Monday, 2 May 2016

The Huntsman: Winter’s War | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Angry, beautiful women with ostentatious wardrobes cast spells, voyeuristic tiny creatures hide in trees, and much more.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War, directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, gave me what I expected, and I’m good with that. This sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) isn’t mind-blowing. It doesn’t present anything staggeringly original, nor will it change your life with some profound message, but it will allow you to escape into a fantasy world rich in costumes, effects, atmosphere, and justice.

When jilted by her forbidden lover, Freya (Emily Blunt) discovers her ability to conjure and manipulate ice, then retreats to “the north” to build an empire. A reclusive ice queen? Hmm . . . that sounds a lot like Elsa from Frozen (2013). However, Freya’s blood runs much colder: her manipulative sister Ravenna (Charlize Theron), now trapped in Snow White’s famous mirror, is the spellbinding supervillain who fumed and enchanted her way through the first film.

Queen Freya seizes children to raise as an army of fierce warriors (the huntsmen), which she uses to expand her kingdom. She imposes only one rule on her adult “children”: no love allowed! But huntsmen standouts Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain) aren’t having it. So Freya uses her sorcery to separate the lovers.

Years later, Eric and Sara reunite, albeit discordantly, on a quest to retrieve the now lost magic mirror before Freya gets it and catastrophe ensues. They are joined by four dwarves, highlighted by Nion (Nick Frost) and the feisty widow Mrs Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith).

Though Winter’s War advertisements exhibit the villainous sisters in all their regal splendor, the film offers a more traditional hero. Eric faces the dual challenge of finding that mirror (i.e. saving the world) and convincing Sara of his constancy. Our hero smiles, chuckles, and tosses around his machismo in typical Hemsworth fashion.

It’s Not Plot
And what will this band of likely and unlikely heroes do when it gets the mirror? Does it really matter? The mirror is really just a device holding things together. The strength of Winter’s War lies not in plot or concept, but in the special effects that, like the gold flakes around Ravenna’s eyes, sparkle throughout the film to create an atmosphere.

Besides the sisters’ conjurations—more on this later—the special effects engineers rise to the challenge with a collection of CGI creatures that populate this fairy tale world: too-small-to-see sprites that leave light trails in their wake, bright red squirrels, swarms of butterflies hitching a ride on a hedgehog, bling-wearing goblins that look and move like apes but have ram-like horns, and turtles and snakes with skin made out of grass. Then there are the voyeuristic, pint-size slender creatures that hide in vegetation and silently watch the adventurers. Creepy. Cool.

Winter’s War also offers several rousing fight scenes, especially the quarrels at the palace entry and tavern. The tension builds, the outnumbered heroes remain remarkably calm, the enemies assemble, and then the powerful Eric and acrobatic Sara deliver a beat down . . . or get beat up. The lack of music during these scenes adds to the intensity by emphasizing the thumping, crashing, and other skirmish sounds.

Sisters Sorcerous and Sexy 
Someone once said, “There’s nothing quite like angry, beautiful women in glittering regalia working magic.” Actually, I don’t think anyone said that, but there is some truth to it.

The film treats Freya and Ravenna with the reverence that royalty commands. For instance, the grandeur of the sisters’ costumes gets elevated by audio embellishments such as the chain-like slinking of Queen Freya’s train as she promenades toward her captives, or the metal finger claws that Ravenna taps and scrapes on various surfaces.

Freya is the subdued, though still highly dangerous version of her older sister. Her finery glistens like frost and offers a contrast of colourless austerity and glittering flamboyance much like the character. Example: she might tear up while she casts a spell that ruins a person’s life.

But don’t expect any tears from Ravenna, unless they’re tears of rage. The only criticism of Theron’s ruthless sorceress is that she isn’t on the screen more. Indulge in Theron’s mastery of her craft as she greets Eric after a long absence, slathers a supervillain laugh over her adversaries, and seduces her chess partner.

During the climax, the sisters use Freya’s royal hall to put on a rock concert of sorcery, their instruments being ice (Freya) and tar-like tentacles (Ravenna) that aim to impale.

When life’s pressures mount, mindless fantasy films like this one offer a much-needed respite. I’ve seen characters using magic powers to freeze stuff. I’ve seen goblins and dwarves. I’ve seen super clear distinctions between good and evil. And I don’t mind seeing it all again: that stuff’s therapeutic. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Friday, 29 April 2016

All-Star Section Eight, by Garth Ennis and John McCrea (DC Comics) | review

A six-issue spin-off from Hitman (the comic not the game) which was itself a spin-off from The Demon. Tommy Monaghan, the hitman with x-ray vision and a heart of gold, was introduced in the latter during one of DC’s dafter crossovers (invading aliens whose attacks gave some people superpowers). He once tried out for the JLA, but the funniest parts of his comic were usually when he ran into alcoholic Sixpack and his band of hopeless heroes, Section Eight, including characters like the Defenestrator, Dogwelder and the pervert Bueno Excellente. Here, at last, they get their own comic, or at least the survivors do, as Sixpack tries to get the team back together. After adding The Grapplah, the demon bartender Baytor, Powertool, Guts and a new Dogwelder (who found the previous guy’s outfit in a junk shop), he gets up to seven members, and then tries to persuade the stars of the (New 52) DC universe to fill the last slot. The Martian Manhunter, Wonder Woman and Superman all show up; none seem likely to take the bait. It’s funny and gross, Sixpack’s snot, drool and wee depicted in repulsive detail, but also surprisingly moving, by the end reminding me of the classic Doctor Who strip by Scott Gray and Martin Geraghty, “The Land of Happy Endings”. Super-heroes may be dumb, but as Garth Ennis writes here, “As dreams go... Well. I suppose you could do worse.” This mini-series may not mean very much to people who didn’t love The Demon or Hitman, but it’s a must-read for those who did. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 25 April 2016

Doctor Who: Echoes of Grey, by John Dorney (Big Finish) | review

This sixty-seven minute play checks in with Zoe Heriot, now in her fifties after being returned to her own time by the Time Lords. They wiped her memories of her travels with the Doctor, leaving her with just the recollection of his visit to the Wheel in Space to fight the Cybermen, but she has an eidetic memory, and she can tell that there’s a discontinuity in her mind. It has made it difficult to form relationships; she feels like the ghost of herself. Then she meets Ally Monroe, whose life she apparently saved during one of the adventures she can’t remember. Ally thinks her alpha wave gadget will help, and slowly Zoe starts to remember the time she, Jamie and the second Doctor encountered the Achromatics, grey beings who declare their love for you while draining away your life. It’s a second Doctor story in the classic style, of slow-moving monsters in a confined space, with all the creepiness that brings. When they chase the Doctor around a room (he has a plan, but “no other ideas at all!”) it’s easy to imagine how it would have looked on screen. Wendy Padbury is as adept at voicing the Doctor and Jamie as when playing her younger self. The framing device is cleverly done, and by the time it ends the play’s title turns out to be clever too. It’s a good story, though its ramifications are potentially tragic: if Zoe and – as we’ve learned in other stories – Jamie have recovered some of their memories, did the Doctor make a terrible mistake in the Tomb of Rassilon? Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 18 April 2016

Doctor Who and the Ark in Space, by Ian Marter (BBC/Audible) | review

The fourth Doctor, only recently regenerated and accompanied by journalist Sarah Jane Smith and U.N.I.T. medic Harry Sullivan, lands the Tardis on the Nerva Beacon. It seems to be abandoned, but further investigation reveals slimy trails, as if of a giant slug, and then freeze-dried humans, packed away in storage for thousands of years to survive a stellar disaster. The first humans to wake up suspect the Tardis crew of sabotage, a fatal distraction from their true, hidden enemies: the Wirrn, a race of giant locust-like insects with a grudge against humanity, and a gruesome purpose for these survivors. “The Ark in Space” was originally a television story, and this is the Audible version of the Target novelisation from the eighties, written by the actor who played Harry Sullivan. He wasn’t in the Tardis long, sadly, having been cast as the Chestertonian man of action, an entirely redundant position after Tom Baker took the role of the Doctor. It is read by Dead Ringers star Jon Culshaw, who first became famous for his wonderful telephone impersonations of Tom Baker’s Doctor. That ability makes him perfect for this audiobook, though ironically this comes from a time when the fourth Doctor wasn’t particularly funny – for much of this story he’s indistinguishable from his previous, rather serious, incarnation. He narrates in his own reading voice, and keeps the tension high. For a children’s book it is surprisingly gory, with talk of suppurating stumps and smouldering bodies welded to panelling after being repeatedly shot, and in the audio version there’s no bubble wrap to break the spell. Sarah Jane’s long, arduous and essential crawl through a narrow duct is as stressful as ever, no matter how many times we’ve already seen her succeed. The fate of one human infected by the Wirrn bears repetition in full: “with a crack, like a gigantic seedpod bursting, his whole head split open. A fountain of green froth erupted and came sizzling down the radiation suit…” There’s a reason these were my favourites as a child: other books were, quite literally, bloodless in comparison. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 15 April 2016

Doctor Who Comic #7, by Robbie Morrison, Brian Williamson and chums (Titan Comics) | review

A wonderfully substantial publication that collects four issues of the ongoing US format comics, one each from the twelfth and tenth Doctors’ comics, and two from the eleventh Doctor’s title. In “The Fractures, Part 2”, by Robbie Morrison and Brian Williamson, the twelfth Doctor and Clara are trying to help a UNIT scientist from another dimension. His wife and daughters died in a car crash, and they live on here, but when he crossed the void between dimensions he attracted the attention of the Fractures. Visually it’s not up to the standards of the strips that appear in Doctor Who Magazine, but it’s enjoyable enough. The eleventh Doctor’s story “The Eternal Dogfight” (complete in this issue), by Rob Williams, Al Ewing and Warren Pleece, sees him accompanied by three new companions: a shape-changing alien, a depressed assistant librarian, and a chubby David Bowie type. An everlasting dogfight between two fleets of alien combatants has drifted into Earth’s vicinity, and if the Doctor and friends can’t bring it to an end there could be eight billion civilian casualties. All very entertaining, in thanks part to the intrigue of each new companion’s ongoing story, and the jolly artwork. It reminded me of the early Tom Baker strips in Doctor Who Weekly. The tenth Doctor is also joined by a new companion – Gabby, an American from New York – for his story, “The Weeping Angels of Mons, Part 2”, by Robbie Morrison and Daniel Indro. The statuesque monsters of the title are snatching soldiers from the trenches of World War I. It’s an interesting story, and the artwork (including the colouring by Slamet Mujiono) suits it perfectly, the expressions of the angels being as alarming as one would hope never to see. I liked each individual story, but it’s the cumulative effect of reading almost a hundred pages of new Doctor Who comics that makes it so rewarding. I subscribed before getting even halfway through it. Stephen Theaker ****

Monday, 11 April 2016

Penny Dreadful, Season 2, by John Logan and chums (Sky Atlantic) | review

A coven of (often naked) witches is determined to bring Vanessa Ives to meet their master, and they have identified lonely Sir Malcolm Murray, so much in need of comfort after the events of season one, as a weak point in the Penny Dreadful gang. Meanwhile, Doctor Frankenstein makes the mistake of falling in love with the bride his creature has demanded, and Dorian Grey shows how romantic he can be. Ethan Chandler has a particularly hairy time of it in these episodes, but his relationship with Vanessa Ives deepens, particularly during a short break in her holiday cottage at the coast. The reverse of season one, this run starts slowly but ends well. The blood and gore continues at a level appropriate for a programme with this title. The announcers on Sky Atlantic typically warn that viewers may find some scenes disturbing, but there are scenes in this series that only a psychopath would not find disturbing. And yet there is noticeably more smiling this time around, even from tortured souls Ethan and Vanessa, perhaps to alleviate the bleakness. Eva Green as Vanessa is once again the star of the show. While the other characters, at least in the early episodes, feel rather like a league of boring gentlemen, she looks like she was drawn by Kevin O’Neill and brings Mark Hamill levels of belief and commitment to every scene. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 8 April 2016

The Technopriests, Vol. 1: Techno Pre-School, by Alexandro Jodorowsky, Zoran Janjetov and Fred Beltran (Humanoids) | review

Albino the Supreme Technopriest is on a spaceship with five hundred thousand of his brethren, travelling from one galaxy to another, where they hope to start a new society, where healthy relationships will count for more than scientific advances. It’s the perfect time to kick back and think over his eventful life to date: this first book in the series begins with the horrific events that led to his mother’s pregnancy. Understandably consumed by bitterness, she vows revenge on Ulritch the Red and his fellow pirates. Young Albino is left to feed at the breast of a guanodont, and grows up working in his mother’s cheese factory, with only computer games and little Tinigrifi, a talking (android?) bunny, to keep him sane. Eventually she arranges for him to attend the Technopriest training school of Don Mossimo, where his cleverness attracts the attention of a Techno-Bishop, while she amasses enough money to hire the mercenaries she needs for her revenge. The artwork by Janjotov and the colouring by Beltran are tremendous throughout, detailed and fascinating, only let down by some jarring computer graphics used to illustrate scenes of virtua-walking in cyberspace. This boy lives in a weird world full of peculiar people, not least his own family, and that side of it was good, but there’s an awful lot of sexual violence, right at the heart of the story, and the “Tee hee” from Tinigrifi that follows one event feels misjudged, to say the least. As well as individual digital volumes, the entire series is available in a single hardback omnibus. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 4 April 2016

Game of Thrones, Season 5, by David Benioff, D.B. Weiss and chums (Sky Atlantic) | review

Tyrion crosses the sea in a crate, reluctantly, to start a new life working for Daenyrs, the mother of dragons. She’s having trouble keeping control of her city, the previous ruling class refusing to accept the changes she has made. Jon Snow and the men of the Night’s Watch must consider what to do with the defeated Wildlings. Winter is coming, and if humanity doesn’t stand together, even the scruffy ones with bad hair, they’ll all be killed by the zombie army of the White Walkers. And then be revived to join that army! Winterfell suffers under the heel of a mad tyrant, while further south King’s Landing falls prey to religious mania. Elsewhere, Arya learns what it takes to become an assassin like the Faceless Man. This is probably the weakest season of the programme so far, and the level of violence towards women and children is extremely uncomfortable at times. But it’s still very good. By now we care about these characters; we’ve watched some of them grow up, we’ve seen what they’ve been through, and their lives matter to us. The effects are of a very high quality. The Wildling giant, in particular, is magnificent. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 1 April 2016

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), by Felicia Day (Simon & Schuster/Audible) | review

This is the story of how a badly home-schooled violinist grew up to become a god among the virtual geeks. The face of Felicia Day will be familiar to many more people than actually know who she is; she had a spell as the background photo of some YouTube apps, she sang viral hit “Do You Want to Date My Avatar?”, and had eye-catching guest spots in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse (the episodes set in the future) and Supernatural, where her red-headed hacker is the fun kind of friend Sam and Dean badly need in their ever-tortured lives (the episode where they join her at a fantasy battle re-enactment is a classic). Understandably, this book focuses more on her own creative achievements, though it does give us a striking portrait of what it’s like to be a struggling (and then a doing-fairly-well) actor in Hollywood. Before that, and after an introduction by Joss Whedon in which he sounds remarkably like Ultron, listeners learn about Felicia Day’s childhood, where a miscalculated attempt to get out of some religious nonsense led to her mum withdrawing her from a good school, her education going badly astray from there until violin skills got her a college scholarship at the age of fifteen. Though fierce competitiveness made her the college valedictorian, she didn’t love the violin enough to make it her life, and so began her acting, and eventually a desire to write her own scripts. One of the most interesting parts of the book describes the support group of aspiring women she joined, and then constantly lied to about the progress on her script: the pilot episode of The Guild, which would eventually become a successful web series. It’s only after she comes clean about her fibs, and her addiction to World of Warcraft, that the dam breaks, the members of the support group become her producers, and the programme ends up a huge Xbox-endorsed success. It’s a good story, and it’s bracing to hear all the hard work that went into Day’s success, as well as all the failures that led up to it. Later in the book comes a dark period after she takes on too much, develops health problems, lets people down, and loses good friends, but there’s always the sense that she’s determined to do the things she wants to do, and any bumps in the road are eventually going to get flattened. The penultimate chapter is about her well-publicised run-ins with online boors, which events are all the more unfortunate given the positive light in which gaming (WOW aside) and the internet are seen throughout the book. Overall, it’s funny, rather inspirational, and sweet-natured, in a steely sort of way. The highlight, I think, is an excruciating scene where a fan recognises her in a build-a-bear workshop, leading shoppers who don’t know who she is to act as if she’s impudent for being recognised. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 28 March 2016

Daredevil, Season 1, by Drew Goddard and chums (Marvel/Netflix) | review

Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer affronted by the injustice he sees in his home of Hell’s Kitchen, a part of New York damaged badly in the battle between the Avengers and Loki’s army of alien invaders. Property developers are moving in, but some of the current inhabitants don’t want to move out, and that’s the kind of case that the newly established firm of Nelson and Murdock can be persuaded to take. What the two lawyers don’t know at first is that behind it all is a shadowy kingpin, who is bringing together Russian, Chinese and Japanese gangsters in one great criminal enterprise. Anyone who dares to utter his name – Wilson Fisk – is killed for their indiscretion, making it impossible to pin anything on him. It would be an impossible situation were it not for Matt’s unusual abilities. The chemicals that took his sight enhanced all his other senses – taste, touch, hearing and balance – and he was trained in combat, at least for a time, by the mysterious Stick. These skills let Matt fight for the city, at first in a black mask, and by the end of the series in the distinctive red suit of Marvel’s Daredevil.

This is an extremely violent series, much more so than Agents of SHIELD or Agent Carter, not suitable at all for children. Matt Murdock tends to get very badly wounded, since he’s often fighting against the odds. A fight in the second episode is the best I’ve ever seen on television, like looking down the classic corridor scene in Oldboy. Wilson Fisk is an utterly brutal villain, his fists the piledrivers they are in the comics, Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance so chilling, so physical and intense, that he’d have had awards nominations if this wasn’t a series about a superhero. (I hope we’ll see him face off against the Avengers or Spider-Man or Daredevil himself on the big screen at some point.) It draws on many periods of the comics, in particular those written by Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Waid, to create a classic version of the character. The mood is dingy and grim, though Foggy brings just the right amount of humour to stop it getting too gruelling – and were those the stilts of Stilt-Man I saw in the background of one scene? Its pace is very much its own; this couldn’t be a network show, with the constant need to cue up adverts that has made programmes like The Big Bang Theory little more than a series of vignettes. The episodes stretch out fully over their running length, building up to moments of sudden, shocking violence. My only grumble is about the frequent discussions about the existence or not of god (Matt Murdock being a Catholic and Wilson Fisk an atheist), which seem bizarre given that the season’s plot follows on from a battle between Loki and Thor. Would people keep believing in other gods, or for that matter remain atheists, when real gods have been seen on television? Perhaps they would, but it makes Matt seem a bit daft. But that’s just a minor issue. I wouldn’t just rate this higher than the other Marvel television series, I’d rate it higher than most of the movies. And season two is going to feature the Punisher and Elektra! Let’s hope a change of showrunner doesn’t put a billy club in the works. Stephen Theaker ****

10 Cloverfield Lane | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Character, tension reign in masterwork of claustrophobic uncertainty.

The mind-numbing sameness of many films has trained viewers to expect a narrow list of possibilities as a story unfolds… either this will happen or that will happen… character x is either all this or all that. 10 Cloverfield Lane, directed by Dan Trachtenberg and based loosely on the alien attack extravaganza Cloverfield (2008), plays upon this tendency to pigeonhole outcomes and characters. Set mostly in a bunker beneath a Louisiana farm, the film serves up a potent “he’s coming/who’s out there?” tension gumbo whose ingredients range from bold (and sometimes shocking) actions to more ordinary, yet still highly charged situations.

Aspiring fashion designer Michelle, whose marriage is on the rocks, crashes her car, then wakes up chained to a wall in a kind of cell. Her warden Howard claims that “there’s been an attack” and that he’s brought her down into his bunker to save her from contaminated air. Michelle then meets farmhand and fellow bunker guest Emmett, who says that Howard also “saved” him from the event. Ex-Navy man Howard gives Michelle a tour of the space that will indefinitely serve as the trio’s living quarters.

So begins a play-like film that tangles the viewer in a world of uncertainty controlled by an eccentric doomsday enthusiast (Howard). Michelle, uncertain of her keeper’s trustworthiness, enlists Emmett. They gradually uncover more about Howard’s mysterious (and absent) daughter Megan while Howard goes to greater lengths to preserve his domain and manage his tenants.

Goodman Leads Great Cast
Interstellar travel and exotic planets dominate the contemporary sci-fi film landscape. 10 Cloverfield Lane stands apart by confining its activities to a small set with a bare bones cast of primary characters, all of whom perform superbly.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle is a pragmatic young lady: she can devise makeshift weapons and manipulate conversations. Emmett, played by John Gallagher, Jr, serves as a kind of intermediary between Michelle and Howard. Though he first presents as somewhat dim-witted, Emmett quickly proves to be a more thoughtful individual. In one scene, Michelle and Emmett each share a regret story that reveals more about them. By the film’s end, both will have an opportunity for redemption.

The most compelling character of 10 Cloverfield Lane is John Goodman’s Howard. From the moment that Howard roughly opens the door and clomps into Michelle’s cell, Goodman captivates. You never know what he’s going to say or do. He is a commanding figure with little tolerance for horseplay.

Goodman is at his best in scenarios that would typically be seen as ordinary or even banal… eating dinner or playing a game, for instance. When the trio plays a guessing game, Emmett points at Michelle and says, “Michelle is a…” Howard repeats “girl” and grows frustrated as he is unable to come up with the word “woman”. In the end, the best Howard can do is “princess”. Howard’s inability to conceive of Michelle as a woman shows his desire to be a father figure. This fits with the territoriality he expresses toward Michelle throughout the film, such as when he brings her ice cream or chides Emmett (“No touching!”) for grabbing Michelle’s arm while she stumbles.

A Study in Ambivalence
What makes 10 Cloverfield Lane such an effective film is its reliance on the viewer’s uncertainty. It starts with the trailer: Tommy James and the Shondells’ upbeat “I Think We’re Alone Now” accompanies warm and fuzzy scenes like Howard bobbing before his jukebox and the trio playing games. You’d think this was a resurrection of Goodman’s Dan Conner from the nineties sitcom Roseanne.

But as the trailer and the film prove, 10 Cloverfield Lane is far from the Chicago suburbs where Roseanne was set and Howard is nothing like Dan Conner. Howard is not gregarious. He is controlling. He is short-tempered. He is utterly devoid of a sense of humor. Still, we can’t help but wonder: is Howard, despite his oddities, correct in his assertions? The questions build: Is Howard lying? Is he crazy? Is the air contaminated? Are we “alone now?” One isn’t even certain that Emmett can be trusted.

Then there are the bigger concerns: Will Michelle get out? And what happens if she does?

The tenuous connection to the film Cloverfield is another master stroke of ambiguity. For instance, the occasional rumblings the group hears above the bunker could be aliens (like Cloverfield), or they could be a misdirection… cars, helicopters, maybe even something that Howard manufactured.

Strange Creatures
To see 10 Cloverfield Lane in a theatre or even in a dark room is to descend alongside Michelle into Howard’s shelter. During your journey, you’ll crawl through confined spaces, and you’ll participate in escape attempts both subtle and blatant.

“People are strange creatures,” says Howard. “You can’t always convince them that safety is in their best interest.” On Howard’s turf, you can never be safe in your assumptions about just what is going on.

Can this film, which boldly refuses to conform to Hollywood tropes, even be classified as sci-fi? There’s only one place to go to find out: 10 Cloverfield Lane. - Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Friday, 25 March 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, by Lawrence Kasdan and chums | review by Jacob Edwards [spoilers]

Déjàvooine Sunrise.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (if we may be allowed a scrolling preamble) has been released with considerable fanfare and after much anticipation. Like the birth of Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, its arrival brings together a nation of fans united in pride, patriotism, hope and nostalgia (and, be warned, young George, with a bevy of concealed weapons held at the ready). At last! A renewal of the franchise that blew up the box office in 1977 and grew quickly to become – for some people quite literally – a cinematic religion. But those who queue for midnight screenings do so with some trepidation. Given the false dawn of the prequelogy (Episodes I–III), will this merely be more of the tepid same? How will the new film tie in with the Expanded Star Wars Universe? Will the original characters return and stay true to memory three decades on? Will director J.J. Abrams bring with him an unconscionable crosspollination from the Star Trek franchise? In short, will Star Wars survive its metamorphosis to the post-Lucas era? The story continues…

If cinemagoers expected or feared change, their first impressions must have been reassuringly to the contrary. George Lucas may have been bought out by Disney but the men and women with mouse ears made certain to retain John Williams, whose magniloquent orchestral scores swept audiences away and complemented so well the epic scope of the original movies. Star Wars without John Williams would be like early PC games without MIDI-pop soundtracks, only louder in the absence. Thankfully, The Force Awakens features Williams in all his incomparable pomp and majesty, reprising earlier themes where appropriate and showcasing new compositions through which sizzling lifeblood Star Wars is enabled to soar anew.

Bringing back the (quote) good bits of Star Wars seems to have been a large part of J.J. Abrams’ modus operandi. This is evident not just in the score but in his favouring of scale models, location filming and practical effects over the glitzy do-anything wowbagging of CGI. George Lucas is said to have criticised the film’s retro tone – something he himself strove to avoid in the prequels, with lamentable consequence – yet by returning to the roots of what made the original trilogy great, Episode VII recaptures the sense of enormousness that Episode IV brought so singularly to the screen. For want of a better word, The Force Awakens makes Star Wars feel big again.

A New Hope dazzled in part by way of its originality, so recapturing its spirit would necessarily encompass a certain amount of modernising. This accounts for such curiosities in The Force Awakens as the mediaeval-styled light-longsword (verdict out; those handguards look likely to endanger the user) and a buzzing new piece of stormtrooper kit (in essence a riot stick energised for duelling against lightsabers). It also explains why droid favourite R2-D2 is side-lined in favour of the equally inspired BB-8 and why C-3PO is limited to one resplendent cameo. In a similar vein, Chewbacca and his bowcaster are depicted more powerfully, while the formerly disposable stormtroopers are transformed from candy-coated featherweights into genuine enforcers. In this instance, to Abrams’ great credit, the spirit of yesteryear’s Star Wars has been bolstered by a logic and gravitas A New Hope sometimes lacked.

Which brings us to the original cast [and hereafter, major spoilers].


Monday, 21 March 2016

Redhand: Twilight of the Gods, Book 1: Son of Oblivion, by Kurt Busiek and Mario Alberti (Humanoids) | review

A party of highly religious, spear-carrying hunters stumble across a strange place while fleeing Kiotha slavers. It contains many dead bodies suspended in liquid within green tubes. But as the slavers attack, it turns out that one of the men in the tubes lives! He emerges naked, and fights mindlessly, but elegantly, like an automaton. Afterwards, his first words to the hunters become his name, because he doesn’t know who he is: “Red… hand…” Returning to their home, he faces the usual problems of the man with no name after the battle is done: hardly anyone wants him to stick around – except the pretty girl, and she has a jealous and angry admirer. This is a beautifully drawn graphic novel, every panel full of detail and interest. The story is one we’ve heard before, but it never gets old, and this version takes some surprising turns as it progresses. This should appeal greatly to anyone who yearns for new stories in the style of the early Elric books. Stephen Theaker ****

Friday, 18 March 2016

Stoker’s Manuscript, by Royce Prouty (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) | review by Jacob Edwards

Neither fading nor impaling into insignificance.

There are numerous ways to kill a vampire; somewhat fewer to keep him dead. Many a blood-curdling tale has been told. But the modern brow frowns upon capital punishment, so nowadays we prefer neutering (in the sense of making something ineffective). We strap vampires to the operating table and infuse them with a ghastly blend of garlic sauce and teenage hormones. We turn them into that which they most despise.

Throughout history, humankind has taken refuge in dark humour, chuckling grimly where otherwise we might have succumbed to fear. But comedy is not to blame for disempowering the vampire. Programmes like Count Duckula – spoofs within genre – were never going to have that effect. Laughter plays its part, yes, but the true weapon has been love: we have pulled vampires unto our collective bosom, discarding our crucifixes so as to subsume them within society’s warm embrace.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer brought vampires into the trialled and tribulated domain of teenage life. It used their dark renown as currency against which to stake kick-ass girl power. Buffy’s rise brought with it inflation, to the point where individual vampires became virtually worthless. You couldn’t give them away. The exception was Angel, but only because he was Buffy’s love interest: dark, broody and… good. To survive, it was no longer sufficient for vampires to steer clear of daylight, wooden stakes and razor-sharp chin-up bars. They had to renounce their very identity. They had to reinvent themselves.

The Twilight Saga brought this process to its wretched conclusion, firmly establishing vampires as mysterious, hunky, angst-ridden and easily besotted. Where once they were fearsome and otherworldly, now they manifested as mysterious but desirable; where formerly a different species altogether, now they were no different from any other lugubrious teen: living apart from the rest of the world, self-absorbed and misunderstood. They had issues.

Vampires, in short, became just like anybody else. To use the word pejoratively, they entered the mainstream. Gone was the unspeakable predator; the physically superior, morally bereft killer; the legend and lore; the monster hiding behind a facade of ancient nobility. No longer was there a sense of darkness; no terrible secret underpinning our fear of the unknown. These days, vampires are creatures of the everyday. There is nothing foreign (let alone alien) about them; nothing out of the ordinary in the hungering urges and bloody depravations that once constituted a force beyond reckoning. The vampire, in flaccid truth, was taken out of Transylvania, and so too was Transylvania taken out of the vampire.

In both cases, Royce Prouty has endeavoured to put it back.

Stoker’s Manuscript (Prouty’s debut novel) is centred around the original, unpublished prelude and concluding section of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. These documents are to be auctioned, and antiquarian expert Joseph Barkeley is engaged to verify their authenticity and deliver them to an anonymous buyer in Romania. Having returned thus to his homeland, Barkeley – an orphan of Romania’s communist regime under Nicolae Ceauçescy – finds that the excised chapters have a significance far beyond their literary worth… and not just to the reclusive buyer who resides deep within Bran Castle.

Perhaps the most satisfying feature of Prouty’s writing is the realism – seemingly innate – with which he grounds his story. There is a veracity to his characters, an immediacy to the setting, which together echo the literature of bygone days in hinting at fictionalised autobiography. Joseph Barkeley could be a real person, as could his brother or indeed any of the humans portrayed. Where popular fiction would have them splatter the screen or ink-smudge the written narrative with their motivations, instead these remain unobtrusive, the players sure-footed in gracing the pages of Prouty’s book. Romania itself is brought to life with a perspective that makes it eminently believable, both as a country in the throes of hardship and as the dark spawning ground of those undead creatures of legend.

Stoker’s Manuscript is a work of supernatural horror, but it is steeped in history and far from whimsical. The unreal elements seem disconcertingly plausible. The horror, though sparse, is all the more gruesome for the matter-of-fact way in which it is depicted. No aspect is played up merely to shock the reader; rather, the scenario is allowed simply to unfold, intrinsically horrific. The vampires, when they appear, lay claim to absolute dominion. The humans remain helpless; forsaken. Both sanity and sanctity are drawn in to be consumed.

Vampires, before we saw fit to humanise them, had the power to drain us not only of lifeblood but also of spirit, merely through dint of their existence. Occasionally we still tap into the fundamentally chilling dichotomy between them as predator and us as prey – Blade, for instance, before it impaled its own premise upon two splintered sequels – but for the most part we seem now to invite vampires into our homes and hearts, the nature of Dracula’s progeny becoming just one more trendy accessorising of our own human traits.

Royce Prouty, thankfully, makes no such concession; and where the mainstream would have us be enthralled by a boy crying wolf ever more loudly, ever less plausibly, Stoker’s Manuscript instead leaves the warning unuttered. Whatever secrets lay buried within Stoker’s original manuscript, we don’t need to be told that we disinter them at our peril. Yet, in Prouty’s world – looming more genuine than many a reality we fashion around ourselves – the vampyres of old remain a force to be reckoned with. Restored of both pride and place, they are more truthful to Stoker’s original than just about anything that has arisen in the hundred-odd years intervening. Prouty may not be long in the tooth as a novelist, but evidence suggests he might well prove long-lived. Jacob Edwards

Monday, 14 March 2016

The Red Seas, Book One: Under the Banner of King Death: The Complete Digital Edition, by Ian Edginton and Steve Yeowell (Rebellion) | review

Captain Jack Dancer got his ship by leading a mutiny, outraged by the mistreatment of the crew. Now he leads them to adventure on the high seas. They are treated a bit better, but their chances of survival haven’t improved. This book collects three of their adventures. In the first they must do battle with Dr Orlando Doyle, a hollow man with a crew of the dead. In the second they meet Aladdin, in search of Laputa and still giving orders to his genie, and in the third they travel deep within the earth, where a beautiful empress rules a race of lizard men. Three other stories feature people met by Jack Dancer on his travels: Sir Isaac Newton (his life secretly extended by the Brotherhood) fights a British war criminal possessed by an ancient Roman demigod; the two-headed dog Erebus (having left one head at home) and a friend hunt hidden treasures in blitz-torn London; and the regulars of Jack’s favourite watering hole must deal with a fellow who is “much more than a man… and a little less than God”. It’s three hundred and seventy pages of unapologetic adventure, made all the more satisfying by being drawn in its black-and-white entirety by Steve Yeowell. (I still remember how disappointed I was when I realised he wouldn’t be illustrating the whole of The Invisibles.) The stories were originally serialised in brief episodes in 2000 AD, but apart from Isaac Newton’s werewolf fight (which features little diary recaps) they are seamless, each of the three main stories reading like a short graphic novel. It’s a digital-only collection, so look out for it in the 2000 AD app and places like that. Stephen Theaker ***

Friday, 11 March 2016

The Shepherd’s Crown, by Terry Pratchett (Harper) | review by Jacob Edwards

A Wickerword basket.

Terry Pratchett – author and humorist; a writer of such immense popularity, his books for many years topped Britain’s most-stolen tally; the man who armed Death with laconic wit and a scythe and made him a recurring character – is dead. This of course was inevitable. THERE CAN BE NO EXCEPTIONS. But for all that Pratchett’s passing will leave a vacuum to be filled in the New York Times bestseller lists and the reading lives of millions of devoted followers, let us not mourn overmuch; rather, we should cherish the years he gave us and scrump one last time from the verdant pages of a new Discworld novel: a gentle, bittersweet celebration.

Published posthumously, The Shepherd’s Crown forms a fitting curtain call, not least of all because it commences – not ends, mind you – with the death of Granny Weatherwax, a founding figure in Pratchett’s development of the Discworld and a personage whose absence is felt markedly by all around her. If not a knowing postscript (Pratchett never stopped writing and had ideas slowly coalescing into several more novels), having the mantle of head witch pass from Granny Weatherwax to Pratchett’s young-adult protagonist Tiffany Aching at very least seems an apposite way to have signed off. Terry Pratchett gave us wizards and watchmen and a weird and wonderful world ever growing with its readers. One might suspect, however, that he always held a soft spot for the witches first introduced in Equal Rites (1987), and increasingly in later years for Aching, a hard-working wunderkind who perhaps more than anyone embodied the magic to be found in common sense.

One hallmark of Terry Pratchett’s writing is that he was ever inclusive, never patronising. Hence, when the age of his central character denoted young adult fiction, he made no change to his narrative voice – if anything, he tackled slightly more adult themes – and when he structured a mystery, one always had the impression he was feeling his own way through it as well, not merely stringing the reader along. It is appropriate, then, that in a postscript to this last book, Rob Wilkins (Pratchett’s assistant) openly acknowledges that The Shepherd’s Crown was at the time of Pratchett’s death still a work in progress. Pratchett, it transpires, would first fashion the bones and then flesh out each story, and this explains why The Shepherd’s Crown, somewhat thinner than others of Pratchett’s works, feels ever-so-vaguely unfinished… but only in the middle! The tale is told, yet we remain witness to the interrupted sparkle of a magic at play. Again, this seems apt.

Terry Pratchett wrote comedic fantasy where much of the humour derived from observations of the everyday and from inviting his audience to recognise their own lives in amongst the Discworld’s heady mix. Thus, just as Tiffany Aching finds strength in being grounded to the well-trodden soil of the Chalk, so too do Pratchett’s books offer strength through their grounding in truth. The result is dreamy escapism mixed with a pragmatist’s droll mirth: uniquely compelling and poignant – enchanted as much as enchanting – and with the power to assimilate both death and Death alike and reconcile them with life. Thank you, Terry, for sharing your gift these many years. Jacob Edwards

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Olympus, Book #1, by Geoff Johns, Kris Grimminger and Butch Guice (Humanoids) | review

Professor Walker and her assistant Brent are on a dive, ten miles off the coast of Thessaly, when they discover a sunken galley, and inside the galley a sealed trunk. Back on board their ship, the Desmon, with student sisters Rebecca and Sarah, they must decide whether to open it. The right thing to do would be to notify the Greek authorities, but Brent reminds the professor of the dean’s plan to close the archaeology department… They open it, and inside is an ancient urn, bearing the inscription, “Herein contains the misfortunes of man.” Could it be Pandora’s box? Even as they think about that, a storm whips up around them, just in time to accompany a gang of gun-toting pirates who expect to find diamonds on board. The storm doesn’t stop till the Desmon is washed up on the shores of a paradise island, with a giant statue of naked Zeus on the beach. More adventures ensue! This is a very good-looking book, Dan Brown’s colouring looking especially good in the digital format. Bikini-wearing Sarah’s tendency to find a new pose for each panel seems a bit cheesy, but the mysterious island is as spectacular as the plot needs it to be. The central idea is interesting, even if the way events play out, at least in this first book, is the same as any number of films – the book feels like it was made with both eyes on Hollywood. The story stops on a cliffhanger (when most of the characters are asleep), so it doesn’t feel like a complete album in itself, but it’s still very enjoyable. I especially liked the sound effect used here when a guy gets punched in the jaw: “PLAF!” Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 7 March 2016

Gods of Egypt | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Dumb. One-dimensional. Loved it.

If you like epic fantasy action films that seem conceived by seventh grade boys, then Gods of Egypt is for you. “Look, Johnny: you can remove the smartest god’s brain and it’s blue. It sparkles too. Then you can put it in your own head and you get smarter!”

The film wrings some of the residual cool from the ultra-violent and ultra-stylish 300 (2006)… even going so far as to reinvent that film’s star (Gerard Butler) as chief antagonist/bad boy god Set.

When you watch Gods of Egypt, directed by Alex Proyas, just let your brain go and indulge in a dumbed down smorgasbord of everything you need to tantalize the 12-year-old boy within: fights, acrobatics, shapeshifting, death traps, weapons, cleavage, capes, armor, and, most important, MONSTERS!

It even offers a He-Man cartoon style beat-you-over-the-head moral that what you do in this life matters… that good deeds and compassion trump power and vengeance.

The time is “before history began”, when Egyptian gods walked among their devotees. And how do we tell god from mortal? Easy: gods are twice the size of humans, of course!

Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), god of the sky and son of the beloved Osiris, spends his days partying with the goddess of love Hathor (Elodie Yung). Just as Horus is about to assume the crown, uncle Set (Butler), equipped with a lust for power and a Scottish accent, transforms into a metallic-looking animal, tears out Horus’s eyes (which become blue jewels), and then usurps the throne.

Horus loses his ability to fly and goes into hiding, but all is not lost: young human Bek plans to brave a booby-trapped path to steal back Horus’s eyes (at least one of them), then convince the god to defeat Set and assume his rightful position. Thus god (now sporting an eye patch) and human embark on a journey during which Horus’s ultimate objective will waver between vengeance and compassion.

In the meantime, the impulsive Set, exuding that Butlerian machismo, does all the things a 12-year-old boy would do. He builds a towering monument to his space-dwelling father Ra. He gets mad enough to chop off his own soldier’s head. He oppresses his people. His lust for power grows. “I cannot be fulfilled,” he tells his estranged wife Nepthys. Set even changes the admissions price to the afterworld: before it was good deeds; now it’s treasure.

In the film’s best scene, two gigantic fire-breathing snakes mounted by goddesses with serpent tongues – do you see the connection there? – pursue Horus and Bek. When the snakes first approach, one chooses to crash through some ruins when it could easily have gone around them. Destruction for destruction’s sake. Yay!

There are moments in the film that are quite humorous, particularly when the gods lose their cool. For instance, when Bek urges Horus to run faster during the snake pursuit, the god responds worriedly, “I can’t!” Even better: when Anubis discovers his underworld is under threat, the hitherto collected and eloquent god of death breaks into an “oh no!” performance that would make Scooby Doo proud.

Thankfully, the gods of Egypt aren’t above one liners. In the midst of battle, one enemy reminds Horus that he can no longer fly. “Neither can you,” he responds. You can guess the rest.

The juvenile way that the gods are portrayed also evokes a chuckle. For instance, when Horus visits his grandfather Ra’s solar ship (in outer space), we get a three minute reprieve during which Ra engages in his daily ritual of keeping a space-dwelling demon from destroying the earth. Here we have a top tier actor (Geoffrey Rush), wide-eyed and engulfed in digital flames, using a staff to shoot flame bursts at the gigantic creature.

But perhaps no god embodies the seventh grade mentality as well as Thoth, god of wisdom. To underscore his deep contemplations, he holds his hands behind his back and sometimes even holds a fist beneath his chin a la Rodin’s The Thinker. At one point, Thoth holds a bunch of leaf lettuce and mulls over “its essence, its mystery, its truth.” Horus rips it away and says, “It’s lettuce!”

So follow Horus’s example: don’t approach Gods of Egypt wearing your critic’s hat or seeking wisdom; just enjoy the crunchiness of a good action film. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Friday, 4 March 2016

Savages, by K.J. Parker (Subterranean Press) | review by Jacob Edwards

“The end of the world began with a goat…”

Savages, for want of better terminology, is a down-to-earth epic historical fantasy wherein a once-mighty empire hangs in the balance, its waning existence threatened by not-so-proverbial (in fact, ever-so-practical) barbarians at the gate. K.J. Parker threads together several storylines in exploring this scenario, primary of which are those of Raffen, a chieftain whose loss of identity affords him freedom to turn his hand to any craft; Calojan, an imperial general with a self-fulfilling reputation for invincibility; and Aimeric, a pacifist turned arms-maker and politician, upon whose wiles may rest not only the future of the city but also a watertight case for prosecution by cosmic irony. Parker avoids playing favourites, and so each player holds the reader’s sympathies in conjunction with the spotlight, this perspective switching subtly whenever one is placed in opposition to another. Such protagonistic ambiguity – a load-bearing device that feeds credence back into the narrative mechanism – is a feature of Parker’s novels, and allows the possible storylines to unfold without prejudice. Whatever happens will happen.

In truth, the course of any great event – even such that is studied for centuries afterward and which cruels the future for whole swathes of the population – is shaped not only by the actions of a select few but also by the blind impetus of the many, not to mention fickle and incalculable pieces of happenstance. Evidently, Parker is aware of such nuances and has tasked herself with turning up the specific nail in want of which the battle was lost (while furthermore digging deeper to the botched trade agreement behind the cranberry shortage from which sickened the child of the farrier who failed then properly to shoe the horse in question). That she can do this without losing the story’s thread – that her eye for the minutiae presents as a blessing, not a curse – speaks wonders for her authorial craftsmanship.

Far beyond any non-fantasy setting, K.J. Parker’s invented worlds are rendered with a faithful eye to the details of real life, their depiction easily outshining those primary accounts of Plutarch, Pliny, Polybius and the like. Whereas other writers – be they concerned with fact or fiction – tend overly to focus on one particular agenda, Parker clearly partakes of a fascination for the practicalities of history, and so concocts for us political intrigue and military operations that remain bound by societal, religious and economic constraints, written not just from the perspective of those who ruled or prevailed but rather from the varying points of view of everyone involved. We have in evidence moth-eaten shades of Rome (in decline), a sombre nod (and a wink) to Hannibal, horn-blown echoes of Alexander (a goat herder made good), and a veritable potpourri of lesser-known archetypes all adding their pungence to the sensory mix and bringing to life a tale well-grounded in history’s truths.

So with such fare on offer, what need now could we have of Appian or Arrian, Tacitus or Thucydides? Why ever would we keep doting on Herodotus, swatting up on Suetonius or paying even lip service to Livy? Why indeed. When K.J. Parker came into being – the dark alter ego of comedic novelist and erstwhile classical scholar Tom Holt – thousands of ancient historians must have thrown their copies of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire into the air and started dancing the Funky Gibbon (volume after volume) in rapturous peer review. Holt’s Parker persona is at once worldly and learned, curious yet cynical, from which outlook Savages emerges as a sardonic, slow-burning delight: an immersive page-turner wherein magic plays no part, the fate of empires turns on the veracity (or otherwise) of human endeavour and Parker sets a new high-water mark for authenticity in historical fantasy. Jacob Edwards

Slow Bullets, by Alastair Reynolds (Tachyon Publications) | review

There was a war between the Central Worlds and the Peripheral Systems, both of them fairly religious, and just as a peace was agreed Scurelya Timsuk Shunde, our narrator, is captured by a war criminal and taken to a bunker, where he injects her with a slow bullet, which’ll burrow through her body till it reaches her heart. She’s left to die, and probably will, and then she wakes up…

Now, I was glad to be able to read the book and be surprised by everything that came next, and if you want the full effect too then skip to the star rating and buy the book. If not…

She wakes up on a damaged skipship, with a tiny crew, which had been transporting soldiers from both sides of the war. They seem to have arrived, but the world below is unfamiliar, the waking passengers are beginning to riot, and Scurelya thinks she sees her torturer among them. What’s more, there is now an unfamiliar ship docked at the airlock. This is a very good novella, each step Scur takes teaching us something new, about her, the ship, the universe she lives in. Perhaps those revelations won’t all come as a surprise to existing fans of Alastair Reynolds’ work, but it hits the new reader all at once. The tension and mystery and thoughtfulness reminded me of Journey into Space, where Jet Morgan and his team would so often find themselves exploring an unfamiliar, curious spaceship with a dangerous occupant. The situation has no obvious answers, so the reader is led to think things through with Scur and the allies she begins to gather, and to see how culture can be borne out of necessity. Stephen Theaker ****