall. Strong, but I doubt it'll be anyone's favourite episode.

8 - The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People

It annoys me that this episode has to be so far down. This is an interesting examination of a common sci-fi cliche: cloning. We're taken through this journey less through perils, and more through characters. Whilst this has it's downside, with some narrative wooliness and a concentration on melodrama, it flashes out its characters and makes them all interesting people. There's creepy bits, there's funny bits and there are some scenes that stick in your mind long after watching. Honestly, this two-parter deserves to be higher, and it would be were it not for the outstanding quality of this series.

7 - The Doctor's Wife

It's been a sorely anticipated one for a while now, and superstar fantasist Neil Gaiman lends his pen to Dr Who. The result is, as a mate of mine says, "bread and butter Gaiman", but don't for a moment think that's a bad thing. The spotlight is cast on The Doctor's longest and most enduring relationship, his with the TARDIS, and it inverts much of Dr Who's mythology. It's a celebration of the series, and comes with a memorable villain, scares and chuckles. It might be a bit pandering and look a bit cheap; really, the plotting here isn't that much above average either. Such is the strength of the character and thematic focus that this is not too much of a hinderance.

6 - A Good Man Goes to War

This episode starts in manner epic enough to outshine most climaxes, and in the mid-series finale Moffat looks to create coherent universe, pretty much succeeding. This episode provides answers, but also a character-centric continuation of the ongoing drama surrounding our cast. Full of small character moments and great ideas, A Good Man Goes to War does get a little snarled up around it's midpoint, but nonetheless marches on to a triumphant conclusion. Maybe it's too full of ideas, maybe it's not as mindblowingly unpredictable as it could have been. For myself, I'm yet to be convinced that either of those points are necesarrily problems.

5 - The Wedding of River Song

And the series ends where it starts, offering up drama and twists with the wave of a hand. This story jumps between genres, giving us an adventure that spans an incredible amount of settings. Matt, Alex, Karen and Arthur are great, and The Silence are probably the most welcome addition to the Dr's rogue gallery that we've seen in New Who. Moffat moves us compulsively from set-piece to set-piece, yet never loses track of the emotional core of the show. This is a complicated episode presented in a manner oh-so-easy to understand. Also, if the Doctor is going to be involved in a love story, this is how to do it.

4 - Let's Kill Hitler

The start of S6b is a bombastic affair, a breathless rush of development after development. The Moff may smash us hard with the sledgehammer of retcon, but this episode has such wit, style and thematic complexity that I find it hard to be that troubled. Really, I don't think we've seen an episode so thematically complex, or a character study so nuanced in New Who as what Let's Kill Hitler presents us with. It's inventive and a tad crazy to boot.

3 - The God Complex

Toby Whithouse proved himself to be a strong writer in  S5's Vampire of Venice, which was witty and solid, providing us with a memorable and complex villain and a strong understanding of the characters. Expectations laid on his shoulders to deliver a similarly enjoyable experience, but The God Complex was on a totally different level to anything I could have expected. In the hands of Nick Hurran - a director who looks to be the best New Who has ever seen - his script is realised as a complex yet simple analogy for the Doctor himself. It's a great idea even without it's thematic power, and offers up chills and disturbing moments aplenty. The God Complex pretty much has everything, and it's frankly incredible that it's only third on the list.

2 - The Impossible Astronaut/The Day of the Moon

The opening two parter was an audascious and frankly crazy way to start the series. It throws twist after twist, introduces The Silence and delights in screwing with viewers' perceptions. Characters are put through the ringer, questions are answered but only deepen the mystery and the dialogue is extraordinarily witty whilst never undercutting the unnerving atmosphere of the story.

1 - The Girl Who Waited

This one deserves a full blog entry of it's own.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Back at last

Sorry for the silence on the blog folks, been internet-less for over a week now. As, evidently, it has returned, expect the normal influx of rantings and ravings soon, about comics, movies, novels and anything else that takes my fancy.


Monday, 19 September 2011

Novel Review - The Separation by Christopher Priest

WWII novels are awash with suspense and mystery - will the Nazis win? Will the US enter the war? Did Churchill eat all the pies? The Separation plays on the mysteries of this period of time, long forgot by history, whilst also telling the story of British twins, Joe and Jack Sawyer, and their relationship with a woman.

Time to backpeddle. Christopher Priest is best known as the writer of the source material for Nolan's The Prestige, and anyone who knows me knows that I am a big fan of the writer. Both The Prestige and The Glamour enthralled me and challenged me, although The Extremes left me unsatisfied. I've got a lot of experience with Priest and I am rather biased towards his work.

The Seperation starts, in characteristic Priest fashion, with a framing story. Stuart Gratton is a writer of historical novels, and he uncovers an intriguing story: JL Sawyer, a man who flies with the RAF and is conscience objector, is talked of by Churchill. He delves at first into a written account by one of the twins and then into a mixture of material that is a written account by the second twin combined with a collection of other documents that pertain to the twins.

There's no other way to put this: the first 150 pages of this book are kinda boring. Certainly, it starts off intriguing, but the story about the twins who go to Berlin intercut with RAF hijinks is a bit longer than it really should be. Historical novels do not interest me, and I did not feel that the central romance was necessarily although that compelling. Certainly, as ever, there is a lot to be read between the lines in the way that the author focuses away from certain things and understates certain elements, but this is not pronounced enough to really create mystery. I like his writing and I did see certain interesting or unusual things in there, and repression and unspoken emotion certainly seeps through, but really the main problem here is that the section is about fifty pages too long.

When you get past section two, however, it's business as usual for Mr Priest. A creeping sense of the unnatural takes the narrative by the scruff of the neck and obfuscation is rife. Everyone is unreliable, as is our experience of the novel; all par for the course for Priest, but he keeps it fresh by taking structural complexity further, and adding lots of third party evidence outside of our feuding unreliable narrators. As ever with Priest, narrative structure is the star of the show and the way that any "truth" value becomes blurred is key. In this respect, the latter part of the Separation perhaps eclipses any of his other books. What exactly happens is never clear, and this is the main draw of the story.

Perhaps, this is what the novel is about. It's a historical fiction that looks at real events, conspiracy theories and how unclear things become when we have varied and contradictory perspectives of it, as there inevitably will be when events are so big and widespread. It's about history itself, and how we make sense of it, but also about the way our perspective of war is shaped by hindsight, and not as clear cut as history books would have us think. There's also the strain relating to twins, and sepataration. Really, it's up to yourself to decide what the book is about and figure out how to piece it together. Although Priest had a metaphor in mind, he's as keen to give us hints and ambiguity that let us form different and new ideas from the novel.

The ending disappointed me a bit, and perhaps the ambiguity here is a little frustrating. It's more enjoyable on an intellectual level than an emotional one, as the main characters are hard to care for as a result of the novels structure, but there is something that does resonate about many of the scenes and the love story. It's not a character driven piece, but neither is it a novel of poor characterisation.

I've used a variety of terms that suggest this is a formula book by Priest, but it is only in a good sense. Priest is playing to his strengths, and by giving us very different themes and genres - an alternate history, set in WWII - he gives us something that is also unlike anything else he has written before whilst being exactly the same. It's a very worthy novel for those with strong attention spans and an inclination towards things that are mentally stimulating. Enigmatic and complex and structurally a joy.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Comic Review - Seven Soldiers

Another Grant Morrison? It's as if he is my favourite comic book writer or something. Honest.

Before reading any further, it is probably important to note that I am, indeed, a massive fan of the Scottish scribe, and thus not exactly objective. I do believe that the stories I talk about, however, have enough that is genuinely good about them that render this not just fanboy blinded squealing.

Seven Soldiers is a simple and complex idea: together, seven heroes must defeat an evil that threatens the world. The twist? The seven heroes never meet, and are drawn together by shared circumstances and threat rather than a physical team.

So, as you may have picked up by now, I rather liked this mini-series. Honestly, when I started reading them I felt that their quality was something of a double edged sword - I'd have loved to have seen more Klarion or Frankenstein or Zatanna or Shining Knight under the pen of Morrison; hell, I'd have read full series with any of these characters at the fore. That these are characters brimming with potential and mostly beautifully drawn and coloured. The knowledge that these creative teams would only be tackling the series for four issues was a little bit frustrating. It was being teased with great ideas and stories, but only getting to see the introduction.

This is, beyond stories about any characters, an experiment utilising the structure of the medium. The way these different stories interact without physically meeting up is the key to this, and Morrison threads together a story that is easy enough to piece together when you read all of the different story strands. Yet taken on their own, it seems that each miniseries would form a more or less coherent story, just lacking resolution. To fully understand elements of Bulleteer you would have to read the prelude, and to get any resolution for any of the story strands you have to read the final chapter wherein all the pathways converge.

As a finale this chapter, Seven Soldiers #1, is probably the part most open to criticism, although not necessarily the worst part. Seems contrary, I know, but bare with me. The problem that the series runs into is that not everyone is given an equal place in the finale, and certain characters suffer from being shunted off to the side. Others seem to be more there for "right place, right time" and the resolutions to all of their arcs is done in a very short time, which perhaps may not seem satisfying. For all that it has more negative points, it's also got more positive points than any other part of the story. The art shifts and changes and is incredibly experimental, and the story feels massive. Things click very nicely into place, and the final has a real urgency to it. That this structural experiment could come together so well is very impressive, and I feel that much of the character resolutions do actually work. Such is the scale, imagination and ambition of this project that I found it hard not to get caught up in the moment where it all came together.

Grant Morrison writes stand alone stories that form a larger narrative when taken together. They are complex and not always, or even often, easy to read, yet he also tells such a fundamentally good story - exciting and action packed and full of the weird and wonderful. Seven Soldiers is, if not quite unique, something that certainly treads new and innovative ground, worth a read for that alone. Luckily that there's also a cracking story in there too.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Fancy Words - Choice words from Christopher Priest's The Separation

"I am personally convinced that war is wrong, no matter how good the cause. I am also convinced that although a war can be fought for what is believed to be an honourable reason, such as with the intention of forming a peaceful society, the war itself, by causing so much death and destruction, defeats its own object."

Not an opinion I necessarily agree with, nor one that Priest necessarily agrees with either. Neither is it a new viewpoint, being an oft argued and touted philosophy. What I like about this quote is how succinctly it articulates the idea being a force unto itself that obuscates and erodes any kind of moral high ground, an entity with it's own agendas, regardless of the intent of those involved.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Film Review - Audition

tl;dr Unsettling and genre defying, Audition is at the very least worth a look if you have a strong stomach.

Early in University a friend of mine hands me a book, points to a paragraph and tells me to read it. In said paragraph a descriptively drawn orgy is taking place. The book is Almost Transparent Blue by Ryu Murakami and when a friend mentions a Jap. horror flick named Audition it tickled my memory - isn't that also a book by Ryu Murakami? As it happened the gratuity on display in this choice passage was something of a good indication as to what to expect and uttterly misleading.

Audition is a story about man whose wife died a number of year ago. His son and his friend are both insistent that he needs a new woman, and his friend comes up with the idea of staging an audition for a movie. Through this ruse he would be able to meet a large number of attractive young women and one in particular leaps out at him. And from this hijinks ensue.

This is an insiduous movie. Certainly, there's a tonal ambiguity that hangs over most the movie. In another movie, the set up could be lead to a quirky romcom and at times this seems like a romance, or a study of loneliness. Nothing about this movie's advertising, to the cover of the DVD, however, leaves you in any doubt that this is more than that. A horror, it's often classed as, but really it defies classification. Nonetheless, a very quiet tension builds, incredibly subtle direction and editing tricks that keep us uncomfortable even when the movie is giving us no good reason to be uncomfortable.

Audition walks a line between lots of genres, comitting fully to none. It plays with expectations and although this does suggest a chance that people may be alienated, likelihood is if you are watching it you are probably open to a very different type experience anyway. It's a well directed and written affair, careful never to tip the balance, making sure as to keep the plot on the edge of plausibility even as it cascades into nightmarish and seemingly paranormal sequences.

Audition is a haunting and violent movie, an utterly bonkers yet strangely fragile film. It's lack of commitment to any one label or genre is ultimately one of it's strengths and it's brutality serves an end so as to make sure the comic is never just violence for titilation. If you've got a strong stomach, definitely look it up.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Comic Review - Captain America: Operation Rebirth

Alright Captain America. I was cynical, I'll admit it. But as much as I dislike you as a concept and a character, I could not help but be won over by that movie earlier this year. It came off the back of quite a lot of hype and lived up to it all. Maybe I was wrong about you. And with Operation Rebirth sitting on my bookshelf, you've got the help of Mark Waid. Surely, this should be the start of something beautiful?


Captain America: Operation Rebirth comes off of a plotline that sees ol' Cap dying of the same Super Soldier Serum that gives him the ability to fight a wall with only his face and still win. Writer Mark Waid has a strong record of introducing me to a character I don't know anything about and giving me a firm grasp of their character and making me care about them, doing this with Ralph Dibny and Wally West in 52 and The Return of Barry Allen. I figured that Rebirth would be a reconstruction of Cap, looking at what makes him great whilst telling a pulse pounding story.

I am not entirely sure where it went wrong. Perhaps my intial reservations about Cap were correct, perhaps he is not my type of character or perhaps he is just bland. The artwork did not appeal to me at all, and I found there a real lack of anything interesting or cool to look at coupled with a real lack of emotion or action. This is what I always considered proto-typical comic artwork to be like, and I really did not like it. Then again, maybe it's the characcter designs that rub me up the wrong way, or the art culture surrounding it. Not only is it Marvel, but it's not from a period I particularly like anything from. Ron Garney has to take rather a lot of the flak for this one.

Not that the story is a good one. No, that's not exactly fair - the story was fast moving and twisty and at times very good fun, but between my disinterest in the characters and the unengaging artwork it left me cold. The dialogue was annoying, with ol' Cap coming across as a passive-aggressive, witless smartmouth and his love interest coming off as, well, a love interest. Sure, she's got the "I'm all hard and cold because of seperation" thing going on, but that serves only to make her seem obstinant and kinda petty. I don't believe it's impossible for a writer to make me care about these characters, but Waid fails, surprisingly.

There are some very nice moments in here, and the high point has to be the first chapter. In it we see the Avengers gathering at the scene of a terrorist attack of sorts. Terrorists in giant battle suits have kidnapped the President and are making only one demand: they want Captain America. Cap has disappeared, so it's up to the Avengers to stop enemies that have weapons designed to stop them. The strength of belief that the Avengers have in Cap swept me up, and the way the Cap has a presence throughout the whole story despite his absence really hit me.

Despite the odd flourish of quality, this is not a storyline that I particularly enjoyed or liked. One to avoid, thinks I.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Comic Review - The Mystery Play

They told me it was a murder mystery. The characters spoke to me throguh the blurb, talking of a killer on the loose. There was even a murder at the start of a story, and a policeman is called in to investigate it. Yet to introduce this as a murder mystery is to start off on the wrong foot. Even psychological thriller does not quite fit the bill: what, exactly, this story is is still unclear. Seventeen years after publication, and nobody is quite sure.

Meet Detective Frank Carpenter. He's a man sent to the town to investigate the murder of an actor playing God in a medieval mystery play. The town is rife with corruption and buried social anxiety, and Carpenter himself is hiding something. The real protagonist, perhaps, is Annie Woolf, a woman who works for the local paper. She's looking for her big story that'll catapult her into the world of journalism as a rising star, and she reckons this case could make her.

But perhaps I'm not doing a good job of talking about the story - that last paragraph was akin to introducing you to someone at a party by describing what they are wearing. Rather, it's more accurate to say that this a heavily allegorical story that blends religious imagery and hallucinogeic sequences with a reality that never quite seems right.

The artwork is beautiful and very fitting.  Jon J Muth's art is at times reminiscent of Alex Ross's photo realism, yet conveys a strange ethereal atmosphere even when there is nothing openly odd about events. The characters almost look like smuged photographs, half remember faces and ghosts of the past. When the story is rather less than grounded in reality, which is rather a lot of it, he shows an ability to give us abstract and surreal images that help make the comic as good as it is.

From the sinister nature of coats to the never completely made Nietzsche refences, The Mystery Play is something that you can't really talk about without giving something away or in some way biasing the experience. It's a story that requires a lot from it's audience, but nonetheless it's worth the investment of your time and focus. Terrific stuff.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Film Review - The Grudge 2

tl;dr Better than the first, but really if you didn't like the first then you aren't going to like this either.

And we're back again with everyone's favourite haunted house/passer-by trap. They must be cooking something delicious in there, because everyone and their dog feels the need to sniff around it's black grilled wooden columns. This weeks victims are a trio of school girls, the conformist Asian girl, the bitchy blone one and the awkward brunette whom is meant to be the one that we sympathise with. Of course, they see the house and feel the need to explore it. I can sympathise, as I too am drawn to charred remains - wouldn't be able to stomach my own cooking otherwise.

Actually, I commiting a mistake common to modern audiences: we know it's a horror, why don't the characters. But of course they don't and when the dark haired girl gets locked in the cupboard hijinks ensue, and we get one of the creepiest moments in the franchise as a whole. It's probably the only point during the Hollywood remake that has really stayed with me.

Two paragraphs in, and it should probably be noted that whilst I've seen Ju-on: The Grudge, I've not seen Ju-on: The Grudge 2, upon which I presume this movie is based. So consider my fundamentally different perspective - I'm comparing it with the first American Grudge as opposed to the source material - and adjust for bias as you see it.

Back with Sarah Michelle Gellar, and we get to see her sister. They've got a freyed relationship, but their mum is worried about Gellar's character and sends the sister to go find her. Immediately I found myself caring about her far more than I cared about Gellar's character in the first one. Her reasons for getting caught up in all this nonsense feel far less contrived and far more personal. Aided by the Japanese bloke that pulled Gellar's character from the fire, she sets about making sense of the situation.

The third line of narrative takes place with a family of four. The first scene the story gives us involves a man shouting abusively at his wife, before his wife smashes his head in with a frying pan. This is the parallel to the suicide story in the first film, and yet again I prefer it. The set pieces seem more interesting and fresher, and whilst the twist isn't as clever, the fact that it takes place in a different setting and the characters are far better fleshed out means, once again, I prefer this to the former film's.

This is what it comes down to - this ensemble is far better developed and feels a bit fresher than last time, but also that they have more depth. The first film seemed to assume that we'd care about the vapid array of characters, whilst this one works to make us care about the cast of two of the plot lines. The one involving the three girls works because the story never relies on us being invested on them, serving them up more as a piece of the puzzle and a place to get in the creepiness and jump scares.

Otherwise, there's not much difference between the two films. Both have similar construction, one story with a person being chased by the ghosts and a second one that won't fit in until the end. The setpieces are visceral if a tad predictable and the atmosphere is thick., and the plot twists are bit a better and look to build up the Grudge mythos. Thematically, it's as weak as the first American Grudge, but the greater investment you have in the characters helps balance that nicely.

I cannot help but feel that the first movie did not have any reason to exist. Get rid of the suicide subplot,  and have SMG's character killed the first time she meets the ghost woman. The result would be a far stronger franchise. In many ways this is more of the same, really, only better.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Film Review - Fright Night 3D

tl;dr Death to 3D! Also, whilst the film perks up a bit towards the end, it's not worth sitting through.

Note to filmmakers: 3D has it's problems. Not only does it make films darker, but also the darkness appears kind of smudged and spiderwebby at times - admittedly this may just have been the film print. Things in the background are too out-of-focus and smuged and often I had to shut one eye to figure out of the settings. And things popping out of the screen are not, and I repeat ARE NOT, fun or cool or anything like that. They are obnoxious and annoying and even if this had been a decent film I would have come out of it frustrated. The sooner 3D dies, the better.

As for the film? Well, a remake of a cult classic, tuned into the wavelength of a vampire obsessed public? Not a good start, but I went into this film with some modicum of hope. I'm a fan of Tennant, Colin Farrell is a good actor and the whole thing is gonna be loads of campy self-knowing horror action. I was hoping for something that would be an entertaining way to spend a night. And towards the end of the movie this ambitious target is more or less realised; too little, too late.

But meet our protragonist Charley, a beleagured teenager who has a new neighbour, Jerry the vampire. He's not the most rounded character to begin with, as we see: he's become a kind of pseudo-jock and rejected his best friend for being geeky. This is putting down a very simple thematic premise: this is a story about emotional immaturity and growing up, and finding your identity as you do. Naturally, it's a poor riff on the theme, and, weirdly, the best thematic moment of the film involves Peter Vincent, who is kinda shoe horned into the movie in a rather contrived way.

Later on, the movie's style and silly set pieces do turn it into an enjoyable affair, but for it to have been a really good fun movie all the way through. Fright Night spends a lot more time trying to make us like the characters and wastes a lot of time building up where the build up need not be so extensive to the point that it actually hurting the movie. Tense scene after tense scene, but there's this strange veneer of genuine horror going on here that just does not work.

And the humour. Well, what humour? The wit in this film is limp wristed, but admittedly critiquing humour is really difficult, because more than anything else it's down to personal taste. But I'd be surprised if there are that many people who can tell me this was a funny film.

I liked David Tennant near the end and the directions events took, but there's little here that I can really praise. Between a vapid script, stylish but cliche direction and obnoxious, shallow characters, I'm finding very little worthy about the film. One to avoid.

First adventures into the DCnU

So I've bought, read and digested four new comics from the DC's relaunch. Here's my brief thoughts on all four:

Action Comics #1: When I bought this, the two people behind the counter were discussing how underwhelming they found it. Morrison is a writer I love so much that I always go in worried: with such great a track record comes the potential for great disappointment. This is exactly what I wanted it to be, however: fast and exciting and with a lot of promise. This is Morrison in his Batman and Robin mode, and he proves he can do simple story telling just as well as he does all that meta stuff. I liked the artwork too, it was warm and engaging and dragged me into the action.

Stormwatch #1: This one I wasn't even going to get, but I am a weak man. This was big and strange and imaginative, and probably featured my favourite art. My lack of knowledge about any of the characters except Martian Manhunter made it a tad on the confusing side, but the story balances a fast pace with intoductions very nicely. Very solid read.

Swamp Thing #1: Probably the weakest of the bunch. After a very atmospheric and mysterious start the comic gets caught up in just straight exposition. Whilst I feel the slow start was likely an attempt to continue the sense of something building, it didn't work. The dialogue and prose present is very nicely crafted, but this gets caught up in a wordiness. The very nice artwork can't do much to help, unfortunately, but there is enough that does happen to persuade me to give it at least another issue. Started and ended well, but the middle doesn't quite work.

Animal Man #1: This is the one I'd heard the most praise about, but my expectations were not quite sky high. To be honest, I didn't know what was waiting for me, but even considering that what I got was definitely surprising. Unlike Swamp Thing, the slow pace really worked and below the surface you do get a building feeling. This is the only comic I reread immediately after finishing, and definitely my favourite of the four.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Poetry Time

A poem I wrote for a competition somewhere. 'ave at it:

Dante chooses his shapes well

Circles, I retrace my footsteps;
Backwards and forwards, both meanings lost;
Just this line, never crossed.

Going around in circles, this rut I wear
In the earth below my feet.

Loops, and I am back again;
Patterns appear, unrelenting formulism adheres;
Manifestations of my fears.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Let's Kill Hitler, analysis

Spoiler alert for Dr Who, Let's Kill Hitler and probably many things involving River Song before this point.

Let's Kill Hitler has come at last, and delivered a character focus that is uncommon Dr Who. Although there were politely murderous, betentacled metal robots, creepy robot clones of people filled with mini people and cupboard Hitlers, the real focus of this episode was on River Song and her relationship with the Doctor.

There are four major players in this episode:

The Teselecta
Melody Pond
The Doctor
River Song

River Song is the woman that Melody is not yet, but who The Doctor sees everytime he speaks to Melody. In this episode she exists only as The Doctor's conceptualisation of her. From this River/Melody emerges as a duality, and the conflict between The Doctor's conceptual River and the real Melody is what drives this episode forward.

Melody Pond is still a young woman, of sorts. She has just regenerated and she's found the man that she's spent her whole childhood obsessing about. She's been raised on a diet of The Doctor, The Doctor, The Doctor and by the time she meets him she's pretty set on his life belonging to her. When she hears him talking about this other woman it arouses her jealousy, hence the way that The Doctor's repeated mention of River's name never fails to slip under her attention. More than that, the warmth with which he talks about her provokes a desire to be that woman. Henceforth we get the duality and conflict between the two different forms of Melody and River Song, the conflict between the Id and Superego.

The Teselecta, are the simplest of the four major players. They tell you straight up what they are: justice. The Teselecta represent Melody's punishment for killing the Doctor. They represent the consequence of the inevitable criminal act. They are a literal articulation for both the fictional universes and the wider fanbase's reaction to the concept of Melody killing The Doctor. The Doctor however, puts himself between the backlash and Melody, pre-emptively forgiving her for the act. The Doctor is the one who prevents the revenge and tells us to forgive Melody rather than seek "justice". In many ways The Doctor is speaking as much to fans as anyone else.

So through relising that this woman he talks of, River, is her, Melody starts to become River. She's struck by the way The Doctor protects her despite her "killing" of him and through her own desire to become the woman that the Doctor speaks of. To reiterate an earlier point: the conceptual River (Superego) and Melody (Id) come into conflict and emerge as River Song (Ego).

When Melody first lands the kiss she comments that The Doctor is the master of all types of warfare "except for the most cruel". By the end of the episode River speculates that The Doctor must have known that she could save him, to which he replies: "Rule 1: The Doctor lies." The implication - a point that will no doubt remain ambiguous - is that The Doctor is far more adept at emotional warfare than Melody. After all, the episode ends with The Doctor having turned a deadly enemy, a weapon sculpted to take on the Doctor, and turned her into an ally.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Geoff John's Green Lantern: Rebirth to Sinestro Corps

Green Lantern is complicated. To fully understand Rebirth you need to understand the history of Green Lantern and Hal Jordan's time as the character. I'll try and be as brief as possible:

The original Green Lantern was Alan Scott, a man with a magic ring. During what's known as the "silver age" - a time when comics were outlandish and whacky and incredibly fantastical - the Green Lantern was brought back as a space policeman whose ring could form shapes from solid green light. This was Hal Jordan, the first human chosen to be inducted into the universal police force Green Lantern Corps.

Hal Jordan's story gets complicated when his home town is destroyed, and most of its inhabitants massarced in the process. In his grief Hal Jordan tried to use his ring to reanimate people, but the Guardians of Oa - the alien race that created and rule the Green Lanterns - would not allow it; so Hal Jordan fought against them, killing and imprisoning fellow Green Lanterns. Eventually he came up against his great nemesis Sinestro -  Sinestro was the greatest Green Lantern before Jordan, but also a brutal and totalitarian controller of his sector - and snapped his nemesis's neck. Thus, Hal Jordan became the supervillain Parallax.

There were other Green Lanterns introduced to the Corps - John Stewart, a black architect; Guy Gardner, a ginger hothead; Kyle Rayner, a young, angsty artist. The fans, however, were not happy with the way that Hal Jordan had went evil and what resulted was fan-backlash on a rather astonishing level, even when you consider the usual intensity of comic fans. So, come 2004, superstar comic writer Geoff Johns decides to bring Hal back, and Rebirth is the vehicle for that.

Rebirth throws us into a complex picture - out on the edges of the universe Kyle Rayner, Green Lantern, discovers an ancient prophecy. At the same time,  Hal Jordan is possessed by the spectre - powerful spirit of vengeance - and struggles against a third consciousness - the spirit of Parallax - that all exist in his body. John Stewart, who is serving as the Earth Green Lantern with the Justice League, finds himself being being intimidated and moved around by a very dickish, but incredibly awesome, Batman. Guy Gardner runs a bar, pretending he was never a superhero. Somewhere out there the last remaining Guardian (the alien race that created and command the Green Lanterns) Ganthet guards Jordan's body.

It remarkable that Johns is able to balance all of these plot threads and bring them cataclysmically together. At the start it is not clear where the story is going, yet there is an urgency and direction given to the plotting that keeps the story thundering along at a pace that made it hard for me to look away. As a person who knew fairly little about Green Lantern going into this comic, I was impressed by the way it brought me in. Twists that should not have wowed me were executed with such energy that it hit home nonetheless. Characters and themes are very much secondary here, yet they are also relevant and tied nicely into the story. There are plenty of subtle touches that make the characters more complex and the story have some depth.

The story is, more than anything, a restoration of status quo. Whilst the theme is very much appropriate in a resurrection story, and the story is of such energy and excitement that it stands as one of the better examples I've encountered of it, there is an undertone that doesn't fit here. As I earlier said, Hal Jord was responsible for some rather evil acts, and Rebirth is not only a physical rebirth but also a character rebirth. This looks to redeem him through retcon any responsibility he may have had. It's a regressive way to deal with a character that essentially avoids a character having to overcome pas actions by removing accountability. As much as I dislike this, however, the story is fun and well crafted enough for me to not hold it against the comic.

From No Fear to Wanted: Hal Jordan, Johns takes the reigns in a number of stories that are of lesser a quality. For all that Johns showed a keen thematic awareness in Rebirth, there's very much the same ground being walked here, only far less effectively. The action is far smaller, Hal Jordan is suddenly a boring character and there's little depth to it. For me, No Fear's rotating artist board really disrupted the flow of the action and I came out of it really rather worried. Things did improve and when the writing showed a real inclination to pick up pace the action was generally pretty good. Artwork, too, helps to sell the action and the scale.

Problem is that Hal Jordan seems to be a spouter of cliches, and all the attractive women in the comic love him and all the men wish they were him. Hoo boy. The conflicts Hal faces, like being captured for not wearing his ring, are not necessarily bad but kind of feel like they are too much like needless navel gazing. As a primary driving force for the narrative it doesn't hold up. There is too much of this that feels like it's just build-up, especially in retrospect, and a lot of the bad guys don't feel like they are given a good enough showing. Despite exciting moments, the odd interesting idea and nice twist, Johns' stuff bridging Rebirth and Sinestro Corps is fairly weak. It seems like a bridge, rather than a story or series of stories.

At the same time Green Lantern's sister comic, Green Lantern Corps, restarted with the co-written story Recharge. Dave Gibbons shared the story duties during this miniseries, and throughout the rest of GLC he would helm the series until Tomasi takes over towards the end of Sinestro Corps. Early on Recharge struggles a bit, trying to establish rather too many characters and compromise it with the massive scale space opera shenanigans. When the latter part of the stories kicks in to gear and brings all the dispirate paths together, the story is incredibly entertaining and the characters are very much entertaining.

Dave Gibbons continues in much of the vein for a volume and a half - with a guest story by Keith Champagne - and this is probably my favourite part of the period I am looking at. Gibbons' characters and story are all interesting, and I love the way they often don't quite meet up often, lending the universe a big feel. There is very much an episodic feel in a good way, an unfolding series of plot lines with an engaging ensemble cast. It was good fun and dynamically structured, and I really wish that he could have stayed on longer. I was similarly impressed with the guest story by Champagne, darker but nonetheless good fun. You could make the argument that Johns makes a stronger attempt to add thematic depth to his work, but Gibbons' work has such energy and excitement that I don't care.

Sinestro Corps is the culmination of much of what has went before whilst simultaneously laying groundwork for thigns to come. I didn't enjoy it at first, as the Sinestro Corps are introduced as far too dangerous without ever really earning it. For bad guys to be really respected they have to do something earlier on the story to qualify them as a legitimate threat. For me, it was as if Sinestro Corps started at the end of the second arc of a normal movie. Green Lanterns are facing potential extinction, desperate last gasps, and it's too out of nowhere. Structurally it feels untidy, and the the antagonsits become annoying rather than threatening, as their victories seem cheap.

As the story got further in it was able to overcome these faults, and there are plenty of nice wee character moments to be found amongst the crazily big space action. It gets the balance right in that respect - this is neither a thematic or character tale, yet within these pages there are moments of character growth. The stacking of threats works well, although certain extremely powerful bad guys are rather skimmed over and seem to be here for the shock of the reveal rather than the value they can add.

Not that I want to be  totally negative about SC: as already noted, there are subtle character moments and it is a very big and ambitious story. It communicates an intergalactic war well and the two different comics jar rarely when transitioning one to the other, in both the writing and the art department. It brings Jordan's character arc to a close and hints towards larger things to come. And when the shit hits the fan, the momentum of the story sends you hurtling forwards at a break neck speed.

So what do I think of this run overall? I feel like I should have skipped the three Green Lantern volumes between Rebirth and Sinestro Corps and just read GLC, but overall I'm glad I gave it a look. Rebirth is a great comic, and Dave Gibbon's time on GLC was pretty much the epitome of damned good fun. Keep in mind there's far more to be explored here - I have just covered nine trade paperbacks after all.

Film Review - Super 8

tl;dr Highly enjoyable, well made and more than a little bit cheesy. This is a story for the kid inside you and it's damn effective one at that.

Super 8 is my first experience with J.J. Abrams, despite Lost practically being a cultural staple, and I have to confess to being impressed. From the start it proves itself as a movie that understands filmmaking, delivering an opening that speaks far louder without words than it could with exposition. Meet 14-year old Joe: his mum is dead and his dad is struggling to cope. As he is filming a film with a bunch of his friends they witness a train derailment, and it turns out that the train's cargo is rather unusual.

Having a young cast is always something of a gamble, as they have been known to be harder to direct and not so developed as actors. Super 8 has a terrific cast, however, and having the main characters children in a movie that seems more aimed towards not children of that demographic, but more of the older people who remember when these type of movies were the blockbusters. It's a love letter to those Spielbergian romps and an appeal to the child in the viewer. If the viewer already happens to be a child, then all the better.

Whilst pretty much everything here is a direct appeal to cliches, there's also a knowingness to it that leads to a few moments of deconstruction. Abram is willing to play around with them just as he is willing to evoke them. It's hard not to get won over by the earnestness of the film's set pieces. The writing is fairly tight, although Joe's personal story and the alien hijinks feel like they never properly come together. At the end it feels like there are two distinct threads where there should have been an intertwining of both. It's the main problem this otherwise solid film has.

Perhaps the characters feel a little bit played out, and perhaps the there is not as much thematic tidiness as would be preferable, but Super 8 is certainly one of the best cinematic outings I've experienced all year. It's earnest excitement, evokation of childhood and adept execution lead to a very compelling end product. Recommended.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Discussion Archive

These are the posts where I feel like examining something or making a point:

Film Review - Gin Gwai (The Eye)

tl;dr Whilst not exactly a horror film, it offers up more than a few scares and great big dollop of pathos. Well shot, well acted; well worth checking out.

The Eye is a pan-asian horror movie, a Singapore-Hong Kong co-production, shot in Hong Kong and Thailand and with a cast from most corners of East Asia. It comes off of the back of a few asian/asian influenced horrors, so at this point I feel like I'm beginning to kind of get into the rhythm of the things and have fairly strong expectations. Thus, The Eyes surprised me: it's not a ghost story like many of these other asian horror affairs, and more a ghost story in the vein of The Sixth Sense.

Our protagonist, Mun, is blind, but we meet her as she is undergoing a cornea transplant. Everything seems to go according to plan and she begins to regain her sight. She starts seeing odd things, however, like unexplained figures and a man who takes away an old woman who turns up dead. She can see ghosts, and with the help of a young doctor she looks to unravel what is going on.

I've noted before that it can often be difficult to tell how god the acting is in a foreign language film, due to culture norms relating to emotion and general unfamiliarity with certain ethnic groups. This film, however, puts lie to that theory, as the cast is terrific throughout, selling the weird circumstances and emotional struggles nicely. Mun has very little dialogue, but she is nonethless able to communicate her thoughts and fears without being unsubtle.

The films begins on rather an unusual note, for, as creepy as the overly-long title sequence is, there's not much in here recogniseable as outright horror at first. A few scenes with slightly creepy overtones, sure, but the movies spends a lot of time building up the character and looking at her recovery. For awhile the film seems content to look at the way she deals with this new emerging world of the physical, and her psychological attempts to deal with that. This grounds the film not in the supernatural nor the world of jump scares, but rather in the psychological journey of the main character. To sell this as a horror, pure and straight, is very much a mistake. The horror is here to facilitate the growth of the characters, and although you have to be a horror fan to some extent to watch and enjoy it, it's perhaps inaccurate to call it a horror.

I really liked the directing, which has a very distinct and stylish flavour without ever coming close to indulgence. The direction is a storytelling tool, and in this movie it's used to maximum effect. It's a well put together piece, with production values that outstrip many in Hollywood.

There are a few twists to the tale that, whilst simple, certainly are effective. It's not exactly unpredictable, but it is nonetheless rewarding. The Eye is a polished and clever film, which nonetheless retains a simplicity that keeps any of it's conflicting ideas in balance. It's a film about redemption and facing up to fear, and never makes the jump scare or the otherly creepiness the point. Well worth giving a go.