Wednesday, 7 December 2016
The events of X-Men: Days of Future Past have changed the timeline, and everyone now knows about mutants. Mystique is a hero to her kind, a civil rights leader who runs an underground railroad to help the less fortunate among them, such as Nightcrawler, forced to fight in a cage match against a very angry Angel. Back in Westchester, Professor Xavier has got his school for the gifted up and running, and when Magneto resurfaces, recruited by Apocalypse during a vulnerable moment, Mystique goes to Xavier for help. Cyclops and Jean Gray are already there, learning to control their powers, and Quicksilver is on his way – he also wants to find Magneto, albeit for different reasons. It’ll take the lot of them to cope with Apocalypse, an ancient body-swapping, power-collecting mutant who has just escaped from his underground prison of thousands of years. He’s a tough cookie and he can be very persuasive. It is time for the X-Men to go into action for the very first time all over again, and that is part of this film’s joy, to see a team very close to that of the Claremont/Byrne years of the comic in action: Cyclops, Jean Gray, Beast, Nightcrawler, Professor Xavier and even Storm, though she’s on the wrong side for much of the film, Apocalypse having found her in this timeline in Cairo before Xavier got around to it. It’s great to see them together, and that contributes to this feeling like the most X-Meny of the X-Men films yet. X2: X-Men United may have been a better film overall, but it felt like a science fiction film based on the idea of the X-Men whereas this feels like the X-Men. The melodrama, the humour, the flips from one side to the other, the bravery and tragedy: it’s all here. Once again Quicksilver comes close to stealing the film. Psylocke is introduced, but her complicated backstory is perhaps wisely left to one side, so there’s no sign of her brother Captain Britain, sadly. Another much-loved character makes an extremely violent five-minute cameo that may leave parents wondering whether it was wise to bring children to the film, as well as wondering how it ties up with the conclusion of the previous film – but continuity has never really been a concern of these films. See how badly the end of The Wolverine lines up with the beginning of Days of Future Past, or the constant recasting of any character not played by Hugh Jackman. By this ninth film in the series, including all spin-offs, that discontinuity must be taken as read. Let’s just assume there are changes to the timeline going on constantly in this movie universe, not just those we see on screen. It’s not perfect by any means – the tears over the lost cast of X-Men: First Class seem insincere given the film-maker’s decision to give them the boot. The post-credits scene is a colossal letdown, leaving the cinema audience audibly deflated (ironic for a film that credits its inflatable audience wranglers). But overall it was probably my favourite X-Men film yet. It rounds off this prequel trilogy nicely, James McAvoy being especially fantastic as Professor Xavier, while setting things up very well for what could be a new set of films featuring the classic line-up in their youth. I’m looking forward to the next film much more than I was looking forward to this one. ***
I didn’t think that any film this year would stack up to 10 Cloverfield Lane. So much for that. Arrival offers another strong female lead in an equally gripping sci-fi masterpiece.
The latter film, directed by Denis Villeneuve, in many ways transcends its genre to become, in this reviewer’s opinion, an Oscar contender. Inherent in the title is the film’s big idea. This isn’t an Independence Day or War of the Worlds alien invasion action film. It’s merely an arrival of extraterrestrial vessels, and protagonist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) must decode the aliens’ language.
Skilful in its audio and visual manoeuvrings, Arrival plays with our perceptions of language and time, and challenges our tech-driven migration toward impulsive behaviour. The film leaves the patient viewer processing its implications long after the credits roll. It even gets into Tennyson’s “Tis better to have loved and lost” bit.
Adams, along with supporting cast Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, offers a strong performance. All three actors let the film’s innovative premise and underlying mystery, rather than their characters, take centre stage.
The opening scene reveals that Dr Banks experiences a major loss. At the university where she teaches linguistics, she discovers that twelve alien craft have touched down at various points across the Earth. Colonel Weber (Whitaker) recruits Banks (the language expert) and theoretical physicist Dr Ian Donnelly (Renner, the scientist), then brings them to the Montana field over which the North American alien contingent hovers. Weber wants the duo to get into the ship and figure out why the visitors are here and what they want. This objective drives the remainder of the film, which builds to a Shyamalan-like climax that packs an emotional wallop.
Strong Connection with the Protagonist
The filmmakers’ tight focus on Banks keeps the viewer in tune with her feelings. One example is her reaction to the news of the arrival. She (and we) learn of the event not by seeing giant spaceships approaching, but rather via a news report in her quiet and mostly vacant classroom. A student asks her to turn on the TV. Although we hear what the reporter says, the camera focuses on Banks. As the shock registers on her face, we’re right there with her. And isn’t that how it would happen? We’re going about our business, oblivious to the outside, and then… we find out.
The viewer/protagonist connection continues the first time Banks enters the UFO and absorbs her reality. She struggles for breath in her oxygen mask and gazes up a dark passage that leads to a light source. You feel her uncertainty, her trepidation.
The tension carries over to the coal mine-like chamber in which the humans and aliens interact. A bird’s echoing chirps – the bird confirms oxygen levels – create a jarring sensation as Banks and Donnelly first approach the bright transparent screen that separates them from the aliens.
Language Twisting and Time Bending
Many films offer sleek alien craft and creatures that resemble octopuses – this film refers to them as “heptapods” (and Abbott and Costello) – but rarely are these conventions used in such a thematically inventive way.
The film’s first major theme is language and, more broadly, communication. While Banks and Donnelly race to translate the aliens’ complex symbols, some other countries elect to communicate with the visitors via games. Banks points out the flaw in this strategy: games have winners and losers. This human winner/loser or good/bad mentality takes root in certain individuals and nations that have a trigger-happy attitude toward the aliens. It’s sad to think that some people would actually think the Earth would stand a chance: if aliens figure out how to get here, then they’re more advanced than us.
The circular shape of the aliens’ symbols ties into the film’s other major theme: time. We’re accustomed to thinking of time as linear. Arrival, applying that circular concept to its structure, trounces on that tendency and challenges us to see the bigger picture.
Language and time also played a role in my coming to understand this film. Admittedly, my wife and I didn’t quite grasp the full meaning of what happened right away, but we discussed it – you could say we circled around it – for 45 minutes. Gradually, the pieces came together. And the tool that we used to achieve our arrival? Language. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****
Monday, 5 December 2016
How a Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by a Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog, by Johann Peter Hebel (Penguin Classics) | review
Thursday, 1 December 2016
- You didn't do a chapter plan. This always works very well for you, so why didn't you do it this time? I suspect it's because you knew it would be hard because you didn't have a plot. You knew what the book was going to be about, what its theme would be, but you didn't think about what would actually happen from one chapter to the next. Next time plan the whole thing from start to finish, at least vaguely.
- You did that thing again, that you do every time, where you begin the novel with a character on their own, with no one to talk to, in a featureless location where nothing is happening! In 2017 start your book with twenty people having an argument in a ghost house or something.
- You tried to write a novel based on stuff that you were still quite fed up about, so whenever you tried to think about the novel you just got fed up about the thing you were fed up about, all over again. That didn't work. Don't do it next time.
- You refused to relinquish the hour or so you spend watching tv each evening with your lovely lady wife. Yes, it's been great for your relationship over the last twenty years to have that time together each evening, drinking hot chocolate and laughing, crying, etc depending on the show, but if that had been sacrificed you'd have had another 30 hours or so to write your novel. And it only takes you about 50 hours to write your stupid little novels.
- You forgot how much your own books make you laugh. Yes, they're terrible, but you should have had a read of one before this month started to remind yourself how hilarious you (if no one else) find them, to encourage you to write another, for your own entertainment if no one else's.
- Your protagonist and your antagonist were the wrong way around. Yes, you wanted to write a novel about someone making a lot of bad decisions leading to a galactic disaster, but wouldn't you have found it much easier to write about the adventures of the chap being put in a series of tight spots by those bad decisions? There's a reason Spider-Man is the star of the comic book rather than J. Jonah Jameson.
- You made the classic error of planning to write less Monday to Friday and more over the weekends. November is birthday season! You aren't writing more at the weekends. You're struggling to write anything! In 2017, stick to the plan: 1666 words a day, every day.
Well, Stephen of 2017, I hope you take all of that on board, and do a better job than you did this time. I have my doubts, given that this year you didn't read any of the brilliant advice I left for me in previous years…
Wednesday, 30 November 2016
Star Trek: Gold Key Archives, Vol. 1, by Dick Wood, Alberto Giolitti and Nevio Zeccara (IDW Publishing) | review by Stephen Theaker
Monday, 28 November 2016
- Five Forgotten Stories, John Hall
- His Nerves Extruded, Stephen Theaker
- Pilgrims at the White Horizon, Michael Wyndham Thomas
- Professor Challenger in Space, Stephen Theaker
- Quiet, the Tin Can Brains Are Hunting! Stephen Theaker
- Space University Trent: Hyperparasite, Walt Brunston
- The Day the Moon Wept Blood, Stephen Theaker
- The Doom That Came to Sea Base Delta, Stephen Theaker
- The Fear Man, Stephen Theaker
- The Mercury Annual, Michael Wyndham Thomas
Snap them up!
Saturday, 26 November 2016
Wednesday, 23 November 2016
Star Trek, Vol. 1, by Mike Johnson, Stephen Molnar and Joe Phillips (IDW Publishing) | review by Stephen Theaker
Monday, 21 November 2016
Friday, 18 November 2016
Full disclosure: I am not a comic book nerd, and I knew nothing about Doctor Strange before seeing the latest Marvel blockbuster that bears his name. I am, however, quite familiar with the acting talents of Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. So it was with great enthusiasm that I anticipated this superhero origin film. The wait paid off.
Doctor Strange, directed by Scott Derrickson, takes to the next level the twisted cityscapes of Inception (2010) while detailing the collapse and reinvention of a gifted a-hole who loses sight of his own capacity for error. As the protagonist undertakes a journey both physical and spiritual, the themes that emerge include Western versus Eastern values and black-and-white thinking versus contextualism.
He Had It Coming
Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a god of Western medicine, a highly demanded neurosurgeon with smooth hands and a photographic memory. He is precise, calm, brilliant, and in control. However, Strange is also a cold-hearted narcissist. He puts down those who question him and turns down patients if helping them won’t bring him recognition. He treats
on-again, off-again love interest and fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) like a pair of latex gloves. He’s also a slave to time because he wants to solidify his name in the annals of medical history.
Then Strange gets in a horrible car accident that ruins his steady hands. On the advice of a fellow who miraculously recovered from a spinal injury, Strange heads to Katmandu, Nepal. He wants to get his hands fixed and get back into the brain game ASAP. He ends up in Kamar-Taj, where Mordor (Ejiofor) introduces him to The Ancient One (Swinton) and her followers, a secretive philosophical warrior group that uses “the mystic arts” to protect the world.
Strange gets sucked into the group’s effort to stop The Ancient One’s wayward protégé Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) from destroying the Earth. Kaecilius has formed an alliance with Dark Dimension ruler Dormammu, who sees the Earth as a trophy in his quest to take over the multiverse. In exchange for eternal life, Kaecilius helps Dormammu.
True to Marvel form, there’s some comic relief. For instance, Strange repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempts to get super-serious librarian Wong to laugh. “Wong?” he asks. “Just Wong? Like Adele?” Then there’s the temperamental Cloak of Levitation that Strange encounters. It tugs Strange around like a child and flaps and twists as it cartoonishly dispatches an enemy.
Surely the most enigmatic character in this film is The Ancient One. When Stephen “I do not believe in fairy tales” Strange first encounters her, he’s skeptical of her Eastern approach. He’s seen her spiritual body charts in “gift shops”.
The Ancient One, slow to anger, finds his insults amusing and quickly shows him her capabilities. What makes The Ancient One so captivating is her contextual approach to problems. She’s prone to ask herself what
makes the most sense in a given situation to best serve the greater good. Thus, The Ancient One bends entire cities, but she also bends the rules. Strange eventually sums her up well: “She’s complicated.” Her way of thinking will play a key role in this story and in Strange’s transformation.
In a brilliant reversal, the filmmakers give a nod to The Ancient One’s philosophy by casting a female in a role traditionally depicted by a male.
Change Is Good
During a physical therapy session, Strange contemptuously refers to his therapist as “Bachelor’s Degree”. This is the kind of guy we want to watch! We can’t necessarily relate to a neurosurgeon, but we can relate to selfish behaviour.
Doctor Strange is, at its core, a study in overcoming closedmindedness. “You cannot beat a river into submission,” says The Ancient One. “You have to surrender to its current and use its power as your own.”
Strange’s fall is a big one, and Cumberbatch effectively welcomes the viewer to the protagonist’s journey. The character’s shaking hands and his unyielding determination help achieve viewer empathy; it’s a pleasure to go on this journey with him. You want him to grow, and you want to grow with him. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****
Wednesday, 16 November 2016
Monday, 14 November 2016
Wednesday, 9 November 2016
The Zombies That Ate the World, Vol. 1: An Unbearable Smell! by Jerry Frissen and Guy Davis (Humanoids) | review by Stephen Theaker
Monday, 7 November 2016
This Halloween season, horror film fans had slim pickings at the theatre. And I wouldn’t be surprised if, like me, they felt disappointed when they learned about the season’s feature offering: Ouija: Origin of Evil.
Last year, Ouija had a few scares, but overall, it wasn’t memorable. Thus, one would think that when filmmakers questioned whether they should do another one, surely the planchette would slide to “no”. But that wasn’t the case. A new writer/director (Mike Flanagan) and co-writer (Jeff Howard) came on board – pun intended – and, surprisingly, they pulled off a much better film.
Ouija: Origin of Evil doesn’t offer much that the horror aficionado hasn’t seen before. However, this story of a Hasbro classic gone haywire effectively uses the tools at its disposal, offering an intimate and creepy take, replete with nerve-wracking scenes and jump scares, on how the game wreaks havoc on a small family living in 1960s Los Angeles.
Alice Zander and daughters Lina and Doris use rigged séances not so much as a money-making scheme, but rather as a means of bringing solace to those who’ve lost loved ones. Then they add a Ouija board to spice up their routine. Things get dicey when a spirit starts communicating with youngest daughter Doris via the board. Is it deceased husband/father Roger, or is it something more malicious? Father Tom Hogan, the priest/headmaster at the girls’ school, gets involved and the spiritual threat intensifies.
The Ouija rules are simple: 1) never play alone; 2) never play in a graveyard; and 3) always say goodbye. But if you’re going to show rules in a movie, you better break them! And Ouija: Origin of Evil does.
The characters in Ouija: Origin of Evil are more fully developed than those in Ouija. Widow Alice struggles to make ends meet, yet she genuinely wants to use her machinations to help people. She even declines payment from a client who nearly has a heart attack. Teenager Lina is bright and well-behaved, but her interest in classmate Mikey gets jeopardized by all the spiritual mischief going on. Yet it’s young Doris, bullied by her classmates, who undergoes the biggest change under the spell of the spirits. Watch for a particularly satisfying scene in which one of Doris’s tormentors gets a taste of his own medicine. In another scene, Doris asks Mikey if he wants “to hear something cool”, then proceeds to describe in intricate detail what it feels like to be strangled.
Flanagan and company use several techniques to jiggle the nerves. For instance, when the camera lingers on ordinary objects, one cringes with uncertainty: will something pop onto the screen? In the opening scene, the only sound that fills the séance parlour is that of the clock. Done before, but still effective.
Still, nothing jacks up the heart rate more than when a character peers through the planchette’s glass opening, which helps identify any spiritual entities that might be present. As the panning camera shows a warped view of a room, there’s always the chance that something will appear. It’s intense!
The fear potency gets stronger with a host of other horror film tricks: ceiling walking, wall crawling, milky eyes, impossible facial contortions, and getting yanked around by unseen entities.
Ouija: Origin of Evil may not have broken new ground in the horror genre, but it did entertain consistently. In an age of Candy Crush Saga, Minecraft, and other smartphone games, it’s refreshing to see people come together around a board game-inspired film for some good old-fashioned scares. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****
Wednesday, 2 November 2016
Marshals, Book 1: Darkness and Light, by Dennis-Pierre Filippi and Jean-Florian Tello (Humanoids) | review by Stephen Theaker
Monday, 31 October 2016
Friday, 28 October 2016
Y: The Last Man, Vol. 4: Safeword, by Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, Goran Parlov, and José Marzań, Jr (Vertigo) | review by Stephen Theaker
Wednesday, 26 October 2016
The Hounds of Hell, Book 1: The Eagle’s Companions, by Philippe Thirault and Christian Højgaard (Humanoids) | review by Stephen Theaker