Friday, 3 July 2015

Book notes #7

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

Half a King (Audible), by Joe Abercrombie. Deposed boy king tries to survive on his wits. Good, especially in the way it reflects on whether fighting his way back to power benefits the country or just him. ***

Harley Quinn Vol. 1: Hot in the City (DC Comics), by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner. Ropey comic about the Joker’s girlfriend. Trying to be Deadpool or Hitman with added cheesecake, and doesn’t work. At the time of writing it’s only 50p or so on Kindle. I wouldn’t pay much more than that for it. **

Hellblazer: City of Demons (Vertigo), by Si Spencer and Sean Murphy. Very good miniseries about John Constantine’s half-demon blood being used to infect people in London. Excellent artwork. Would have loved a full run in this style. ****

Hellboy in Hell, Vol. 1: The Descent (Dark Horse Books), by Mike Mignola. Hellboy has been killed and gone to hell, where he wanders around and meets various demons, including (maybe) his dad. Gorgeous art, but it’s just the beginning of a story. ***

Hellboy, Vol. 2: Wake the Devil (Dark Horse Books) by Mike Mignola, James Sinclair and Pat Brosseau. Rasputin’s ghost gathers his followers to resurrect the vampire Giurescu, servant of Hecate, and in battling them all Hellboy finds out more about himself and the destiny others have in mind for him. Wonderful art and a great story. ****

How to Write Everything (Oberon Books), by David Quantick. Okay, with some good advice, but a bit thin, given how much experience he has. For example he says he’s written ten thousand reviews but only talks about it for half a page (and not all the advice is admirable: “If you are are going to make a review up, make it look convincing”). On interviewing, I got a lot more out of Jason Arnopp’s How to Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne and Everyone Else. ***

JLA, Vol. 1 (DC Comics) by Grant Morrison, Howard Porter, John Dell, Mark Millar, Oscar Jimenez, and many more. My favourite superhero comic of all time, I think. Grant Morrison gets such a great handle on all the big characters, while giving the outgoing cast an honourable, brave exit. Howard Porter’s artwork isn’t always anatomically perfect, but it’s always exciting, like a lightning bolt across the page. *****

Joe the Barbarian (Vertigo) by Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy. A boy with diabetes trying to survive a serious hypoglycaemic attack has visions of a fantasy world where his toys are alive and in great danger. This was pretty good, but I found it hard going. I love Dave Stewart’s colouring on the Hellboy books, but coupled with Sean Murphy’s art style it created panels that were really tough to figure out. We return to reality too often for the fantasy to take hold. Still, the cameos from toys looking a lot like Master Chief, the Transformers, GI Joe, etc were good fun, as were the authorised appearances from Batman, Superman, Robin and John Constantine. And how long has it been since Grant Morrison last wrote for the Zoids? ***

Lagoon (Hodder & Stoughton), by Nnedi Okorafor. Aliens land in the ocean off Lagos, and one of them comes out and takes human form. The city isn’t ready for them. Reviewed for Interzone #252. ****

Lobster Johnson, Vol. 1: Iron Prometheus (Dark Horse Books), by Mike Mignola, Jason Armstrong and Dave Stewart. A superhero fighting Nazi spies in a spin-off from Hellboy and the BPRD. ***

Lobster Johnson, Vol. 2: The Burning Hand (Dark Horse Books) by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Tonci Zonjic, Dave Stewart and Scott Allie. Lobster Johnson and his team must protect a journalist; gangsters have recruited supernatural assistance. Terrific art and a great story. ****

Lobster Johnson, Vol. 3: Satan Smells a Rat (Dark Horse Books) by Mike Mignola, Tonci Zonjic and Scott Allie. A collection of smashing short stories with Lobster Johnson battling supernatural spies, gangsters and gods in the thirties. I love that his in-fight banter is simply a series of curt ejaculations. ****

Friday, 26 June 2015

Book notes #6

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

Fear Itself (Marvel), by Matt Fraction and Stuart Immonen. An underwhelming crossover story. Odin has given up on Earth, but Thor and the Avengers think there is still hope. ***

G.I. Joe: Classics, Vol. 4 (IDW Publishing), by Larry Hama, Rod Whigham, Frank Springer, Mark Bright, Bob Camp and Rod Wigham. Collection of Marvel’s attempt to create decent comics based on the daft soldier toys. ***

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlepig (Beale-Williams Enterprise) by Tad Williams. A novella about an angel advocate trying to help out a werewolf client. ***

God’s War (Del Rey), by Kameron Hurley. Grimdark science fiction about an unlikeable mercenary and her gang. Nyx used to be a Bel Dame, sent by the government to take the heads of boys running away from the war, but now she’s freelance. Her world is one of strong religion and what seems to us like magic, where insect life is the basis for technology and wombs can be dropped off at organ banks to avoid putting them in any danger. It’s a bit of a grind, full of torture, misery, and characters who hate each other, but it was good. Reminded me of things like John Carpenter’s Escape from New York and Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley. A bit like 2000AD if it were written by John Brunner instead of Pat Mills & co. ***

Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God (PS Publishing), by Lavie Tidhar. Not, as a previous issue of this magazine had it, Gorel and the Pot-Bellied Pig! This is, as its subtitle tells us, a guns and sorcery novella. Gorel was “cast out of Goliris”, “exiled to the harsh lands of Lower Kidron”, where he makes his way as a hired hand, riding an insectoid Graal, hoping always to return home to avenge his family and punish his betrayers. In this story he encounters the froggish falang and the god they worship. This novella dates back to 2011, and ever since this review has glared balefully at me, even while I’ve reviewed several of the author’s other books. That was just because I read it quickly in amongst a bunch of other books, not because I didn’t enjoy it enough to write a review. Far from it: I thought this was terrific, and began a run of Tidhar’s books that have made him one of my favourite authors. It’s an extremely interesting book, reminding me of Elric in the way it attacks the conventions of the genre. You read it assuming that Gorel is a Conan-type hero, but as he does bad things it’s almost as if the author is saying, this is your hero? He’s a drug addict, injecting himself with gods’ dust, and he’s still your hero? What about when he does this? Or this?! How bad can a badass hero get before the reader stops admiring them? ****

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 1: Cosmic Avengers (Marvel) by Brian Michael Bendis, Steve McNiven, Sara Pichelli, Michael Avon Oeming and many others. This shows up as a 350pp book on Comixology, so I was expecting an epic in the style of DC’s three-issue crossover Invasion. Sadly not; most of it is a series of single panel guided view strips; the real story is only ninety pages or so. Lacks the verve of the Abnett and Lanning series, but the art is nice. ***

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 1: Legacy (Marvel), by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Paul Pelletier. Inspiration for the film, with a similar spark. Here the new Guardians assemble in the aftermath of a galactic crisis. ***

Monday, 22 June 2015

Jurassic World | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Record-breaking, bone-crunching, message-bearing MONSTER of a film.

“No one’s impressed by dinosaurs anymore.” So says marketing executive Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) of Jurassic World, a theme park dedicated to giving its visitors the ultimate dinosaur experience. Here visitors navigate glass-enclosed gyrospheres amid brontosauri and triceratops, or get splashed by a gigantic sea creature that eats a shark carcass as if it were a Skittle.

Claire’s statement reverberates powerfully in a society whose members are constantly hankering for the newest gadget, the biggest thrill, or, dare I say, the latest blockbuster film. How many of those who helped Jurassic World, directed by Colin Trevorrow, claw and tear its way past The Avengers (2012) to achieve the highest-grossing opening weekend ($208.8 million U.S.) of all time were lured by the preview featuring that aquatic colossus?

Sure, tons of advertising and the strength of three previous films propelled Jurassic World’s box office blitzkrieg, but that doesn’t discount the film for what it is: an action-packed adventure and, to the more perceptive, a cautionary tale regarding mankind’s unceasing craving to control nature. Jurassic World comments on the potential catastrophic results of our collective quest to get the biggest and the best. By the way, try to see it in IMAX and 3-D.

The Rex Big Thrill
Though the Jurassic World theme park has achieved a ninety-plus percent satisfaction rate, market research reveals its visitors are still looking for the next big thrill. Thus, the scientists in this sprawling, corporation-owned campus cook up a genetically modified badass of a dinosaur and give it a name wrought with fear (and marketability): Indominus rex! It’s bigger and badder than the T-rex. And just imagine that name stretched across a 64-ounce cup of soda!

Of course, Indominus rex escapes.

The rest of the film unfolds entertainingly, if unsurprisingly. When the creature escapes, Claire’s nephews get stuck in the park. So she runs to Navy vet Owen (Chris Pratt), a kind of dinosaur trainer stationed on the Jurassic World grounds. Together, the prudish Claire (she never takes off her heels) and the gruff, yet sensitive and sagely Owen—think Patrick Swayze—set out to save the nephews and thwart the beast. The special bond that Owen has developed with four velociraptors (the roving thugs of previous Jurassic Park films) will come into play. Make no mistake: these things are still capable of tearing off Owen’s or anyone else’s face.

Jurassic World’s taut story and jaw-dropping special effects make it a pleasure to watch. However, between the roars, the screams, and the crunching of bones, the film does whisper an important message.

It’s About Control
There is a scene about two-thirds into the film—I’m not giving anything major away here—in which a group of commandos approach the island via helicopter. One of them sees a pterodactyl flying peacefully alongside the chopper, blows it away, and then smirks. It’s a jarring scene, and it begs further exploration.

Perhaps the bearded gunman is best viewed in light of an earlier, more touching scene in which Claire and Owen comfort a dying brontosaurus. Owen, surveying a landscape littered with dinosaur corpses, makes a conclusion about the escaped Indominus rex: “She’s killing for sport.” Thus, this destructive creature, made by man, has adapted a very human trait. We need only to look to the barbarian in the helicopter to see it played out.

The theme of Jurassic World is best summarized by the word “control”, which comes up often. The scientists exercise a fallible control as they Frankenstein the ultimate dinosaur, while Claire controls her perception of the beast as a means to strengthen the bottom line.

However, nobody lives up to the control label more than the chief bad guy Hoskins, played by the ever-cocksure Vincent D’Onofrio. Hoskins, eager to prove his theory that dinosaurs can be the ultimate war machines, repeatedly butts heads with Owen. After the chaos is unleashed, Hoskins stands on a platform overlooking the park and gleefully observes the dinosaur mutiny. What better way to test Hoskins’s theory than with Owen’s foursome of velociraptors?

Knuckleheaded Love
The romantic tension between Claire and Owen—their one date didn’t work out—will appeal to the inevitable knucklehead who needs a side order of love with his or her blockbuster. Claire is the uptight, childless professional. Dressed in a pristine, almost virginal white blouse, skirt, and heels, Claire is the statistic-spouting moneymaker whose soul has been sucked out by the corporation. What better match than the motorcycle-riding Navy vet with a Tarzan-like connection with the beasts? A great pairing on the silver screen. A catastrophe in real life.

Meow Meow MONSTERS!
Dr. Henry Wu, Jurassic World’s unscrupulous lead scientist, says, “To a mouse, a cat is a monster. We’re just used to being the cats.” Perhaps this statement best explains Jurassic World’s strongest lure: MONSTERS!

The film exploits this fascination from the opening scene, which not only starts with the antagonist (typically a no-no), but also replaces the anticipated cute creature emerging from an egg with a menacing-looking black claw. With apocalyptic fiction all the rage, Jurassic World hatches at just the right time, perpetuating the man vs. nature mythos.

No one’s interested in dinosaurs? Au contraire. Jurassic World’s opening weekend has 208.8 million reasons to prove that we most certainly are. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Friday, 19 June 2015

Book notes #5

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

Doctor Who: Lights Out (Puffin), by Holly Black. The twelfth Doctor is buying coffee for Clara when another person in the queue falls down dead. Somehow manages to have a good handle on Peter Capaldi’s Doctor despite being written before his first full episodes were on. ***

Doctor Who: Something Borrowed (Puffin), by Richelle Mead. The sixth Doctor and Peri encounter an enemy, who is about to get married. Captures very well what came closest to being good about that period of the show. ***

Doctor Who: The Chains of Olympus (Panini UK Ltd), by Scott Gray, Mike Collins, Martin Geraghty, Dan McDaid. Eleventh Doctor adventures from Doctor Who Magazine. The Doctor meets the Greek gods. ***

Doctor Who: The Ripple Effect (Puffin), by Malorie Blackman. A nice little Doctor Who book. The seventh Doctor and Ace land on Skaro, centre of learning and peace, the Athens of space. Nice to read a Doctor Who book that is actually aimed at children. ***

Doctor Who: The Roots of Evil (Puffin) by Philip Reeve. The fourth Doctor and Leela land in a giant tree. That is a space station. That has been programmed to kill the Doctor. A neat premise, deftly handled. ***

Drunk with Blood – God’s Killings in the Bible (SAB Books), by Steve Wells. Eye-opening account of how many people get killed in the Bible, often for the silliest of reasons. At times you’d think it was the Master or Lex Luthor messing with history. The stuff in here makes the Red Wedding look like a pleasant family gathering. *****

Edison Rex, Vol. 1 (IDW Publishing) by Chris Roberson and Dennis Culver. This Lex Luthor type was right. His Superman was a dangerous alien with a hidden agenda, and Edison Rex managed to get rid of him. Now he wants to make the world a better place, but everyone still thinks he is a supervillain. A quick read. Text pages flesh it out a bit. ***

Edison Rex, Vol. 2: Heir Apparent (IDW Publishing) by Chris Roberson and Dennis Culver. Edison Rex is still trying to establish himself as a hero, but the former members of hero teams The Peacemakers and Teenpeace are suspicious, and he’s not keeping a close enough eye on his allies. Enjoyable, but a bit thin: of its 139 pages, 30 are single panels with white backgrounds of Edison talking to ROFL, this world’s Mister Mxyzptlk. ***

Fables, Vol. 16: Super Team (DC Comics) by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Terry Moore and Eric Shanower. Mister Dark attacks, and in response Pinocchio and Ozma create a super-team to fight him. Meanwhile the North Wind has resolved to kill one of the Big Bad Wolf’s children. This is the sixteenth book in the series, and I’ve only previously read the first couple, but it was easy enough to pick up. Good story, with excellent artwork. Shame about the repetitive borders on the main story, which take up a lot of screen space when reading it on a tablet. ***

Fantastic Four, Vol. 1: New Departure, New Arrivals (Marvel) by Matt Fraction, Mark Bagley and Mike Allred. Slightly muddled collection of two separate but related titles, as Reed Richards realises he is dying and takes the family off to find a cure – without telling them. Loved the pages with Mike Allred art. ***

Fatale, Vol. 1: Death Chases Me (Image Comics), by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Graphic novel written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Sean Phillips, who previously collaborated on several well-regarded crime comics. It is the story of Jo, an ageless, beautiful femme fatale (on double duty as this book’s McGuffin), and the men who enter her life. In the forties that was a US soldier, who has become by the fifties a corrupt, dying police officer who barely visits her any more, ashamed of his own ageing. Dominic Haines is a married journalist who meets her in the fifties. Nicolas Lash is Dominic’s inheritor, who discovers among his godfather’s papers an unpublished manuscript from 1957, “The Losing Side of Eternity”. But before he can read it weird guys with bowler hats, round glasses and guns pull up outside. “And I realised exactly how far out in the woods I actually was. And how far away the police would be.” Jo comes to the rescue (well, almost) and the convalescent Lash reads his godfather’s story, of black magic, cultists and Lovecraftian gods. Dave Stewart (presumably not the one with spiky headphones) does a wonderful job on colours, finding exactly the right tone. ****

Friday, 12 June 2015

Book notes #4

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

Captain Marvel, Vol. 1: In Pursuit of Flight (Marvel) by Kelly Sue DeConnick. Ms. Marvel aka Warbird aka Carol Danvers drops her swimsuit costume for a more practical outfit, adopts the name Captain Marvel, starts wearing her hair in an odd combover, and takes a flight in her idol’s aeroplane to try and beat a record. She gets thrown back in time and teams up with a band of grounded female pilots. The cover art led me astray: I expected art in the line of Frank Quitely, but it’s more like Dan Brereton. Good in itself, but not what I’d been looking forward to. Sending the character into the past at the beginning of a new series gives the impression of not knowing what to do with her in the present, but the feminism is welcome. The elephant in the room is that while Ms. Marvel is reluctant to take on the name of her predecessor, he nicked that name himself from the real Captain Marvel, the Big Red Cheese, Billy Batson. ***

Captain Ultimate (Monkeybrain) by Benjamin Bailey, Joey Esposito, Boy Akkerman and Ed Ryzowski. Amiable all-ages comic about an old-time superhero who returns to action at the behest of a little boy. I liked the way the Captain was depicted in old-fashioned four-colour dots, but apart from that it didn’t quite hit the spot for me. Likeable, but not quite funny enough. ***

Child of a Hidden Sea (Tor Books), by A.M. Dellamonica. Liked the book, loved the protagonist. A young woman is whisked off to a fantasy world that has the same moon as Earth, where magic works and her birth mother was part of a family of elite couriers. What I liked best was the way she’s keen to get photographs of the wildlife and things like that, and is careful to keep her camera charged. The idea of taking a solar powered charger to a fantasy world tickles me. Reviewed for Interzone #253. ***

Cloud Permutations (PS Publishing), by Lavie Tidhar. Terrific novella about a boy who wants to fly on a world where it isn’t allowed. ****

Criminal Macabre Omnibus, Vol. 1 (Dark Horse Books), by Steve Niles, Ben Templesmith and Kelley Jones. From the writer of 30 Days of Night. Cal McDonald is the American equivalent of John Constantine. He is drunker, druggier, more screwed-up, and prefers his friends dead to begin with so that they can’t get killed. Weird creatures seek him out and his job is usually to kill them. Stories involve ghouls, vampires, werewolves, a haunted car and a succubus. First half has impressionistic artwork by Ben Templesmith, and the second half has cartoonier art by Kelley Jones, which I think suits the OTT stories a bit better. ***

Deadpool Classic, Vol. 1 (Marvel) by Fabian Nicieza, Rob Liefeld, Mark Waid, Joe Kelly, Joe Madureira, Ian Churchill, Lee Weeks, Ken Lashley and Ed McGuinness. The early adventures of the mouthy mercenary, illustrated for the most part in ghastly Liefeldesque style. Marvel at its pre-Quesada worst. The book collects a pair of woeful four-issue miniseries which feature lots of shouting, contorted posing and bursting through walls, plus a couple of other issues. The final story, from the first issue of his monthly series, is an improvement. *

Doctor Who: Hunters of the Burning Stone (Panini UK Ltd), by Scott Gray, Martin Geraghty, Mike Collins. Eleventh Doctor adventures from the pages of Doctor Who Magazine. Sees the return of Ian and Barbara. ***

Doctor Who: Into the Nowhere (BBC Digital), by Jenny Colgan. Novella by Jenny Colgan about the eleventh Doctor and Clara, who end up on a rather nasty planet where skeletons have a tendency to rise up from the ground. An enjoyable little book, perfect for a rainy afternoon. Colgan captures the relationship of Clara and the Doctor rather well. Steven Moffat deliberately built lots of tie-in friendly gaps into their television adventures, so there’s plenty of scope for the two of them to travel together again. ***

Friday, 5 June 2015

Book notes #3

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

Bone and Jewel Creatures (Subterranean Press), by Elizabeth Bear. A superb novella about an elderly woman who takes in a feral child and fits it with a new arm made from jewels and the remains of its own original arm, while facing the challenge of an evil necromancer. It’s a Subterranean Press book, but the ebook was available at a very reasonable price via Weightless Books. ****

BPRD, Vol. 1: Hollow Earth and Other Stories (Dark Horse Comics), by Mike Mignola and friends. Collects one-shots and other stories about Abe Sapien and the other members of the BPRD, the organisation Hellboy works for. ***

BPRD, Vol. 2: The Soul of Venice and Other Stories (Dark Horse Comics), by Mike Mignola, Scott Allie, Michael Avon Oeming, Guy Davis and friends. More great stories about Hellboy’s friends and colleagues. ****

BPRD, Vol. 3: Plague of Frogs (Dark Horse Comics), by Mike Mignola, Guy Davis and Dave Stewart. The first BPRD volume to collect a single mini-series, this spins out from events in the first Hellboy book. I’d forgotten how much I loved Guy Davis’s art on Sandman Mystery Theatre; it’s brilliant here. ****

BPRD: Hell on Earth, Vol. 1: New World (Dark Horse Comics), by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Guy Davis and Dave Stewart. Some time after the events that began in Plague of Frogs reached their conclusion, the BPRD are working for the UN and investigating the matters the UN wants investigating. Abe Sapien heads off to the woods and encounters an old friend and a demon baby and its giant-sized twin. I enjoyed this a lot. I really like Abe, more even than Hellboy. ****

BPRD: Vampire (Dark Horse Comics), by Mike Mignola and Scott Allie. A member of BPRD has had a pair of vampire souls trapped within him (I think) and he wants to find out more about the creatures. I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, but it looked terrific. I’ll probably need to re-read all these Hellboy books and spin-offs in order once I have them all. ***

Bravest Warriors, Vol. 1 (KaBOOM!), by Joey Comeau, Mike Holmes, Pendleton Ward and Ryan Pequin. Based on the new science fiction cartoon from the creator of Adventure Time, and just as much fun. ****

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8, Vol. 6: Retreat (Dark Horse Books), by Jane Espenson, Georges Jeanty and Joss Whedon. I can’t hate any Buffy comic, but didn’t enjoy this as much as hoped. ***

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8, Vol. 7: Twilight (Dark Horse Books), by Brad Meltzer, Georges Jeanty and Joss Whedon. The series gets a bit wobbly. **

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8, Vol. 8: Last Gleaming (Dark Horse Books), by Joss Whedon, Georges Jeanty and Scott Allie. A disappointing end to a series that had begun so promisingly. ***

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 9, Vol. 1: Freefall (Dark Horse Books), by Joss Whedon, Andrew Chambliss, Georges Jeanty and Karl Moline. An improvement on Season 8, which by the end I’d gone off so much that I would never have bought this if the Kindle edition hadn’t been on sale. ***

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 9, Vol. 2: On Your Own (Dark Horse Books), by Andrew Chambliss, Scott Allie, Georges Jeanty and Cliff Richards. Feels more like a continuation of the TV series. ****

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 9, Vol. 3: Guarded (Dark Horse Books), by Andrew Chambliss, Jane Espenson, Drew Z. Greenberg, Georges Jeanty, Karl Moline and Joss Whedon. Buffy has a go at being a bodyguard, but can she put work before her true calling? Enjoyable but the emphasis on how easy the zompires (zombie vampires, created after Buffy’s world was sealed off from magic) are to kill is making them feel like a negligible threat. ***

Captain America, Vol. 1: Castaway in Dimension Z (Marvel) by Rick Remender, John Romita Jr, Klaus Janson, Tom Palmer, Scott Hanna, Dean White, Lee Loughridge and Dan Brown. A thrilling book where Captain America is taken to another dimension for a lengthy stay, a dimension of monsters ruled by Arnim Zola and his horrible experiments. The spirit of Kirby is strong in this one. ****

Monday, 1 June 2015

Poltergeist | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Rockwell’s performance shines in otherwise blasé remake

Advertisements for the Poltergeist remake feature a malicious-looking clown, a black background, and the hashtag #WhatAreYouAfraidOf. It looks scary, and it’s a smart way to link one of the most enduring images from the 1982 original with contemporary lingo. Too bad strong ads aren’t predictors of strong films.

The first Poltergeist was a big deal. The supernatural extravaganza struck fear into the hearts of kids and paved the way for many horror films. The 2015 rehash offers a similar storyline embellished with a few technological adornments (to show it’s contemporary): a teen texting, iPads, a video drumming game, and even a droid.

Sadly, Poltergeist’s resurrection, despite its respect for the original and a competent performance by male lead Sam Rockwell, comes up a bit flimsy. This one isn’t going to make it onto many people’s #WhatAreYouAfraidOf list, especially when it’s compared to recent haunted house films like Paranormal Activity (2007), Insidious (2010), The Conjuring (2013), and The Babadook (2014). Even the hyped up clown plays a minuscule role and the preview gives away its chief scare.

After getting laid off, Eric Bowen moves his family to a more affordable Illinois suburb. Unfortunately, the foreclosure-ridden neighborhood sits atop a former Indian burial ground. As the family attempts to settle in, strange things start happening… with toys, trees, electricity, and appliances. Then, you know the words. Come on… sing along! The supernatural entities get angrier, the threats increase, the paranormal investigators show, the family members undertake heroic efforts to save their loved ones. There’s the weird little boy, the ball moving on its own, and the stay-at-home mom who has it in her to be a great artist (in this case it’s a writer) if only she wasn’t tied down by her kids.

The only novel technique this film employs involves flying a drone through the house and into the transdimensional portal. However, it doesn’t really add anything to the film.

Most of the film’s attempts at humour fall short. I hoped that Jared Harris’s take on TV celebrity/spiritual medium Carrigan Burke would transcend the norm. Alas, plopping an Irish accent on what has become a cookie cutter paranormal investigator doesn’t do the trick. One relationship that could have been played up was that between Burke and his nerdy but endearing ex-wife Dr Brooke Powell. The film’s funniest scene involves a minor character: a young investigator who loses his drill on the other side of the closet wall as he tries to install a monitoring device. When the spirits on the other side use the young man’s drill to “screw” with him, it’s hard to keep from laughing.

All’s Well with Rockwell
Sam Rockwell all but carries this film. In a genre in which the male lead is often unmemorable at best, Rockwell injects verve and individuality into a character who would be easily forgotten in less capable hands. Eric Bowen, victim of the corporate juggernaut, is down-to-earth and humorous, yet flawed… the kind of guy you’d like as your next-door neighbour. Bowen gives his kids high fives, plays with his wife, eats chicken nugget covered pizza, talks while chewing, and pretends he’s getting attacked by a killer squirrel. When the tears well as Bowen says all he wants is for his daughter’s safe return, Rockwell is, despite the absurdity of the situation, believable. That’s the sign of a good actor.

It’s entertaining to watch Bowen’s spendthrift leanings exacerbate the guilt he feels for his inability to be a provider. One night, he comes home with gifts for each family member. In one of the film’s most compelling scenes, Bowen tries to make light of the situation when his credit cards don’t work at a home improvement store.

One could argue that this film would have been much more interesting if all the supernatural hocus pocus were stripped away and instead it tightened the focus on the familial and financial challenges of this character.  

Frightening Doesn’t Strike Twice
Ultimately, this movie suffers from the requirement that it must pay homage to a film that made an impact thirty years ago. As time passes, social norms change. What was scary thirty years ago isn’t scary today.

One need look no further than the film’s most recognized line (“They’re here…”) to see the degradation that has occurred. The original Carol Anne’s utterance is cautionary, yet playful. Carol Anne’s 21st century reincarnation Madison treats the line in a way that’s best described as dispassionate.

Maybe, for this one, the spirit of the original is best left at rest. – Douglas J. Ogurek ***

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 *****