Friday, 29 May 2015

Book notes #2

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

Axe Cop, Vol 2: Bad Guy Earth (Dark Horse Comics), by Malachai Nicolle and Ethan Nicolle. Nothing could ever be quite as hilarious as Axe Cop, Vol. 1, which made me laugh so much the sides of my eyes were sore for days from wiping away the tears, and this isn’t, but it comes pretty close. Axe Cop and friends have to battle two psychic bad guys who want to turn everyone on Earth into bad guys. Written by a little kid and drawn by his grown-up brother, this does a great job of harnessing the imaginative fireworks that go off whenever children start to rattle off stories. ****

Baltimore, Vol. 2: The Curse Bells (Dark Horse Books) by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden and Ben Stenbeck. A story in five chapters, which begins with a betrayal in Lucerne. Baltimore searches for the vampire Haigus, who he first encountered on the bloodstained fields of World War One. ***

Baltimore, Vol. 3: A Passing Stranger (Dark Horse Books) by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden and Ben Stenbeck. Lord Baltimore fights his way through five short stories, hunting for his hated enemy. ***

Batman: The Black Mirror (DC Comics), by Scott Snyder, Jock, Francesco Francavilla. Good story about Batman (Dick Grayson, who I think might be my favourite Batman) fighting a weird secret society. ***

Be a Sex-Writing Strumpet (self-published) by Stacia Kane. Reading this didn’t half make me blush. It compiles a series of blog posts on the subject of writing sex scenes, principally for erotic novels. I don’t often include that stuff in my writing, but I’d read some sensible blog posts on responding to reviews by the author and wanted to buy something of hers. And it was useful to me: much of what she says can be applied to other kinds of action. It’s good, though some readers may feel it could have used a rewrite to make it more bookish and less bloggy. ***

Billy’s Book (PS Publishing) by Terry Bisson. A short PS Publishing collection of deliberately fragmentary and repetitive stories about a boy who has odd stuff turn up at his house, like giant ants and wizards and unicorns. They’re okay, but it was a bit of a surprise at the end to see what starry venues they had originally appeared in. ***

Black and Brown Planets: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction (University Press of Mississippi), by Isiah Lavender III (ed.). Interesting book of essays. Two about one episode of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 are maybe a bit much, and given the title it seems odd that it doesn’t cover India, the country that might well come to lead the space race (the “Brown” section is more about South America), but I learnt a lot from it. Like any book of literary criticism, it can be dull, but that’s outweighed by the issues, authors and stories it works so carefully to bring to our attention. A few essays make great claims without much evidence, but all provide much to think about; it opens up the conversation, rather than having the last word. Walter Mosley is quoted inside as saying: “The power of science fiction is that it can tear down the walls and windows, the artifice and laws by changing the logic, empowering the disenfranchised or simply by asking, What if?” Black and Brown Planets shows how writers and critics are doing just that. Reviewed in full for Interzone #255. ****

Black Science, Vol. 1: How to Fall Forever (Image Comics), by Rick Remender, Matteo Scalera, Dean White. Begins with a pair of scientists dashing through a bizarre alien world, desperate to get back to the children who will die if they don’t get back in time. As the story goes on, it begins to feel a bit like Sliders or Primeval, one of those shows where characters pitch up in a place and have to get out again. It’s better than either of those so far, let’s hope that continues. The art is spectacular. ***

Friday, 22 May 2015

Book notes #1

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

Abe Sapien, Vol. 1: The Drowning (Dark Horse Books), by Mike Mignola, Mike Alexander and Jason Shawn. Moody and spooky story of Hellboy’s aquatic chum. ***

Adventure Time, Vol. 1: Playing With Fire (KaBOOM!), by Danielle Corsetto. A black and white Adventure Time graphic novel featuring the Flame Princess. ***

Adventure Time, Vol. 2: Pixel Princesses (KaBOOM!), by Danielle Corsetto and Zack Sterling. Another black and white graphic novel, this time featuring several of the princesses as they get stuck inside their computer pal. Bought for the children (possibly by the children with their pocket money) but I enjoyed it too. ***

Afterlife with Archie, Vol. 1: Escape from Riverdale (Archie Comics), by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla. Interesting alternative take on the gang. Shows real understanding of the characters. Doesn’t have a proper ending. ***

Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects (Dark Horse Comics), by Mike Mignola and Dave Stewart. Collecting weird tales by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. The lead story is about a head who can screw himself into various bodies, and does so in order to help the President, Abraham Lincoln. ****

Amelia Cole and the Hidden War (Monkeybrain Comics), by Adam P. Knave, D.J. Kirkbride and Nick Brokenshire. Book two. Amelia works as the city’s magic sheriff while her predecessor fights in a magical war. ***

Amelia Cole and the Unknown World (Monkeybrain Comics), by Adam P. Knave, D.J. Kirkbride and Nick Brokenshire. Book one in a well-drawn and readable series about a young woman who can do magic. ***

American Elf 2009 (Top Shelf Productions), by James Kochalka. Kochalka’s daily comics from 2009. ***

American Elf 2010 (Top Shelf Productions), by James Kochalka. Kochalka’s daily comics from 2010. ***

American Elf 2011 (Top Shelf Productions), by James Kochalka. Kochalka’s daily comics from 2011. ****

American Elf 2012 (Top Shelf Productions), by James Kochalka. Conclusion of the wonderful autobiographical series. *****

Angel and Faith, Vol. 1: Live Through This (Dark Horse Books) by Christos Gage, Scott Allie, Rebekah Isaacs and Phil Noto. Vampire with a soul Angel did some stuff recently that he feels bad about, and he’s trying to put things right. Naughty vampire slayer Faith owes him one from back in the day so she’ll stick by his side, even though she thinks he’s making a mistake. The first story sees them tracking down the source of an elixir of life, and the second brings back Harmony, still the world’s most famous celebrity vampire. Enjoyable without being essential; I think Angel and Faith are both characters who benefit from a bit of offscreen time. Watch out for the spoiler for volume two in the artist’s notes at the back. ***

Asterix and the Magic Carpet (Orion), by Albert Uderzo. Asterix goes to India, in theory. It seems more like Arabia. ***

Asterix in Corsica (Orion), by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. Not the best in the series. ***

Asterix in Switzerland (Orion), by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. Very funny. Reminded me why I loved Asterix so much as a youngster. ****

Avengers Assemble (Marvel) by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley. Collecting a blockbuster mini-series where the Avengers team up with the Guardians of the Galaxy to take on Thanos, who’s got his hands on a new cosmic cube and an army of Badoon. It’s not too bad, and the artwork is good, but the story struggles to fill eight issues and Gamora wears an appallingly sexist outfit that looks like Borat’s swimming costume. ***

Monday, 18 May 2015

Ten tips for a happy marriage

I've been married for 19 years today. If one becomes an expert in something after 10,000 hours, then logically after 166,550 hours of marriage I am an expert in it 16 times over, so I feel entirely justified in offering my ten tips for a happy marriage:

1. Marry someone who already knows what a jerk you are.

2. If you have a row sleep at the opposite end of the bed rather than stomping off to sleep somewhere else. It's hard to be mad at someone's feet for what their mouth said.

3. Marry someone who likes the same TV programmes, because it's always going to be a cheap easy way to have fun together.

4. If possible, try to go to bed at the same time.

5. But get a Kindle with a built-in light so that you don't need to keep the lamp on.

6. Marry someone who thinks you're funny.

7. Be aware of their minimum expectations in the relationship and make sure you meet them.

8. Divide the household tasks up cleanly so that there's no arguing over whose turn it is to do something.

9. Never leave an empty toilet roll behind.

10. Be lucky.

If you've got any tips of your own, please let me have them in the comments! Our twentieth anniversary is now almost within reach and it would be a terrible shame if I fell at the last hurdle!

Avengers: Age of Ultron | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Sequel soars with Super Bowl style entertainment.

Our beloved heroes are back to decimate evil, attack our pocketbooks, decrease our IQ, and lavish us with non-stop action.

Avengers: Age of Ultron pumps up the adrenaline of the box office record-breaking Avengers Assemble (2012). The sequel stands as a treatise on the values of friendship and loyalty, as well as a commentary on the redemptive qualities of humanity. Plus it has lots of explosions.

Tony Stark (i.e. Iron Man) has a plan to bring peace to Earth through an artificial intelligence called Ultron. However, Ultron’s motives (and his take on humans) are a tad less charitable: he wants to destroy humanity. So Ultron makes himself a robotic body, enlists a couple of genetically modified twins (“He’s fast, she’s weird.”), and multiplies his army like “a Catholic rabbit” (Nick Fury’s words).

Despite all the biotechnological gobbledygook that passes between Stark and Dr Bruce Banner (the Hulk), the crew has a simple goal: stop Ultron. No matter our willingness to admit it, the reason we adults go to see these films is the same as that of the little boy: to see good guys trounce bad guys. And that’s what we get.

Though it’s penned by return director Joss Whedon, Avengers: Age of Ultron seems to have come together via a think tank of top advertising creatives intent on achieving a two-plus hour Super Bowl commercial. From the opening snowy battle scene to the rollicking conclusion, the film keeps the viewer hypnotized with its rock star cast and cartoonish fight sequences.

In this film, plot is peripheral to action. It’s best viewed on a big screen. A robot-propelled semitrailer floating above New York just isn’t the same on a small screen.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the attention span of the average American dropped 33% between 2000 and 2013. We’re at about eight seconds. The makers of Avengers: Age of Ultron got the memo.

Something for Everyone
The film appeals to many different ages and cinematic tastes.

Those who like humour are in for a treat. It’s hard to watch the film for longer than two minutes without finding something to at least chuckle at. It starts when Captain America reprimands Stark after he utters the film’s first word: “Shit.” Soon “Cap” lets slip a dirty word of his own. This becomes an ongoing joke.

The sense of boyish one-upmanship that permeates the film is best encapsulated at a party near the beginning. Thor and Iron Man strive to outbrag each other regarding the accomplishments of their women, Jane Foster and Pepper Potts. The heroes then engage in a strength contest by attempting to lift Mjölnir, Thor’s magical hammer. To top it off, Thor enhances the libations with some kind of magical elixir.

For romantics, there’s the blossoming relationship between Natasha Romanoff (i.e. Black Widow) and Bruce Banner. It’s particularly enjoyable to watch Mark Ruffalo’s reluctant, nearly submissive Banner squirm as Scarlett Johansson’s character makes clear her interest in him. Sure, Banner is concerned that his green alter ego could tear apart Romanoff, but he’s also contending with a much more incredulous possibility: that this vixen is actually interested in him despite his supreme nerdiness. Well played by Ruffalo.

For the youngster, especially the hysterical boy who likes to knock things down, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a dream come true. Colourful costumes. Robots. Weapons. Razed buildings. Standouts include Captain America’s completely unnecessary, though enthralling flips and Stark in a souped-up Iron Man getup attempting to stop a mentally altered Hulk’s – was it possible for him to get any angrier? – urban rampage.

The film achieves the ultimate in bombastic heroism when the Avengers, positioned in a circle, fight their adversaries as the camera moves around them in slow motion. Absurd. Juvenile. Love it!

Ultron – a Narcissistic Robot with Spunk
The villain that graces millions of bags of chips and cans of soda had better be as bad and as tantalizing as the products he touts. Ultron has the crunch and the fizz.

This bad guy combines the appearance of a more agile Terminator robot, the vocal distinctiveness of Heath Ledger’s Joker (The Dark Knight), and the tangential gems of Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman (American Psycho).

James Spader’s voiceover shifts from philosophical ennui, to wisecracking commentaries on human frailties (e.g. “Everyone creates the thing they dread… People create… smaller people? Uhh… children! Lost the word there.”), to enraged disbelief at others questioning his superiority.

Get ready for a super-sized portion of crackling quotes from this one. After Steve Rogers/Captain America’s declaration that there is a way to achieve peace, Ultron says, “I can’t actually throw up in my mouth, but if I could I would do it!”

Tony Stark has met his match. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Read Douglas’s review of The Avengers.

Friday, 15 May 2015

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies | review by Jacob Edwards

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to orc we go.

For many months I disavowed my ring finger’s insistent tingle to review
The Battle of the Five Armies. This was not because I hold J.R.R. Tolkien or Peter Jackson in any way sacred (although I do esteem The Frighteners), but rather because there seemed no way into the task. I felt, like Bilbo Baggins, too small to embark upon such an adventure. I hadn’t even read The Hobbit.

Yet, review the film I shall, though many others have set out before me, better prepared and more assured of purpose. (There’s even now in my possession a map marked here be dragons.) Review it I shall, even if this should require so foolhardy an act as to cross the streams, Ghostbusters-style, and write in the first person.

Someone once told me never to write non-fiction in the first person. It’s advice I’ve taken to heart even while retaining no memory of whom so impressed me with the tenet. Their face is gone and so too the voice, leaving nothing but Yoda pastiche. “Review. Or review not. There is no I.”

And why is this? Because there’s too much danger of slipping into memoir (or, heaven forbid, blogging). This is now inevitable. I apologise.

I came to The Battle of the Five Armies having seen and mostly enjoyed both the first two instalments of the Hobbit trilogy and also Peter Jackson’s three-pronged take on The Lord of the Rings. This latter was a book I had read, its three volumes bound together in one bitter pill and shoved down my throat at university as part of a feminism in electric sheep’s clothing degree. I remember a distended week of Tolkien, mitigated only by old Tom Bombadil singing ditties about himself in the third person. I remember the lecturer perched like Smaug atop her pedestal, steaming with self-importance. I remember scoring exactly the same as my brother across three pieces of assessment, but notching a lower grade because not all assignments are created equal and marks out of 100 are not fungible. You see? Memoir.

I tried, having watched it on the big screen, to then read The Hobbit, but I failed. Much though the imaginative elements were there, the prose itself seemed laboured. It was like going back to Enid Blyton, only without any childhood nostalgia to sweeten the journey. I just couldn’t abide all the descriptive repetition; the sameness of Tolkien’s firkydoodling.

What, then, to do?

Thinking back to my English degree, I distinctly recall the feeling of reprieve I experienced upon discovering Tess of the d’Urbervilles as an audiobook. Rather than read it myself, I could listen to Martin Shaw, with whom I was familiar primarily through The Professionals, but also by way of a more serious snippet of period drama I’d happened upon one night while channel surfing. East Lynne, perhaps? “I should like to take a stroll on the moor.” Hand to hip; britches and jacket. Something like that.

Martin Shaw made Tess of the d’Urbervilles bearable, and so I was pleased to learn in my more recent time of need that he could also be heard reading The Hobbit. Not every dwarf cloak is described – the audiobook is slightly abridged – but Shaw weaves his sonorous spell for a good six hours, narrating, putting on a plethora of voices and generally matching the film trilogy’s epic sense of adventure. Dating from 1993, Shaw’s virtuoso rendition of Gollum must surely have informed Andy Serkis’ now-iconic performance across Peter Jackson’s magnum opus.

And so, at last, to The Battle of the Five Armies.

Tolkien, it seems to me (speaking of his corpus of works rather than the man himself), is one of those rare literary phenomena where the story being told comes in some measure to be associated, either positively or negatively, with the circumstances by which it is read, heard or viewed. Preconceptions; personal experience; prior encounters with Middle-earth: everything goes into the mix and the film, in this case, either weaves its spell or it doesn’t. Objectivity itself becomes subjective.

Which is my excuse for spurning even the pretence of critical analysis, and offering instead merely a conscious stream of likes and didn’t-likes. Or rather, a list of especial likes and didn’t-likes, which heavily favours the latter. As much as I enjoyed the movie overall, the best part was still picking it apart afterwards…

Starting with the good, we have Billy Connolly as Thorin Oakenshield’s second cousin, Dáin Ironfoot, whose injection into proceedings adds some much-needed charisma to all the fighting. Regardless of whether or not Connolly would have tallied with Tolkien’s conception of Dwarf royalty, this for me was the highlight.

Moving on to good that segues into bad, we have Martin Freeman. When it was first announced that Freeman would play the role of Bilbo Baggins, my reaction was the same as when he was cast as Arthur Dent; namely, “Yes. Perfect.” Freeman brings tremendous nuance to the screen. He’s one of those actors who can do a lot with little; who can say a lot while not quite saying anything at all. In the same way that Eric Idle’s Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink sketch looks somewhat underwhelming in written form but comes alive in performance, Martin Freeman can take ordinary (or even quite trite) lines and make them thoroughly convincing.

Freeman, in short (hey, accidental pun), has bravura to burn. The only problem is that he’s hardly ever on screen. Too many battles, not enough Bilbo! The same could be said of Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown, but Freeman surely deserves more while playing the titular character. (Yes, I refer to the film by its subtitle, but all those armies aside, it’s still meant to be The Hobbit.) Peter Jackson in this respect has been perhaps too faithful to the book, going so far as to have Bilbo knocked unconscious and leaving everyone else to get on with it. Yes, that’s how Tolkien himself played it, but Tolkien also introduced Bard only minutes before Smaug was slain. Jackson saw no reason not to flesh out that character. Why then pay such little attention to poor old Bilbo? Presumably because…

…and here we move fully into the realm of bad points, The Battle of the Five Armies really is, by and large, just one big fight sequence. (And an excuse for Legolas to defy gravity; clearly he’s one of those elves who, if he found himself in a plummeting elevator, would jump up just before it hit the ground and so escape all harm.) There’s quite a bit of fighting in the book, too, but there’s also a lot of downtime, which Tolkien had the luxury of passing off in narrative voice. “They rested there for several weeks,” for instance, works better on the page than as a visual collage of dwarves sitting about the place, smoothing out their beards and generally recuperating. Peter Jackson omits such details and, cinematically speaking, this probably makes sense. The result is an uninterrupted narrative; but it’s one where time and space are outlandishly compressed. Everything happens all at once. Battles are fought. New armies appear. Middle-earth becomes somehow very small, as if you could take it all in just by standing atop the nearest hill. The whole scenario blossoms and dies like a sunflower in time-lapse.

And somewhere amongst it all, the hobbit aspect – the journey itself; Bilbo’s tookish adventure, reluctantly embraced and constantly at odds with his Baggins instincts – is lost, replaced by run-of-the-mill heroics and overplayed dramatic overtures.

And orcs. Orcs!

There are two types of orc: some are near enough indestructible; others die if you brush past them too quickly and cause a draught. And remember what I said about Jackson being too faithful to the book? I take that back. Yes, Tolkien had orcs. They appeared towards the end and were fought against in a great battle. Jolly good. But Jackson has made his trilogy about orcs. They’re everywhere, growling and snarling and chasing and dying, just to add excitement (so-called) where film laboratory chemicals have eaten away all the subtlety. If Peter Jackson were filming the siege of Troy, he wouldn’t use a giant wooden horse. He’d have orcs. Multitudes of orcs, crawling over the screen like maggots on a dead hobbit.

But enough grumbling. Suffice it to say that my personal journey to Middle-earth was made in the company of two Martins, and that my enjoyment of The Battle of the Five Armies – for such it was, mostly – would have been enhanced had Peter Jackson opted for a more Shaw-footed or Freemannered, not so heavily orc-castrated, production.

Okay, well that’s just dire wordplay. I should rub that out. Replace it with CGI.

Oh, look: some more orcs.

Monday, 11 May 2015

The Glorkian Warrior Eats Adventure Pie by James Kochalka | review by Stephen Theaker

The Glorkian Warrior is a Groo-ish idiot whose best friend is his Rufferto-ish Super Backpack, which can shoot lasers and talk, not that the Glorkian Warrior ever takes its advice. The two of them of them previously appeared in a fun iOS game The Trials of Glork (reviewed here) and a graphic novel, The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza (reviewed here).

In that one the Warrior took up the quest to deliver a pizza, as requested by someone who had apparently dialled the wrong number – along the way they became friends with Gonk and a brain-sucking baby alien. The second graphic novel in the series, The Glorkian Warrior Eats Adventure Pie (First: Second, hb, 128pp) is as funny and inventive as the first.

In this book they meet Buster Glark, a hiccup-happy jerk with his own super backpack who interferes with their mission: to kill a space snake that destroys pie factories. Later the Glorkian Warrior decides to let his elbow do the thinking while they rearrange the furniture, Gonk comes on Glork Patrol with the phone tied on as his backpack, and the baby alien goes too far in his brain-sucking.

The book is written, drawn, lettered and coloured by James Kochalka, whose glee and silliness is a perfect fit for children’s books. I’m not generally one for literary exegesis, but this feels like it grew out of a day James Kochalka spent goofing around with his own children (“Happy family”, “No share no fair!”), and reading it makes you part of the fun.

It’s bright and attractive enough to appeal to younger kids, with big clear speech balloons where the words are given plenty of space, and it’s eminently re-readable – which I know because I read it again and laughed again while writing this review. Trumping plays a big role, and jokes about that never get old. A joyful read for adults and a perfect book for children, even the most reluctant of readers. Every school should have a copy. ****

Friday, 8 May 2015

Space Battleship Yamato | review by Jacob Edwards

A wave motion gun blast from the past.

The animated franchise Space Battleship Yamato holds a similar place in Japanese popular culture as Star Wars does in that of America and other countries of the Hollywood-suckled West. Debuting as a 26-episode series in 1974, Space Battleship Yamato continued its interstellar voyage through two further seasons (1978, 1980) and spawned five feature films between 1978 and 2009. When it opened late in 2010, Takashi Yamazaki’s remake – the first live action production of Yamato and a retelling of the space battleship’s original mission – blasted Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1) from the #1 spot in Japan’s box office.

Australian and American viewers of a certain generation will remember Space Battleship Yamato as Star Blazers, under which title the first two series were dubbed, edited and broadcast in 1979/80 (USA) and 1983 (Australia). Some of the adult themes were toned down and the character names romanticised – Kodai and Yuki became Wildstar and Nova respectively; the ship itself was stripped of its WWII origins to become instead the Argo – but Star Blazers nevertheless retained much of Yamato’s darker tone. Yes, Dr Sado was renamed Dr Sane and his drunkenness pitched as inexplicably zesty exuberance, but humanity remained on the verge of extinction and the Yamato/Argo’s last-ditch quest carried a real sense of import.

Space Battleship Yamato begins with planet Earth on the verge of succumbing to radiation poisoning, the result of a sustained bombardment by the alien Gamilas, whose armada has just annihilated the Earth Defence Force’s last fleet in a battle near Mars. The situation appears hopeless, and yet a message is received from the planet Iskandar, offering salvation by way of a device to counter the radiation, as well as schematics for a warp drive and a prototype Wave Motion Cannon. Grasping at this straw of hope, the EDF dredges up the old battleship Yamato, refurbishes it with the new technology and launches it on the (series one titular) Quest for Iskandar.

Under Leiji Matsumoto the 1974 television series of Yamato was innovative in plotting a season-spanning narrative (rather than self-contained episodes), and also for its focus on characterisation, relationship dynamics and expressions of conflict and loss. It was, in short, a mixture of space and soap opera, borne aloft always by Hiroshi Miyagawa’s stirring incidental music. Along with the iconic visuals, these defining elements have, for better or for worse, made their way into the 2010 film. Composer Naoki Satō follows in Miyagawa’s footsteps, albeit through leaving the seventies behind and elevating his accompaniment to a fully fledged big screen score, while director Takashi Yamazaki and writer Shimako Satō have honoured Matsumoto’s predilection for strong-willed heroines: Dr Sado and Aihara (aka Glitchman) are rewritten as female, while Yuki/Nova is Tiger Squadron’s ace pilot, whose first interaction with Kodai/Wildstar is to knock him down with a clinical and surprisingly hefty punch. As for the soap/space opera…

Live action Yamato carries a $24 million budget and the same glitzy, ground-breaking feel as did the original Star Wars, albeit it thirty-three years divorced from the cinematic context that would afford it an equivalent impact; and as much as Yamazaki’s Yamato is about action, adventure, heroic self-sacrifice and one-in-a-million long-shots, it also dwells heavily on its human aspects and in particular the discord between characters. The supporting players all have individuality hinting at greater depth, but the emotional crux of Yamato is the strained dynamic that exists between Yuki, Kodai and Captain Okita (aka Avatar): Yuki sees Kodai as a fallen idol; Kodai blames Okita for his brother’s death; while Okita perceives something of his younger self in Kodai and feels he must reconcile him to the burdens of command. Actors Takuya Kimura (Kodai) and Meisa Kuroki (Yuki) are both excellent, bringing real substance to their roles. Tsutomu Yamazaki (Okita) is unfortunately less expressive even than his stony-faced anime counterpart, but his explosive cries of “Warp!” – rendered in English; a loan word, presumably, used here almost as a martial arts kiai – remain something of a highlight.

If Space Battleship Yamato has been diminished at all through transposition from serial to feature film, this doubtlessly manifests in the compression of screen time, one consequence of which is fast-tracked relationship arcs: as per the Han/Leia rapport, Kodai and Yuki go from rubbing each other up the wrong way to becoming life partners, but over the course of one movie, not three. The abridgement of Yamato’s outbound quest also throws up some quite odd emotional juxtapositions, such as when the ship is about to warp beyond communication range and the crew send their heart-rending final messages to loved ones: unlike in the more protracted voyage of the original series, this moment is reached within a day of their initial departure!

Yamazaki and Satō in fact evince a curious overall disregard for the constancy of time, especially where action or drama dictate. We have, therefore, a situation whereby the Yamato cannot take off quickly enough to avoid incoming Gamilas missiles, yet can power up her Wave Motion Cannon and so destroy these same, incredibly slow-moving warheads. Furthermore – and maybe there is some form of martial arts film convention being adhered to here across genres – the Gamilas ships and warriors seem always to break off their attacks if the crew of the Yamato need some alone time to work through their emotions. There are no detention centre arguments or “I love you; I know” moments played out amidst the action; instead, the soap and space elements remain clearly delineated and the poor old Gamilas have to sit around twiddling their second fiddles until the humans are done soul-gazing. The fact that the Yamato can, when pressed, twist and roll like a sparrow, surely is just rubbing salt into the Gamilas’ wounded pride and their inability to bend spacenarrativetime. Truth be told, such manoeuvres probably looked less unrealistic in animated form.

Space Battleship Yamato is an odd mix, and would likely evoke both rotten and fresh verdicts if somebody were to set up a website (wince, Rotten Yamatoes) by which to critically review films with English subtitles. This duality is perhaps best captured by the inclusion, both in the end credits and in trailers for the movie, of the gravelly soft-thrash rock song “Love Lives”, which Steven Tyler (of Aerosmith) composed and recorded having been shown clips from the final scene. It is a tacked-on piece of commercialism, about as congruous as dubbing the Village People’s “In the Navy” onto footage from Darth Vader’s flagship. For fans of the original Space Battleship Yamato, however, or those who grew up with the rebranded Star Blazers, such bafflements will be of little consequence. All that matters is that the journey to Iskandar at last may be undertaken again: re-envisaged in live action form and warped with some unmissable implications for the series’ canonicity.

Glasses on. Firing the Wave Motion Cannon in five, four, three…

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #51: now available for free download!

free epub | free mobi | free pdf | print UK | print USA | Kindle UK | Kindle US

Welcome to Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #51! We have six stories for you this time: “Too Much Light Makes the Day Go Blind” by Marshall Moore, “One Slough and Crust of Sin” by Walt Brunston, “Water Imperial” by Charles Wilkinson, “The Assassin’s Lair” by Howard Phillips, “Whale on a Tilt” by Andrea M. Pawley and “Cybertronica” by Antonella Coriander. There are also fifteen reviews, by Stephen Theaker, Douglas J. Ogurek and Jacob Edwards.

We review books by Lavie Tidhar, Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell, Henry Kuttner, David Ramirez and Joe Abercrombie, plus a Brenda & Effie audio play by Paul Magrs. We also consider Space Battleship Yamato, Jupiter Ascending, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (twice), the Kindle Voyage, the Amazon Fire TV, season 9 of Supernatural, season 1 of The Leftovers, and season 1 of Constantine.



  • Too Much Light Makes the Day Go Blind, Marshall Moore
  • “One Slough and Crust of Sin”, Walt Brunston
  • Water Imperial, Charles Wilkinson
  • The Assassin’s Lair, Howard Phillips
  • Whale on a Tilt, Andrea M. Pawley
  • Cybertronica, Antonella Coriander
  • The Quarterly Review
  • Also Read
  • Also Reviewed
  • Forthcoming Attractions



Here are the contributors to this post-celebration hangover issue:

Andrea M. Pawley’s spirit animal is the piranhamoose. Hear her burble-roar at http://www.andreapawley.com.

Antonella Coriander has a plan, but she isn’t saying what it is yet. Her story in this issue, “Cybertronica”, is the fifth episode of her ongoing Oulippean serial, Les aventures fantastiques de Beatrice et Veronique.

Charles Wilkinson’s story in this issue is “Water Imperial”, about the peculiar goings-on at the Imperial Spa Hotel and Conference Centre. His publications include The Pain Tree and Other Stories and Ag & Au. His stories have appeared in Best Short Stories 1990, Best English Short Stories 2, Midwinter Mysteries, Unthology, London Magazine, Able Muse Review, and in genre publications such as Supernatural Tales, Phantom Drift, Horror Without Victims, The Sea in Birmingham, Sacrum Regnum, Rustblind and Silverbright and Shadows & Tall Trees. New short stories are forthcoming in Ninth Letter and Bourbon Penn.

Douglas J. Ogurek’s work has appeared in the BFS Journal, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales, Gone Lawn, and several anthologies. He lives in a Chicago suburb with the woman whose husband he is and their five pets. This time he reviews The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. His website can be found at: http://www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com.

Howard Phillips is a dissolute poet whose contributions to this zine have ranged from the mediocre to the abysmal. In this issue he continues his latest autobiographical tale, A Dim Star Is Born, in “The Assassin’s Lair”. The previous instalment received such bad reviews that he wept for three days, burned seventeen unpublished novels, and wrote a series of angry blog posts accusing various parties of disparaging his genius. We asked him why he had taken it so badly, and he replied, “If you need to ask, you’ll never know.”

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who provides the cover art for this issue. His artwork can be seen in its native resolution on his deviantart page: http://hswatts.deviantart.com. His novel The Master of Clouds is now available on Kindle.

Jacob Edwards flies with Australia’s speculative fiction flagship Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, but meets us in the pub between runs. This writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist’s website is at http://www.jacobedwards.id.au. He also has a Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/JacobEdwardsWriter, where he posts poems and the occasional oddity. Like him and follow him! In this issue he reviews The Forever Watch by David Ramirez, Space Battleship Yamato and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

Marshall Moore makes his TQF debut in this issue with “Too Much Light Makes the Day Go Blind”. He is the author of four novels (Bitter Orange, An Ideal for Living, The Concrete Sky and Murder in the Cabaret Sauvignon) and three short-fiction collections (The Infernal Republic, Black Shapes in a Darkened Room, and the forthcoming A Garden Fed by Lightning). With Xu Xi, he is the co-editor of the anthology The Queen of Statue Square: New Short Fiction from Hong Kong. In addition to his work as an author, he is the principal at Typhoon Media Ltd, an independent publishing company based in Hong Kong, and he is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University in Wales. For more information, see http://www.marshallmoore.com.

Stephen Theaker’s reviews have appeared in Black Static, Interzone, Prism and the BFS Journal, as well as clogging up our pages. He shares his home with three slightly smaller Theakers, runs the British Fantasy Awards, and works in legal and medical publishing.

Walt Brunston’s story in this issue is “One Slough and Crust of Sin”, his adaptation of issue two of The Two Husbands. We don’t know where he got those comics – apparently he’s got the full run. We’ve never been able to find them in the UK. He’s said that if we ever cross the pond he’ll let us stay over and read them, but they have guns in the USA, and no NHS, which seems to us a remarkably dangerous combination.



As ever, all back issues of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction are available for free download.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Gatchaman | review by Jacob Edwards

The tokenism of casting a bat (and batted eyelids) amongst the pigeons.

Anime pioneer Tatsuo Yoshida’s Science Ninja Team Gatchaman has gone through several permutations since the seminal television series of 1972, perhaps foremost of which is the fondly remembered English-language adaptation Battle of the Planets (1978). Gatchaman / Battle of the Planets centres around five orphans – Ken (Mark), Jun (Princess), Ryū (Tiny), Jinpei (Keyop) and Jō (Jason) – whose bird-themed ninja superpowers and techno-wizardry enable them to stand against the evil forces of Galactor (Spectra). Imagi Animation Studios (which released Astro Boy in 2009) began work on a Gatchaman feature film in 2004, but the project stalled, languished and eventually was cancelled in 2011. Gatchaman then rose again as a live action movie directed by Toya Sato and released by Nikkatsu Studios in 2013.

Back in 1978, cuts and voiceovers were used to make the American-tailored Battle of the Planets more children-orientated than the original serial, the main differences being less violence, fewer human casualties, no references to transgenderism, and the rather upbeat replacement of environmentally conscienceless corporate villains with a more SF-generic alien foe. Thirty-five years on, the live action incarnation of Gatchaman serves as something of a prequel, not only restoring much of what was lost to English translation (Berg Katse’s hermaphroditic shifts, for instance) but also fleshing out the backstory of Ken and Jō’s strained relationship. Oddly enough, given that Battle of the Planets twisted its reworking partly so as to cash in on the Star Wars phenomenon of the late 1970s, Gatchaman also now genuflects to George Lucas, postulating a yin-yang relationship between Galactor’s and Ninja Team Gatchaman’s powers, and even culminating in a fluorescent pastiche of the lightsaber duel from The Empire Strikes Back. Notwithstanding such concessions, much of Yoshida’s founding premise remains, albeit somewhat revamped and elevated to the brash absurdities of the big screen.

The Japanese film industry has a special term – tokusatsu – for works that make extensive use of special effects. Cultural nuance renders the word closer to Hollywood’s blockbuster than to the more British utter codswallop, but anyone who’s seen Man of Steel (2013) will doubtless have suffered through the gist. Clocking in at 110 minutes, Gatchaman has more than enough bouncing-off-buildings and faster-than-the-eye-can-follow fight sequences to tick off those viewers who weigh their lives by number of hours invested and pointlessly lost; yet, such is the speed disparity between the movie’s live action and animated sequences, that the blur becomes at times quaintly cartoonish, as if the feature film format were being used not to break but rather to recreate the constraints of its forerunner. Harking back to and elevating the action components of 1972’s Science Ninja Team Gatchaman may seem at once questionable yet strangely in keeping with the cinematic zeitgeist of the 21st century, but then again there can be little doubt that 2013’s Gatchaman has been realised at least in part as a new-age kitsch homage.

Certainly, this is the case when we see the prototype Phoenix (G-Force’s distinctive supersonic plane) launch belatedly upon its maiden flight, and then again when it turns fiery, the dramatic pre-eminence of these events clearly playing more to notions of audience nostalgia than to their function within the film. As per the television series, music is employed to rousing effect in underscoring such iconic themes, but Toya Sato and writer Yusuke Watanabe also use it to cheat their way out of attention to scripting, manipulating the audience so as to cover up (or indeed barefacedly create drama from) some conspicuously nude plot points. One brazen example of this is when Ken and Jun must infiltrate a high-security masquerade, Jinpei scrambling desperately to hack the computers and establish forged identities before they reach the checkpoint. It’s undeniably a tense moment, but of course the timing is arbitrary and there was no reason for them to line up before Jinpei had finished his work. The sense of peril is entirely manufactured.

Although its plot is loose, its action cartoon-chaotic and its themes as vague as they are epic, Gatchaman 2013 does in one respect meaningfully elevate itself above the franchise’s small-screen origins of forty years previous. Live action affords, if nothing else, the potential for stronger characterisation, and in the persons of Ken (Tori Matsuzaka) and Jō (Gō Ayano) – and to a lesser extent Ryū (Ryohei Suzuki) and Naomi/Berg Katse (Eriko Hatsune) – that opportunity has been capably seized. Matsuzaka has a real presence. Ayano positively smoulders. Whenever there is (inter)acting to do, rather than racing all about the place, fatuously martial-fartsing, we are given at last a fully rounded sense of what those teeth-grinding, angst-ridden expressions were all about back in the days of hand-drawn emotions. Watanabe’s script, in truth, gives the actors precious little to work with, but Matsuzaka and Ayano nevertheless put in performances well worthy of both 1970s Gatchaman and the dark superhero genre’s broader swathe. It’s just unfortunate that Toya Sato’s modernisation – to give a western comparison – proves rather closer to Michael Bay’s oeuvre of filmmaking than to Christopher Nolan’s.

Possibly the most damning evidence of Gatchaman’s failure to better itself for the big screen and the new millennium, is the mind-blowingly vapid characterisation of Jun (Ayame Gouriki). Granted, the animated Jun/Princess was never much more than a wet handkerchief with which to dab the perspiring foreheads of the male leads, but the Jun of 2013, far from correcting this imbalance, has fallen into a condescension machine and emerged, wide-eyed and pouting, as a perverse archetype of bland, tittering, puerile, hormonal brainlessness. Jinpei (Tatsuomi Hamada) may be the least developed of Ninja Team Gatchaman’s quintet, but whereas he is merely neglected by Sato and Watanabe, Jun has been actively depicted (objectified? fantasised?) as recycled plastic. She is to female dignity and empowerment what Elmo has been to the Muppets, which is more than just a shame; it’s out-and-out shameful.

One advance trailer for the curtailed Imagi Animation production of Gatchaman shows Ken, Jun, Ryū, Jinpei and Jō leaping from a skyscraper and swooping down towards an insectoid death mecha, Jun’s inane little giggle jarring badly with the urgent musical score and the more determined exertions of her fellow ninjas. In another piece of test footage she winches (wenches?) up through a scene of explosions and mayhem, waving coquettishly. Could it be that some quirk of Japanese culture has doomed her character to play the flighty swan and to candy all those action scenes, no matter what form Gatchaman takes? If such is true then it hints at a damning shallowness of artistic vision, and we can only lament that the courageous orphans of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman – and those who shape their adventures – have matured little across forty years. Some fans may rejoice that a feature film treatment of Gatchaman even made it off the ground, but if the 2013 movie soars at all then, sadly, it is to heights not much greater than adolescent wish fulfilment.

“Bird, go!” has always been the command phrase for transforming the Gatchaman team into ninja mode, but in this instance somebody should most definitely have stood up to director Toya Sato and screamed instead, “Bird, no!”

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

It Follows | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Controlled study in terror rebels against contemporary horror tropes, explores teenage sexuality and parental influence

The image of Halloween’s (1978) Michael Myers, with his impenetrable motives and his patient pursuit of his single-minded purpose (to kill), has embedded itself in the horror aficionado’s consciousness. There is something quite unsettling about an impending threat that can’t be reasoned with. Clearly John Carpenter’s iconic film has influenced writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, which exploits this strategy of approaching doom, coupled with creepy audio and smart filming techniques, to deliver an atmospheric masterpiece in which everything, from the proliferation of soda cans to the pronounced lapping of waves, is rich in implication.

Jay Height (Maika Monroe) is a somewhat woolly-headed teen who likes to lounge in her pool and gaze up at the sky. After she consummates a budding relationship with Hugh, her life takes a turn for the much worse: Hugh passes on a sexually transmitted ghost – can we call that an STG? – that assumes a human form. The ghost pursues the latest person to contract the curse with a Michael Myersesque determination. “It could look like someone you know,” says Hugh, “or it could be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you.”

The infected person can divert “It” by sleeping with someone else. However, once it kills the newly infected person, the force moves to the previous person in the chain. Thus Jay is fraught with challenges regarding not only how to evade the pursuer, but also whether and to whom she should pass on the curse. Neighbourhood heartthrob Greg Hannigan? Awkward long-time family friend Paul? Total strangers?

The Fears of Height
It Follows evades the gore, pop-out scares, and petty squabbles of the typical horror film that has a teenage cast. Its believably lethargic teens engage in mundane activities (e.g. sitting on a swing, watching an old sci-fi film, lounging on a beach, playing old maid), yet through all of these ostensibly benign scenes lurks the threat.

In one early scene, Jay’s professor reads an extended passage from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – the film uses several direct literary quotes – while the camera does a 360 degree pan. It starts with a view outside showing a distant figure (who doesn’t quite fit with the other students) walking unsteadily toward the classroom. The camera then slowly pans around the classroom, giving the viewer time to question what he or she saw outside, before the view returns to the courtyard to reveal the figure has come closer.

This isn’t the only time Mitchell uses the 360 degree pan. The technique sucks Jay Height and the filmgoer down the drain of this nightmare, and creates a boxed-in feeling: no matter which way you turn, you can’t escape this ghost.

The use of sound also distinguishes It Follows. This includes the eighties-style synthesizer-heavy tunes of Disasterpeace’s soundtrack and the unnerving repetition of sounds (e.g. swing set creaking, waves lapping) amongst otherwise quiet settings.

Additionally, though filmed in Detroit, It Follows really takes place in an unknown place, at a time that’s hard to pin down. What are we to make of the odd clothing, the dated automobile, and the old television sets despite the present day feel of the film? Why does Jay’s friend Yara, with her seventies-style glasses, read Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot on a shell-shaped e-reader?

Surfaces and Layers
Mitchell seems obsessed with liquids in this film. Jay and company are often near water sources and/or drinking from aluminum cans. Perhaps this is Mitchell’s way of challenging us to look below the surface. Yes, It Follows is about a supernatural predator, but it also explores sexual-related repercussions, whether they be STDs or emotional turmoil. In other words, it follows.

Adult figures are conspicuously absent in this film, which challenges the viewer to consider how parents’ presence (or lack thereof) in their teens’ lives impacts teenage sexual decisions.

The film evokes other questions, the answers to which are beyond the scope of this review. For instance, why is the human form that the ghost adopts often fully or partially exposed? Also, why does the ghost sometimes choose a guise that resembles characters’ parents?

What Mitchell has achieved with It Follows is a sense of dread that lingers from the strange opening sequence that reveals what “It” is capable of, to the equally disturbing conclusion. See this film, but expect it to follow you long after you’ve left the theatre. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Friday, 3 April 2015

The X-Files: Season 10, Vol. 1 by Joe Harris and friends | review by Stephen Theaker

The X-Files: Season 10, Vol. 1 by Joe Harris, Carlos Valenzuela and Michael Walsh (IDW, tpb, 138pp) tries to follow the example of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8 in providing the comics continuation of a beloved and much-missed television series. Unlike Buffy, Mulder (as played by David Duchovny, until recently shedding his trousers twelve weeks a year on Californication) and Scully (Gillian Anderson, last seen on Hannibal and the BBC) had pretty much given up the fight by the time their series ended, their replacements Doggett (Robert Patrick) and Reyes (Annabeth Gish) taking the limelight up until the originals returned for the disappointingly low-key second feature film.

All four feature in this series, as do other favourites like Skinner, the [redacted] and the [redacted], but Mulder and Scully are the stars. They’re still a couple, still retired from the FBI, but living under assumed names, Scully working as a doctor. The plot follows on from the final episodes of the TV series, which tried to link the cyborg assassin storyline of the later seasons with the alien invasion story that drove its glory days. A group of mysterious types with glowing eyes want to prepare the way for the alien colonisation of Earth to finally go ahead, and for that they need Mulder and Scully’s magical baby William.

I wish I could say it’s fantastic. I really wanted it to be, because I do miss these characters and at its best The X-Files could be magnificent. But this book’s just okay, about on the level of the old Topps series. The sketchy artwork tells the story clearly and does a fair job of capturing likenesses without conveying the eerie atmosphere of the programme – Mulder and Scully fill the frame like superheroes. The story covers all the right territory, but not enough of it is new. If Mulder and Scully ever return to television, you’d be surprised if this story was considered canonical. Readable – for fans, anyway – without being essential. ***

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Insurgent | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Heroine keeps fighting the system in slightly soppy, though ultimately triumphant sequel

In Divergent (2014), Beatrice “Tris” Prior and love interest Four put a dent in the Erudite/Dauntless alliance (between those who value knowledge above all else, and those who value bravery above all else) aimed at seizing control of a future Chicago whose inhabitants are divided into factions.

This time, Insurgent, directed by Robert Schwentke, has the duo on the run from the mental giants at Erudite and the Dauntless goons that they employ.

Tris, distraught by major losses, does what rebellious teenage girls have been doing for years: she chops off her long hair. Perhaps this is a way to shed her grief or redefine herself (or distinguish herself from rival dystopian blockbuster heroine Katniss Everdeen). Then the girl with a boy’s hairdo undergoes a series of trials that will shed more light on what she and her Divergent label mean to the future of this world.

Tris and Four undertake a journey that allows the viewer to experience the different factions: the glass dome, green roofs, and farms of the hippie-like Amity; the austere concrete headquarters of the always truthful Candor; and the gleaming white tower in which the Erudite scheme. Insurgent also introduces the lair of the punk rockeresque Factionless, those who are not compatible with any faction and who seek to destroy the existing system to establish a new society.

The film’s makers took a great deal of liberty in manipulating the novel (by Chicagoan Veronica Roth) that inspired it. Characters and major scenes are cut, goals and obstacles are simplified, and key concepts are reimagined. Sure… purists will gripe at such slicing and dicing. However, this film is an entertaining sequel that at its worst resembles a soap opera, but at its best stuns the viewer with breathtakingly technologically indulgent action sequences.

It even treats the viewer to a couple of highly entertaining minor characters. There’s the hulking, zero-conscience Dauntless army leader Eric, who looks prepped for an Ultimate Fighting Championship match. Then there’s the self-serving smart aleck Peter, played by Miles Teller, star of the Oscar-nominated Whiplash (2014). Both Eric and Peter have a knack for pushing Tris’s buttons, and push they do.

The standouts in Insurgent are Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Erudite mastermind Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet).

As in Divergent, Woodley proves her ability to convey emotion. Look to the trial scene at Candor headquarters, where Tris is injected with a truth serum. Feel the pain as she struggles to hold back a secret that wracks her with guilt and that will hurt one of the onlookers.

Equally engaging is Winslet’s Jeanine Matthews. Veronica Roth’s villain isn’t very fleshed out: Matthews has no redeeming qualities and no backstory. Considering that Winslet doesn’t have a lot to work with, she does a fine job portraying a character that, in a less capable actor’s hands, might have been staid (e.g. the antagonist in The Host (2013)) or even overblown.

Everything about Matthews is severe: her pulled back hairstyle, her tight blue dress, her economy of movement, her affectless expressions. Whereas Tris is the girl-boy, Matthews is determinedly adult, an undiluted dark monarch who threatens to annihilate those who would bring change to the rigid systems that have been imposed on this society.

In one of the film’s most blatant departures from the novel, the filmmakers put the mystery on which this story hangs front and center in the form of a metallic capsule. Each side of the pentagon contains a faction logo. It sits in a closely monitored room in the Erudite headquarters. Nobody knows what’s in the capsule, but it has to be important!

Matthews rounds up those with the highest levels of divergence because the capsule can only be opened when a Divergent passes simulation tests for all five factions. When a test is passed, the corresponding symbol on the capsule illuminates (it must be Wi-Fi compatible). Subjects are attached to snake-like wires that descend from the ceiling, inject substances, and then suspend them in a kind of zero-gravity acid trip. The problem is that a failed simulation means death for the subject.

This capsule is a major simplification of what happens in the book, but it works. Similar to the Tesseract in The Avengers (2012), it’s as if the filmmakers are saying to characters and the audience, “Here you go… this is what the protagonist needs to open.”

There is a term in food industry jargon called “bliss point”. It has to do with the amount of unhealthy ingredients (i.e., salt, sugar, fat) needed to maximise taste.

During Tris’s Dauntless simulation, Insurgent achieves a kind of cinematic bliss point. In this technology- and drug-induced sequence, Tris attempts to save a departed loved one in a burning, crumbling house that floats over a city. The scene contains many elements (e.g. dream, intense special effects, damsel in distress) that would make most critics scoff, but to those of us willing to let go, this unapologetic immersion into Hollywood extravagance makes the film worth seeing in the cinema. Legolas would be proud!

The scene also makes up for Insurgent’s shortcomings, namely too many lovey-dovey scenes, too much dull table talk, and the lackluster personality of Four. When it comes to love, perhaps Tris is a little more certain of her soul mate than Katniss Everdeen or Bella Swan. Great in real life. Boring in film and fiction.

“Defy reality.” Such is the challenge that Insurgent advertisements pose to the filmgoer. The film, with its simulations, strong polarization between good and evil, and contrasting factions, lives up to its promise and keeps the fictional dream alive. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Read Douglas’s review of Divergent.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Megalex: The Complete Story by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Fred Beltran | review by Stephen Theaker

Megalex: The Complete Story (Humanoids), by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Fred Beltran, takes us to a world where the rich literally bathe in the blood of the hoi polloi, the clones who gather for their appointment with death at the age of forty. The children left behind are told to watch out for the magical food parcels that fall from the sky. The ruling family are an ancient wizened magican, his sorceress wife, and their vampire daughter. Only two parts of the world escape their dominion: the haunted forest and the deadly sea.

This bizarre world is of course ripe for disruption, and it comes in the gangly form of an overgrown clone soldier who escapes his routine termination and meets up with an improbably and presumably uncomfortably buxom member of the revolution. She’ll take him to their leader, get him trained up, and maybe even give him a nice cuddle if he’s a good boy.

The writer is Alexandro Jodorowsky, and it’s as wild and woolly as anyone who has read The Incal or The Metabarons would expect. His work for French publishers is much more mystical than we’re used to seeing in science fiction, his science fiction following the logic of dreams instead of the rules of physics. This collects all three volumes of the story, a fairly short run for a French graphic novel series, and there is definitely a sense of things being wrapped up swiftly in the latter third.

The art style changes too, moving from computer-generated to hand-drawn backgrounds and objects, though it’s quite possible I wouldn’t have noticed if the artist Fred Beltran hadn’t brought it up in the introduction. ***

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Available for pre-order: Space University Trent: Hyperparasite by Walt Brunston

Now available for pre-order, the first ebook novella from Theaker's Paperback Library. It's a reprint of Walt Brunston's Space University Trent: Hyperparasite, his adaptation of the classic (but rarely seen) television episode, which first appeared in TQF13. It'll be out on April 30.

In this short novella Mack Hardiman leads the spacefaring university's investigation into a lost colony on the world Adontis. The ebook also includes an introduction to this much-loved show and, for reference, a complete list of its episodes.

It's Kindle-only for the time being. Just 99p in the UK.

Amazon UK | Amazon US | Amazon DE

Friday, 20 March 2015

In the Broken Birdcage of Kathleen Fair by Cate Gardner | review by Stephen Theaker

In the Broken Birdcage of Kathleen Fair (The Alchemy Press, ebook, 784ll) is an interesting novella by Cate Gardner, but the tone is a bit hard to describe. There are horrific elements, but it isn’t really horror. Comic horror fantasy, maybe? Weird fantasy? Kathleen Fair is in a room of objects that are too big for her – like a dressing table stool which comes up to her nose – but this isn’t a new development. She’s been here a while. What’s new is a mirror, through which she sees “a bloodshot eye pressed against the glass, its lashes long and spider-like”, before a man comes through: Frederick Schentenfreude III, who drains people of their scent in order to keep himself young. He will later decide that he wishes to marry Kathleen. She follows him out of the mirror, and sees the body of a boy, Bobby, that Schentenfreude has drained. She makes it her mission to restore him. I found it difficult to get a handle on this story; I’m not sure what it was aiming for, or whether it achieved it, which makes this rather a useless review. But I enjoyed reading it, and look forward to reading more from the same author. ***

Monday, 16 March 2015

Black Gods Kiss by Lavie Tidhar | review by Stephen Theaker

If I were a judge and this were a court and the case were that of Black Gods Kiss by Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing, 184pp), I would have to recuse myself, because by this point I am such a fan of this writer’s work that my impartiality would be in serious doubt. Cloud Permutations, Martian Sands, The Violent Century: each has been remarkable in its very own way. If I were writing a list of my favourite books of the last few years they would all show up on it.

Fortunately this is not a court, not a case, and I am not a judge, and you are quite capable of taking my admiration for this author’s work into account when reading the review.

Perhaps my favourite of his books so far was Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God, to which this is both prequel and sequel. Gorel is an “exile, mercenary, hired killer, thief, and what he liked to think of as odd jobs man”, searching for his home of Goliris, which from the bits we learn about it throughout the book doesn’t sound so great. For example, in a wasteland Gorel asks what caused the desolation: “Only one word was whispered, sometimes, amidst the branches, in the falling of leaves.” Goliris!

In the first story here, “Black Gods Kiss”, Gorel acquires his addiction to the dust of gods. He is hired to kill a goddess, Shar, who has preyed on the men of a village. A kiss from her leaves him craving the essence of the gods. It is how they bind their followers to them, as addicts. This curse is at times of use to Gorel: its hold so tight it shatters illusions, as in “Buried Eyes”, where he encounters a town ruled over by a sorcerer of Goliris.

The third story, “Kur-a-Len”, is the longest, at about seventy-five pages, and is divided into six episodes. Gorel has come to the Garden of Statues, a colossal graveyard where “a thousand thousand graves gleamed as one”, in hope that someone of Goliris may be buried there. In return for the help of the cemetery’s caretaker in finding them, he takes on the role of security guard or sheriff, and must deal with both dead and living troublemakers.

The fourth story is the shortest, “The Dead Leaves”. Gorel takes his guns to kill a man in the Deadlands, paid with god’s dust by a sorcerer who sacrifices his life so that Gorel might rescue his daughter. In the fifth story, “White Queen”, he gets involved in a messed-up version of the Snow White story.

He doesn’t find his way home, not in this book – some say the world he is lost in is infinite – but he finds a few clues, gets his fix, and has a lot of well-written sex. Gorel isn’t picky: gods, queens, ghouls and zombies all get their turn, even though it doesn’t always do the trick: “Sex was sex and it did not fulfil him. Nothing did but the Black Kiss”.

Pot-Bellied God was subtitled a “Guns & Sorcery Novella”, and that’s what this is, classic heroic fantasy with a hero as selfish as Conan, as miserable as Elric and as crafty as the Gray Mouser, but who carries a pair of guns instead of a sword: “fine, hand crafted things, with grips of dark, strong wood and the small, exquisitely wrought silver pattern of a seven-pointed star on each: the ancient sign of Goliris.” There are similarities too with Stephen King’s gunslinger from the Dark Tower: the episode in which that character fought an entire town would have fit into this volume very neatly. If you liked that, you’ll probably enjoy this.

The writing is as good as in Tidhar’s other books, the atmosphere murky and groggy, the language thick and sticky. Gorel swears, which always seems surprising though it shouldn’t. It’s not unusual for dialogue from different characters to appear in the same paragraph, and even in the same sentence – lazy readers should be on their guard. My overwhelming feeling upon reading it is gratitude that such an exceptional writer chooses to write the kind of books I want to read. And if that sounds too gushy, you can’t say you weren’t warned! *****

Available from PS Publishing.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Invincible, Vol. 17: What’s Happening by Robert Kirkman and friends | review by Stephen Theaker

Invincible, Vol. 17: What’s Happening (Image, ebook) is written by Robert Kirkman, with pencils shared between Ryan Ottley and Cory Walker, who illustrate scenes depending on whether they take place on Earth or in the alternate, quick-time dimension from which the Flaxan Empire launches its regular invasions. The latter are flashbacks, showing us what happened when Monster Girl and Robot were stranded there, explaining their tense relationship and the way that she is now a full-grown woman. (Previous volumes had shown her slowly growing younger the more she used her power to transfer into a huge green monster.) The scenes on Earth show follow the old and new Invincibles. The original Invincible is having trouble with his powers on the blink, the consequences of which are demonstrated in the brilliant shock ending to chapter one. The new Invincible, filling in to keep the Invincible business going, has to fight the alien invaders, though he’s glad for the break from his visiting parents, forever comparing him to the brother whose failings they don’t know. Invincible is always a reliable source of superhero adventure, and volume 17 was no exception. If it felt like a less than weighty read, that might be down to my last reading session on this comic having lasted for about 70 consecutive issues! There’s so much to like here. A universe of heroes that may, for all I know, have their own comics, but if they do there’s nothing here that forces me to read them. It isn’t like DC or Marvel, where endless company-spanning crises leave almost every individual superhero title feeling like a badly cut jigsaw piece. If an infinite crisis or a civil war happens in Invincible’s universe, it’ll happen in his comic. ***

Monday, 9 March 2015

The Lazarus Effect | review by Douglas J. Ogurek


Scientist dies, comes back to life, goes on killing spree. What’s not to like? 

Ever since Dr. Frankenstein stitched together his monster, people have been fascinated with laboratory experiments on humans… especially when it comes to what could go wrong.

The Lazarus Effect, Hollywood’s latest foray into terror via test tube, explores the repercussions of chemical-based human resurrection. Director David Gelb mixes horror, thriller, and sci-fi elements in a film that, though not staggeringly original, holds up as an elixir for the horror devotee.

Zoe (Olivia Wilde), her too-busy-to-marry beau Frank (Mark Duplass), and science geeks Clay and Niko (Evan Peters and Donald Glover) have spent four years tucked away in a university lab. Their research started with a way to temporarily prolong life, but then evolved – maybe devolved is a better word – into the “Lazarus Serum”.

The group first resurrects a dog, but this lab dog is no lap dog. Rocky’s erratic behavior and supercharged brain indicate the Lazarus Serum might be more than what it’s stirred up to be.

A third of the way through the film, a corporation maneuvers a hostile takeover of the research and the lab. The infuriated quartet and videographer Eva sneak into the lab to solidify their claim on first to raise the dead. However, when Zoe flips the power switch, she gets electrocuted and dies. Frank convinces his colleagues to inject the Lazarus Serum into her brain. Not a well-reasoned decision.

Zoe isn’t quite Zoe anymore. The serum has kicked her brain into hyperdrive. As her nightmares of a girl in a burning corridor grow more vivid, Zoe develops a collection of powers straight from the Stephen King compendium: pyrokinesis, telepathy, telekinesis, and precognition, to name a few. Of course all these psychic gifts come with a loss of sanity. Zoe struggles with whether the colleagues she’s locked in the lab want to help her or put her down.

Wilde and Duplass head up a cast of characters whose moderate personalities seem consistent with what one would find in a lab. This lack of eccentricity means more focus on the action. The most energetic scientist is Clay, played by Evan Peters of American Horror Story fame. Peters offers a performance reminiscent of (but by no means as outrageous as) a young Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Dusty Davis in Twister.

Another notable strength of this film is its soundtrack. It starts with the American Horror Story-like opening credits: creepy music accompanies extreme close-ups of threatening-looking elements slithering and coalescing. On several occasions, the viewer is treated to Mozart’s “The Queen of the Night Aria”, which would make watching cell cultures incubate entertaining. During the most intense scenes, a jarring shriek escalates the action in an admirably unsubtle way.

There are masterful lab horror films like The Fly and the less well-known Splice, and there are their deliciously preposterous cousins like I-Frankenstein. The Lazarus Effect falls somewhere in the middle. Though the trailer tries to connect it (by way of producer) to Insidious, The Purge, and Paranormal Activity, The Lazarus Effect is, by comparison, playing in the minor leagues. Still, many love to (and even prefer to) watch those minor leaguers.

The critics blasted The Lazarus Effect with typical complaints: highly derivative, chaotic, an over-qualified cast wasted by an impatient plot. Even the general public has met it with a tepid response.

Nevertheless, there are a few perhaps juvenile viewers who applaud this film, and I, fortunately, count myself among them.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Interstellar | review by Jacob Edwards

A stellar cast, interred amidst the stars.

At almost three hours in length, Christopher Nolan’s epic SF film Interstellar falls roughly into three acts: humanity clinging to life on a dust-ridden, dying Earth; a last-ditch mission to seek out habitable planets through a wormhole in spacetime; and the consequences (small- as much as large-scale) of that mission going awry. Such is the broad progression of plot. In a critical sense, what plays out on screen is a compellingly envisaged scenario that compromises itself in favour of the box office and then descends further still into the warm glow of metaphysics. For all its cinematic excellence, this is the equivalent of Albert Einstein and his conceptual twin brother playing four-dimensional Monopoly and each contriving to make need of a specially tailored get-out-of-jail-free card. It is an engrossing spectacle, to be sure, but a somewhat unsatisfying comedown from what might have been.

In terms of bringing the script to life, Matthew McConaughey leads an outstanding cast performance, the tone of which he sets in the first act alongside charismatic child actress Mackenzie Foy and an effortlessly world-weary John Lithgow. Interstellar is told through unaffected, very human characters, with Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck adding a touch of despair to the grim faces of act two. Michael Caine does what he does, and Anne Hathaway is more Sandra Bullock than Barbarella in taking womankind into space. Even the NASA robots have real personality. The one blemish, it could be argued, is Matt Damon, whose name is to the cast list as the roiling, pestilent blight is to future Earth’s crops, hanging with Damoclean foreboding until his appearance in the third act signals the onset of the apocalypse. Damon is revived as the craven Dr Mann, a minor role in which he can be seen thumbing his nose at those who might question his acting range. Mann’s aura is intentionally jarring, his demeanour scripted to arouse our suspicions; let it be noted, then, that Damon can play an unconvincing character as convincingly as he can a convincing character unconvincingly. His injection into the storyline cuts the hair by which our belief was suspended, and triggers a cinematic cataclysm of untethered action/drama.

Like Gravity before it, Interstellar strives for realism but comes to rely on a manipulation as overt as it is irreconcilable with the story being told. The state of play is signposted at any given moment by Hans Zimmer’s score, the excellence of which is difficult to judge because of its prescriptive and patronising, heavy-handed use of VOLUME. Whoever mixed the film has done Zimmer no favours; nor the actors, who at times have their lines drowned out entirely so that music may be used to prod the audience towards whatever emotional shearing shed Nolan has designated. This bombastic approach becomes more prevalent as the film progresses. By the time the supermassive black hole has selectively extended its gravitational pull to reel in any ship lifting off from Matt Damon’s planet (bypassing the influence of the sun around which that planet orbits), the soundtrack has gone berserk. The effect is not unlike that of an archetypal miscreant whistling in faux innocence to cover up a petty larceny, only in Interstellar’s case this has been amplified to decibels beyond the credulity horizon.

Sometimes a writer will begin with a particular idea, only later to find that the framework they construct to present that notion comes to hold more interest than the premise itself. Given Interstellar’s unimpeachable first act and then the eyebrow-raising liberties taken by the second in reaching the incongruous fanfare of the third, it would be easy to assume this is what happened to Christopher Nolan. The truth, however, is somewhat less flattering. Nolan is credited as having co-written Interstellar with his brother Jonathan, but as it transpires their project was not a genuine collaboration. Jonathan in fact wrote an earlier script by himself, and it was the first third of this that was used as Interstellar’s opening, the remainder being binned so that Christopher had somewhere to affix his own, less grounded story idea. In filmmaking in general and Hollywood in particular, success and failure are relative terms, but whatever the perspective of verdict passed on Interstellar – glass one-third empty or one-third full – there should be little wonder that such a piecemeal, Frankensteinian approach has led to at least some measure of ruinous consequence.

There will be many viewers, of course, who take no issue with Interstellar’s storyline, and indeed who will point to the involvement of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne serving as both scientific consultant and executive producer on the film; instead of taking this legitimising presence with a grain of salt, such people will toss that salt over their shoulders and maintain that Christopher Nolan’s physics are faultless. Well… Yes, clearly a lot of attention was paid to the visual depiction of wormholes, black holes and associated phenomena, but that’s not altogether the same kettle of fish as declaring them scientifically accurate. Metaphysics aside – and the third act of Interstellar surely is no more scientific than Flatliners or What Dreams May Come – we still are left with some decidedly odd compressions of plot-space and plot-time, while the real life effects of time dilation, though soundly based in theory, are applied inconsistently and only when they serve Nolan’s purposes. When they don’t, they are ignored, and in this respect the so-called laws of physics are treated more in the sense of judicial laws than the universally immutable workings of cause and effect. Perhaps to some extent this is unavoidable, for a film without poetic license is liable to be a very dry film indeed. Yet, Christopher Nolan’s two-thirds of the script compounds any affront by falling prey also to an unconscionable compression of characters’ thinking time. Whether or not a story can withstand bad physics, metaphysics or consciously eschewed physics, it really is going beyond the pale to have the protagonists make decisions – choices that speak to the very survival of the species – in less time and with less discussion than most people would need in standing in the dairy section, deciding whether to buy low fat or regular. Drama there must be, but when the milk is spilt and Newton’s apple turns pear-shaped, our heroes’ calamities should move us to something greater than a sardonically muttered, “Whoops.”

Interstellar is by no means a bad film; indeed, its positioning amidst the upper echelons of its cinematic peers might well suggest a manifest disproportion between criticism levelled and criticism warranted. But then again, with Christopher Nolan’s having set his sights on the stars, Interstellar surely could have been a masterpiece (and for an hour or so looked like being just that). The fact that it so poignantly loses its way is in a sense far more distressing than the abject floundering exhibited by its happy-go-hapless Hollywood fellows. Interstellar tantalises, but falls short: not with the high-octane bluster of Evel Knievel but rather the down-to-earth tragedy of a Cape Canaveral launch that, for all its meticulous planning and having just made a successful lift-off, inexplicably then jettisons the wrong rocket segments… and if, further to this, such a mishap should come to form the crux of a closed time loop, then let it be noted that cosmic contrivances are not in all contexts as interesting as Christopher Nolan might have thought. When E.T. phoned home, was he unwittingly calling through time and summoning himself to the rescue? Indeed, no – and let us all join together in extending one long, bony finger at the prospect of a mashup remake in which Drew Barrymore plays her own mother – but with such doomsday scenarios in mind, could it be that Nolan injected Interstellar with a weak dose of glitzy goose so as to immunise it against a fully-fledged bout of Tinseltown turkey later in life? Stranger things have been known to make themselves happen.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Amazon Fire TV | review by Stephen Theaker

The Amazon Fire TV is a nifty little under-set box that connects to the internet and allows you to access various apps and bits and pieces of online content, much like Roku boxes. Its small remote control takes you up and down through the categories – currently including things like Prime Video, Movies, TV, Games, Apps, Music and Photos – while left and right take you into the contents of those categories. The remote also has a superpower: hold down the microphone button to summon your entertainment with surprisingly reliable voice controls. (Text Search is also available in a pinch.)

The voice search shows up one weakness of the device; while working well, it only takes you to Amazon content, and much of that needs paying for. Unlike similar searches on the Xbox 360, results from apps like Netflix and the BBC iPlayer are not presented, and voice search does not work within those apps. That’s a limitation that soon stops being a bother, as you get to know the situations in which voice search is worth trying. It helps of course if you have Amazon content to search for.

We began paying for Amazon Prime a few years ago to take the stress out of buying Christmas presents, and we would probably pay for it even without Prime Instant Video being included – but it is, and it is easily accessible on the Fire TV. People not paying for Prime will find the device much less useful, and will probably be irritated by its focus on Amazon video, but the selection is good, and getting better. Constantine may not be the classic we hoped for, but I’m glad we got to watch it each week on Prime, while the frequent Pilot Seasons of new shows are always a treat. It’s nice being able to watch episode one of a programme without feeling guilty about not watching the rest The selection of films is also good, though dig a bit and it still has the video store feel of the Lovefilm service it grew out of.

Prime Music isn’t available in the UK, unfortunately, but people who buy their albums from Amazon will find many of them available in the Music section of the device. This, for me, has been one of the greatest things about the Fire TV. Aside from a brief dalliance with Play.com, I’ve bought nearly all my albums from Amazon since I began working at home, and two hundred and three of them are available here. It’s been by far my favourite way yet of bringing digital music into the living room. Playing an album can be as simple as searching for that artist with a voice search and then picking the album. Playlists can also be set up – we have one for each family member of their own albums, plus one for quiet reading – though that must be done elsewhere, such as a PC or the Amazon music app. One slight glitch is that the music stops playing when the television turns off, but that might be down to the settings on my TV.

Games on the device have surprisingly good graphics, at perhaps the level of the Wii. However, there are limits: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, though very similar to the recent Xbox 360 re-release, requires most of its graphics sliders to be turned right down before it will run on the Fire TV – not to mention that its huge file size takes up so much of this device’s meagre space that it’s impractical to keep it on there for any significant length of time. Other games are mildly diverting, and tend to be cheap, but have the usual tendency of cheap app games to demand additional purchases and apply penalties to gameplay when they are not bought. Games can be played with the remote control, or with an optional games controller, which is a passable imitation of the 360’s. If I’m going to play games, I’m always going to turn on the 360 instead of this, but kids without consoles would appreciate the games.

Game and other apps bought in the Amazon App Store for Android devices or the Kindle Fire become available at no extra cost here, where a version compatible with the Fire TV is available.

Some apps are missing altogether, notably the BBC Radio Player, Now TV (reciprocally, Amazon Instant Video is unavailable on the Roku), Kindle and Audible. The last is presumably down to Audible being set up for downloads rather than streaming, but it was still a big disappointment. I’d hoped too for some kind of fun Kindle app – no one is going to read full novels on their television, but it’d be useful for family reading, exercise, and things like that. There is no Comixology app either – HD guided view on the TV would be great. NPR One and Spotify would also be good to have eventually.

YouTube is on there, and how much our household uses it shows one of the strengths of the Fire TV, that it is so quick to turn on and use. The 360 and TiVo have YouTube access, but going through the rigmarole involved in starting those up to watch a five minute video isn’t worth the effort. With the Fire TV, watching the latest Jimmy Fallon, SNL or Jimmy Kimmel clips has become a very pleasant part of our daily routine. That the remote control doesn’t need to be pointed at the device itself just adds to the convenience.

Any negatives other than those already mentioned? It lacks an on-off button, so crashes mean pulling out the power cord, Spectrum-style. For some reason, the film Tower Heist, having once been added to our watchlist, now refuses to be removed from it. And the option to remove a recommended film from display seems to only have a temporary effect. So let’s say, for the sake of argument, not from any personal experience or anything, that in a moment of weakness a fellow was to watch a certain kind of film from the seventies, its sleazy ilk would pop up in his recommendations over and over as if he were playing a game of whack-a-mole. The only solution is to watch enough wholesome items to take the recommendations in a less embarrassing direction.

Another problem, but again one that may be down to my inexpert adjustment of settings, is that since buying the device our wifi router needs rebooting at least once a day. Whether this is down to the device, or just down to it encouraging us to stream much more video wirelessly than usual, is yet to be investigated. I have seen reports of other users having similar problems, relating to its screensaver streaming photographs from the Amazon Cloud.

That feature has been popular in our household. Again, we could do that with various other devices and apps, but it works so well and so simply and so conveniently on the Fire TV. If we want to watch Netflix or Instant Video or iPlayer or YouTube, the Fire TV is the device we now use. If you have Prime and a good Auto-Rip collection, I’d recommend it heartily. If, however, your music was all bought in iTunes and you prefer Now TV to Netflix, it may not be the device for you. ****