Saxon Bullock

Writer, Journalist, Copy-Editor and Proofreader

Tag: science fiction (page 2 of 6)

Comics Review: The DC New 52, Week 4 – Batman, Birds of Prey, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Catwoman, DC Universe Presents, Green Lantern Corps, Legion of Superheroes, Nightwing, Red Hood and the Outlaws, Supergirl, Wonder Woman

Reviewer: Saxon Bullock (aka @saxonb)

Batman 1 cover art Greg Capullo DC New 52BATMAN issue 1
Writer:
  Scott Snyder ~ Artists: Greg Capullo and Jonathan Glapion ~ Price: $2.99 ~

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Scott Snyder is turning into one of the major stars of the relaunch – he’s been assigned to two of the highest profile titles, and after the success of Swamp Thing, he’s scored another slam dunk here. Considered as the more ‘superhero’ aimed Batman title (in contrast to the grittier-slanted Detective Comics), Batman issue 1 is a cracking piece of comics storytelling that does everything you’d want from a first issue, bringing the reader up to date with the current status quo while also throwing in some fantastic narrative curveballs. With plenty of ideas on show and a likeable, engaging storytelling style, Snyder has this under control from page 1, utilising exactly the right level of atmosphere, delivering some great dialogue and building everything up to an effective cliffhanger. On top of this, there’s Greg Capullo’s art (with Jonathan Glapion on inks) which pulls of a nice mix of cartoonishness and atmosphere that avoids too many current superhero visual cliches, giving us some great moments (including the gorgeous Batcave double-splash page). Packing in plenty of value, this sets the flagship Batman title off at a brisk run, and looks to be one of the strongest comics in the New DC 52 line up.

Birds of Prey 1 cover art DC New 52BIRDS OF PREY issue 1
Writer:
  Duane Swierczynski ~ Artist: Jesus Saiz ~ Price: $2.99

Rating: ★★½☆☆ 

Really? Birds of Prey without Oracle, or their long-time writer Gail Simone? The long-running title where Barbara Gordon spent most of her time as info-tech jockey Oracle is relaunched here (only just over a year after the last relaunch), and while Swierczynski packs in some characterful moments and good setpieces, this is a long way from being either distinctive or interesting. Admittedly, it is a women-centric DC comic that isn’t jaw-droppingly exploitative (which, in the week of Catwoman issue 1, is a definite good thing), but while there’s some enjoyable banter it isn’t like we get to know either of our two main characters that well, while Jesus Saiz’s artwork is a little stiff and lifeless at times (especially in a couple of the action sequences). Leading up to a cliffhanger that acts as the working definition of ‘out of nowhere’, Birds of Prey feels like a title that’s in need of a distinctive identity if it isn’t going to end up feeling a little on the mediocre side.

Blue Beetle 1 cover art DC New 52BLUE BEETLE issue 1
Writer:
  Tony Bedard ~ Artists: Ig Guara and Ruy Jose ~ Price: $2.99 ~

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

One of the few ‘legacy’ superhero characters who hasn’t ended up killed off so that they can be replaced by their older (supposedly ‘better known’ predecessor), Mexican kid Jaime Reyes has made it into the DC New 52, athough the story of the Blue Beetle gets a fairly big revamp here. Now, the powerful alien scarab that Jaime inherits is a dangerously lethal war machine, and there are some clues that this take on the series is going to be a little harder edged than DC’s previous Blue Beetle offerings. There aren’t many surprises here, but Bedard does a good job of getting everything in place and making Jaime an engaging protagonist, while we also get a couple of intriguing continuity nods (especially the fact that eccentric supervillains The Brain and Monsieur Mallah (a brain in a jar, and a communist talking gorilla with a french accent) are alive and well in the New DC universe. It’s good to see such a likeable and enjoyable teen comic getting another lease of life, and so far Blue Beetle is looking to be one of the better of DC’s sub-family of ‘Young Justice’ comics.

Captain Atom 1 DC New 52 cover artCAPTAIN ATOM issue 1
Writer:
  J T Krul ~ Artist: Freddie Williams II ~ Price: $2.99

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

One of the many DC comics that had me thinking “Why would I want to read a comic featuring that character?”, Captain Atom doesn’t really succeed in coming up with any particularly convincing answers to that question. Of course, the thing that’s interesting about Captain Atom is that he’s a character originally published by Charlton Comics, and who was used as the loose basis/inspiration for the god-like Dr Manhattan in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and it looks like the story is certainly heading in a direction that’ll be exploring pushing Captain Atom’s powers in a more deliberately cosmic direction. The art from Freddie Williams II is wild and energetic, especially when it comes to depicting the title character, and there’s several intriguing moments, but the issue doesn’t come together, and there’s several pages that seem to wander into complete bizarreness without any warning whatsoever. There’s a certain amount of ambition on show here, but this needs a bit more focus – and heaven only knows what any brand new readers would make of all this…

Catwoman 1 Guillem March cover art DC New 52CATWOMAN issue 1
Writer:  Judd Winick ~ Artist: Guillem March ~ Price: $2.99

Rating: ★½☆☆☆ 

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. The issue that essentially set the internet on fire (resulting in articles like this very astute analysis from Comics Alliance’s Laura Hudson) is a working example of how cranking the lever marked ‘Sexy’ up to eleven sometimes isn’t the wisest move. There’s been lots of chatter online recently about superhero comics and their general approach to female characters as well as female writer/artists, and I was never really expecting this first issue of Catwoman to be a particularly progressive example (the cover pretty much tells you exactly what kind of audience they’re going for). Plus, with a writer like Judd Winick and especially an artist like Guillem March, subtlety was definitely off the menu, but even so I wasn’t expecting something quite so leery and exploitative, even for the remarkably broad standards of a Catwoman comic. Somewhere behind the insane number of cleavage and bra shots, there’s the vague potential for a decent attempt at setting up Selina Kyle’s character in the course of one issue, but it’s pretty thin stuff, and the emphasis is so strongly on softcore titilation that the effect is pretty ridiculous. And that’s even before we get to the end of the issue, where (SPOILER WARNING) Catwoman and Batman spend multiple pages engaging in some incredibly ludicrous sex, while still keeping their costumes ‘mostly’ on. Laughable and horribly adolescent, this is the kind of comic that clearly states that yes, female superheroes can be confidant and wildly sexy as long as they flash their bra at least three times an issue – and it’s not even the worst of DC’s female character excesses this week…

DC Universe Presents 1 cover art DC New 52DC UNIVERSE PRESENTS issue 1
Writer:
  Paul Jenkins ~ Artist: Bernard Chang ~ Price: $2.99

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

What’s planned as a series of stories spotlighting the smaller characters in the world of the DC Universe gets off to a promising start with this look at Boston Brand, aka Deadman, a circus daredevil turned unwilling spirit who now has to help others in the hope of rebalancing his karma. One of the more significant resets in the new DC U (wiping out all the recent shenanigans which involved Brand being resurrected in the pages of Brightest Day), this is an engaging old-school take on Deadman which manages to be characterful and engaging, as well as packing in plenty of material. Giving a nicely supernatural edge to the DC Universe, it’ll be interesting to see how this title evolves, but so far writer Paul Jenkins is aiming in some promising directions.

Green Lantern Corps 1 cover art Doug Mankhe Christian Almy DC New 52GREEN LANTERN CORPS issue 1
Writer:
  Peter J. Tomasi ~ Artists: Fernando Pasarin and Scott Hanna ~ Price: $2.99

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

The Green Lantern franchise juggernaut continues, as the title which up until now has been ‘everyone except Hal Jordan’ gets a relaunch, setting up the new status quo with Lanterns Guy Gardner and Jon Stewart. While there’s a certain level of bewilderment in the level of detail, making this not the most friendly of the issue 1s, this does at least feel like a genuine attempt to bring the audience up to speed, and certainly feels much more like an actual fresh start than last week’s Green Lantern did. Of course, there’s still the usual mix of melodrama, heroics, weird space opera and over-the-top violence, while the end-of-issue cliffhanger is a little clunky, but this is at the least a fine new start for one of DC’s most popular titles.

Legion of Super-heroes issue 1 Cover Art DC New 52LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES issue 1
Writer:
  Paul Levitz ~ Artist: Francis Portela ~ Price: $2.99

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ 

Last week’s Legion Lost was fun, if a little on the flawed side, and at least managed to be relatively intriguing for someone who knew nothing about the Legion of Super-Heroes. This week’s Legion-related outing is, on the other hand, a borderline incomprehensible mess that makes virtually no concessions to any new readers. Yes, there are captions that introduce the characters, but I lost count by the time we reached what felt like character introduction no. 15, and at no point do we get any idea of what the setup is, what everybody’s relationships are, or even what the Legion of Superheroes actually does. There is action. Things blow up. Lots of things are shouted. There’s a completely bewildering cliffhanger. For regular Legion readers, this probably all makes sense – but the whole point of this relaunch was to welcome in new readers, and this issue 1 is likelier to make them want to hurl the comic across the room.

Nightwing 1 cover art DC New 52NIGHTWING issue 1
Writer:
  Kyle Higgins ~ Artists: Eddie Barrows and J P Mayer ~ Price: $2.99

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

After his stint as Batman, Dick Grayson is back in the costume as Nightwing – with a new, slightly more Red ensemble – and what we have here is one of DC’s best traditional superhero books so far. Giving us a characterful reintroduction to Nightwing’s world, writer Kyle Higgins does a much better job here than on Deathstroke in giving us a protagonist we actually care about, while giving the dialogue plenty of spark and energy. On the story alone, this would be a fun and engaging start – what lifts it further is the art from Eddie Barrows and J P Mayer, which gives the book a cinematic style and impact, but also uses some imaginative panel layouts to give the story its own distinctive visual identity. This is old-school superhero action, but pulled off with a considerable amount of class and style.

Red Hood and the Outlaws 1 cover art DC New 52RED HOOD AND THE OUTLAWS issue 1
Writer:
  Scott Lobdell ~ Artist: Kenneth Rocafort ~ Price: $2.99

Rating: ★½☆☆☆ 

And then, of course, we get to the other point of contention this week. For about 50% of the time, Red Hood and the Outlaws (featuring ex-Robin turned criminal/mercenary Jason Todd, aka the Red Hood) is a dumb but energetic action comic that’s firmly aimed at the audience that laps up similarly dumb action comics like Marvel’s Deadpool, and which also benefits from some attention-grabbing artwork from Kenneth Rocafort. Unfortunately, for the other 50% of the comic we’re dealing with the relaunched version of longtime Teen Titans character Starfire, and while the softcore take on Catwoman is merely misguided and trying way too hard, what they’ve done with Starfire is downright creepy. An alien princess who’s always had a habit of not wearing very much, Starfire’s never exactly been a flagwaver for progressive superheroines, but at the least she was an engaging, warm-hearted character with a broad-minded attitude to sex and a long and complicated love-life. Post relaunch, she’s been transformed into a joyless blank-slate sex doll who (apparently thanks to her previous life as a sex slave) barely even remembers any of her past lovers, spends the whole issue striking porn star poses, and sleeps with new Red Hood sidekick Roy Harper simply because he’s there. The level of exploitative frat-boy ogling in the art (which, amazingly, has actually been slightly toned down – originally, Starfire’s skimpy bikini in the beach sequences was supposed to be slightly see-through) is just downright wrong, and while Lobdell fairly obviously has some plans to explore and expand Starfire’s character, resetting a well-known character (especially thanks to the fun TV cartoon Teen Titans) into nothing but a sex object is a blatant way of pandering to the predominantly male audience, as well as being lazy and retrograde storytelling of the highest order. DC stated upfront before the relaunch that they were mainly chasing an audience of 18-34 males – I just wasn’t expecting them to give the female comic-reading audience quite so many reasons to stop reading…

Supergirl 1 cover art DC New 52SUPERGIRL issue 1
Writer:
 Michael Green and Mike Johnson ~ Artist: Mahmud Asrar ~ Price: $2.99

Rating: ★★½☆☆ 

In a sensible world, we’d have gotten the Power Girl team of Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, along with Amanda Conner on art duties, and considering how incredibly charming their take on Supergirl was in Wednesday Comics, it’s hard to imagine who would have complained. Of course, we don’t live in a sensible world, so here we get the first appearence of the all-new Supergirl, a character who’s had her fair share of reincarnations and reboots. In this case, she’s a confused Kryptonian who’s just crash-landed in Siberia, and while this title may be going for the teen alienation theme, what it boils down to is an entire issue that’s not much more than Supergirl being bewildered and punching various heavily armoured men. The art from Mahmud Asrar packs in plenty of energy and vigour, but the heavy emphasis on the visuals means this is another DC title that feels dangerously thin. Especially for a comic that’s going to appeal to a female readership, it might have been nice to have a little more characterisation and content – as it is, I’ve gotten to the end of issue 1 and I still have no idea where exactly this is heading, which isn’t the best way of getting new readers to stick around for more…

Wonder Woman 1 cover art DC New 52WONDER WOMAN issue 1
Writer:
 Brian Azzarello ~ Artists: Cliff Chiang ~ Price: $2.99 ~

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

If there’s one character that was desperately in need of a focussed and straightforward relaunch, it’s Wonder Woman. The last couple of years have seen the ill-advised J. Michael Straczynski-helmed story ‘Odyssey’, which also saw the controversial costume change, as well as the much-discussed and eventually shelved Wonder Woman TV pilot episode, leading to a general feeling that nobody really knows how to handle this character. Getting a writer with the reputation of Brian Azzarello in is a good idea, and artist Cliff Chiang is an interesting collaborator, and the advance reviews led me to believe that this would be exactly the kind of sharp, action-packed adventure WW needs. And yet… what we actually get is nothing short of bewildering. Azzarello goes for the ‘throw us in at the deep end’ method of storytelling, giving us violence, death and horse-murder, and the end result is a comic that basically reads like somebody decided to do an ultra-violent update of Xena: Warrior Princess. The handling of Wonder Woman herself is mostly excellent (although it’s hard to imagine that any other DC superhero would have had their first scene being discovered naked in bed), giving the character lots of impact and showing off her physical skills in a well-executed fight sequence. However, from the bloody horse decapitation on page 5 to the limb-slicing in the combat sequences, this is a graphic book that’s taking a more deliberately horrific angle on the mythology of Wonder Woman, but doesn’t always feel like it’s concerned about taking the audience along with the ride. Too much of this issue 1 is bizarre or inscrutable, and while the setup it delivers is promising, there’s also the sense that the one ingredient that’s lacking is a sense of fun. While this may be exactly what some fans want from Wonder Woman (the lead character kicking arse and killing lots of mythological creatures), as a first issue this is more befuddling than intriguing, and the new version of Wonder Woman is going to need a lot more shape and direction if it’s going to be a true success.

Previous DC New 52 Reviews:

The DC New 52, Week 3 – Batman and Robin, Batwoman, Deathstroke, Demon Knights, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., Green Lantern, Grifter, Legion Lost, Mister Terrific, Red Lanterns, Resurrection Man, Suicide Squad, Superboy

The DC New 52, Week 2: Action Comics, Animal Man, Batgirl, Batwing, Detective Comics, Green Arrow, Hawk and Dove, Justice League International, Men of War, O.M.A.C., Static Shock, Stormwatch, Swamp Thing

The DC New 52, Week 1: Justice League

 

 

TV Review: Doctor Who S6 E08 – ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’

Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Alex Kingston, Albert Welling, Nina Toussaint-White ~ Writer: Steven Moffat ~ Director: Richard Senior ~ Year: 2011

Doctor Who Season 6 Let's Kill Hitler Matt Smith Karen Gillen Arthur Darvill

Rating: ★★½☆☆ 

The Low-Down: You certainly can’t accuse Doctor Who of not coming back with a bang. ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ is many things – fast-paced, imaginative, deeply nutty and at times very funny. The only thing it isn’t, though, is satisfying, and this latest batch of episodes looks set to continue being highly divisive…

What’s it About?: Months have gone by, but the Doctor still hasn’t succeeded in tracking down the missing Melody Pond, who’ll eventually grow up to become enigmatic archeologist River Song. Then, however, an encounter with one of Amy and Rory’s friends results in an unexpected trip to 1938 Berlin, and a confrontation with Adolf Hitler that’ll reveal some exceptionally bizarre truths…

The Story: (WARNING: As with most of my Doctor Who reviews, the following contains a hefty load of spoilers…)

As the credits rolled on ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, I experienced a very unfamiliar feeling. I’d felt it before, quite a few times during Russell T. Davies’s run on Doctor Who, and I’ve already felt it often during Steven Moffat’s ambitious but far from perfect run on Who so far… but this was the first time I’d felt it following one of Moffat’s own episodes: actual, genuine, no-holds-barred disappointment.

Yes, despite the largely positive reception the episode seemed to get online (including some absolutely gushing reviews from people like SFX), I found myself scratching my head and actually realising “Oh dear, I don’t think I enjoyed that…” At first, I wasn’t even certain why – it’s not as if ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ doesn’t feature a ton of fun and enjoyable elements, or that it isn’t also crammed to bursting with some genuinely excellent dialogue. There are daring concepts, imaginative touches, and at least one storytelling gambit which (despite earlier reservations) did impress the hell out of me. And yet, by the end of it I was perplexed, baffled, and ever-so-slightly vexxed, which certainly wasn’t the reaction I was looking for.

I suspect this is partly because, in going for his most deliberately comic episode ever, Moffat’s actually crafted the closest he’s ever managed to a genuine RTD crowd-pleasing episode – with all the flaws and annoyances that come with that concept. This is very much a “Look at all the STUFF!” episode that’s absolutely determined to batter the audience down with how entertaining it’s going to be, but also suffers from some wild tonal changes, occasionally clunky dialogue (especially from River Song) and a general feeling that we’re watching lots of fascinating ideas thrown together in a heap rather than an actual story. Moffat’s storytelling often revolves around finding interesting and unusual ways of wrong-footing the viewer and subverting expectations, but ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ is so busy subverting expectations that it never seems to actually stand still long enough to engage as a story. Instead, of being a story, it’s a romp – a chance for the regulars to run around 1938 Berlin shouting at each other, without any real sense of progress or threat (except from the Teselector Antibodies – and, oh dear oh dear, whoever decided to do mechanical jellyfish tentacles should feel very apologetic, as the ‘menacing light-fitting’ attack was some of the least-impressive practical effects I’ve seen on New Who).

Of course, some of this is simply the weight of expectation, as well as the weight of the ongoing story. Moffat has said that the River Song storyline is going to get wrapped up this season (although how conclusively it does this is something we’ll have to see), and this is a very good thing, as the big arc this season has only been intermittently succesful. Many people have waved the ‘Too complicated for kids’ flag, which is nonsense – I have nothing against complicated, but I do have issues with unsatisfying, and that’s what Who is in danger of turning into. The overreaching arc since The Impossible Astronaut (and, in part, since The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang) has gotten insanely twisty and complex – comparisons have been made with Lost, but what Doctor Who is actually in danger of turning into is the modern version of Battlestar Galactica, at least in terms of the central overarching ‘mystery’. In the same way that the Cylon’s ‘plan’ and the general approach of what in the Galactica universe passes for ‘God’ ended up feeling like a loose excuse to string together a series of unconnected and improvised plot concepts, the current Who arc is so determinedly abstract that we’re eight episodes into this season and we can still only barely explain anything of what’s happening – and so much of what has happened can seemingly be summed up by simply saying “Well… Because! That’s why!”

‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ doesn’t function at all as a self-contained story – it’s part of a sprawling arc, but the arc itself is failing to be satisfying for the simple reason that we don’t know what’s going on. We do know that the Doctor is destined to die at the hands of the Impossible Astronaut, and that River is actually Amy’s daughter, and that she was created and programmed in order to be a weapon for killing the Doctor. We don’t know why any of this is happening (and, most frustratingly, nobody onscreen is actually asking). We don’t know why anyone would go to these kinds of insane lengths (like apparently detonating the entire universe in order to contrive the creation of a new Time Lord child) in order to create a plan with so many variables, and yet which currently seems to come down to “Get a psychopath with poison lipstick to kiss the Doctor”. Considering how many people he’s already kissed in New Who, it makes you wonder why they bothered going so complicated…

(Quick theory time: There is a possibility that the events of ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ happen because Melody/Mells escaped from the Silence with some of her mental programming still intact – she’s trying to kill the Doctor in this episode without realising that (as I suspect) she’s already done it, back when she was a child in the Astronaut suit. It’s the best explanation I can think of to solve certain problems – although it doesn’t explain what the Astronaut’s doing in 2011, or why River knows why she’s locked in the Storm Cage facility for and yet doesn’t seem to remember the events surrounding the Impossible Astronaut. (It’s possible she’s lying in that episode, of course, but it’s one hell of a cop-out). I am really hoping it doesn’t turn out to be yet another temporal loop-style “Oh, it happened that way because the Doctor knew the future and so made sure it would look that way” in the same way that River Song only becomes River Song because she’s told about herself. And yet, it wouldn’t completely surprise me…)

There’s a difference between mystery and obfuscation, and after a while the deliberate holding back of details (and the twisting complicatedness of the details we are given) starts feeling like being complex simply for it’s own sake. Like with last year’s finale, it’s the spectacle of concepts, rather than visuals – it’s IDEA! IDEA! IDEA! but the arc isn’t supporting it, and is tremendously difficult to relate to. Amy and Rory’s story arc should be taking them to some very dark places, but Moffat seems to want to throw difficult ideas in (like Melody’s abduction) and then just gloss over the consequences – most especially, in the case of Mells.

If there’s one aspect of this episode that fully displays the weird disconnect between sheer narrative ballsiness and dissastisfaction I experienced, it’s the character of Mells. On one hand, it’s a daring bit of writing, and the reveal of the regeneration (and her identity) did at least seem to justify the way she’d been crowbarred into the overarching story in a not-especially convincing way. But, for a writer whose main talent has been structure and forward planning, the way Moffatt has done this is downright bizarre – after all, there would have been plenty of opportunities to set Mells up as a character earlier, or at least vaguely mention her beforehand, instead of simply going “Oh yes, there’s this character we never mentioned before who’s one of our best childhood friends and who was constantly obsessing about the Doctor equal to (or even bigger than) Amy, and OH CRAP she’s got a gun!” It’s so ridiculously quick that it’s very difficult to swallow (and certainly doesn’t feel like good storytelling) – and it’s one of the elements where I honestly feel that ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ would have worked much better as a two-parter. If we’d had at least an episode to get to know Mells, she wouldn’t have felt quite so much like a comedy sexed-up bad girl thrown in for no other reason to get the plot moving in a very contrived way – as it is, we’ve barely registered her before she’s shot in the gut and then Alex Kingston is unwisely allowed to go rather over-the-top as the newly-born River Song.

(As a complete aside – I actually spent the entirety of ‘A Good Man Goes to War’ utterly convinced that Lorna Bucket, the mysterious ‘Amy Pond that wasn’t’ girl, was going to turn out to be River Song – that she’d die in the end, and regenerate. I was so convinced that I was genuinely nonplussed when it turned out she wasn’t, and I’m left suspecting that this actually would have been much better (and more satisfying) than the revelation we ultimately got).

On top of this, there’s the head-spinning logistics of it all – how did Mells/Melody get from late Sixties New York to Mid/late Nineties Leadworth? Why did she feel the need to hang out with her parents in secret while growing up? I presume Mells had parents – who the hell were they? How accurate are her memories? (And how did she know about Amy and Rory in the first place, considering she’s been abducted as a baby?) Is it all part of the plan, so that she can basically be a ‘sleeper agent’ and wait for the Doctor to turn up? Why didn’t she just kiss the Doctor immediately, rather than pulling an incredibly contrived “Hey, let’s use your time machine as a getaway” plan? How on earth did the TARDIS end up in Berlin 1938, when I would have imagined the Doctor’s response to a female gun-wielding psycho saying “I want to kill Hitler” would be to get her as far away from the Third Reich as possible? And exactly how many sexy-crazy alpha female bad girls is a sleepy village like Leadworth supposed to produce?

And, at the heart of all of this, there’s Hitler. There’s a certain admirable cheekiness to giving him only three minutes of screen time before throwing him in the cupboard, and yet it’s also uncomfortable because it is glossing over and trivialising a massive, massive subject (and using fascism as a backdrop for a light comedy romp and some “Gosh, isn’t it sexy to dress up in Nazi uniform” play from Alex Kingston). Also, the whole title of the episode ends up feeling like a serious con. Throwing the ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ title in at the end of the previous run of episodes set expectations, and the resulting episode doesn’t satisfy any of them – especially since instead of a Hitler-centric adventure, we get something altogether looser, flabbier and less interesting. It’s feeling dangerously like Moffat came up with the title, and then had to leap through all kind of narrative hoops to even vaguely justify it (and attach it to where he wanted the River Song story to go next), while the device of yet again having the Doctor on the verge of death (leading to several sequences that felt like photocopies of scenes from last year’s finale) led to not much more than Matt Smith howling and crawling on the floor like a hermit crab. And at the end, we’re left with exactly the same status quo as before (the Doctor and companions keeping secrets from each other – except this time there’s NO REASON for them to be doing this), and no real sense that we’re barrelling towards a significant ending. Season 5’s arc was occasionally clumsy, but at least felt like it slowly built towards a climax – Season 6, so far, is feeling like a wild collection of imaginative stuff that doesn’t hang together, and which – I’m sad to say – I suspect ain’t going to get anything resembling a satisfying conclusion.

I’d really like it to. I’d love to know who the ‘Silence will Fall’ voice from ‘The Pandorica Opens’ was. I’d like to know why the whole ‘blow up the TARDIS’ plot happened, and who’s responsible. I’d like to know what the Doctor did to annoy the Silence so much, or why their grey-faced servitors (words cannot sum up how frustrating it is to discover that – oh- they’re not called the Silence after all) went to such lengths to control human history just so they could get their hands on a space-suit. I would, in short, like it all to add up to a conclusion that draws a line under this whole section of the show. I just don’t have much faith that I’m actually going to get one.

Please, Steven Moffat. Prove me wrong.

The Verdict: An episode that ping-pongs wildly between inventive and sloppy, ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ has many high moments, but it’s also unfortunately ended up as my least favourite Moffat-written Doctor Who episode so far. My hopes were relatively high for this batch of episodes – they’re not so high anymore. But I’m at least hoping that a return to darker and scarier material, with the upcoming Mark Gatiss-written episode ‘Night Terrors’, might see the series get its storytelling mojo back…

Previous Doctor Who Season 6 Reviews:

S6 Eo7 – ‘A Good Man Goes to War’

S6 E05/E06 – ‘The Rebel Flesh’ / ‘The Almost People’

S6 E04 – ‘The Doctor’s Wife’

S6 E03 – ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’

S6 E02 – ‘Day of the Moon’

S6 E01 – ‘The Impossible Astronaut’

Movie News: Oops, He Did It Again – Star Wars: The Complete Saga on Blu-Ray, “NOOOOOO!” and the ever-changing mind of George Lucas…

Star Wars The Complete Saga Blu Ray Cover George Lucas 2011

He almost had me. I was wavering. I’ve recently bought a Blu-Ray player, and despite my better nature, I was finding myself looking at the upcoming release of Star Wars: The Complete Saga on Blu-Ray and thinking “Hmm… maybe.” It’s not like I didn’t know what I’d be getting – I knew there’d be no sign of the treasured original versions of the classic trilogy (still only available as non-anamorphic DVDs, mastered from the 1993 Laserdisc Editions), and that it’d essentially be giving us spangly High-Def versions of the prequels and the 2004 DVD versions of the original trilogy (complete with the less-than-welcome addition of Hayden Christensen’s mug edited into the final sequence of Return of the Jedi). After all, there couldn’t be anything left for Lucas to tamper with, could there?

Yes, there could.

The rumours have been flying around for the last couple of weeks – and while it looks like we’re not going to have full confirmation until the release in a week-and-a-half as to whether or not there are any other ‘surprises’ in store, there are a handful of big changes that we already know about. For a start, there has been some audio ‘tinkering’ – some of that is just remixing the original audio, punching up a few elements (and getting right a couple of music-mixing issues that affected the 2004 DVDs, especially the original Star Wars). There’s one major visual change – to Episode I: The Phantom Menace, where the puppet of Yoda has been replaced with a CGI version of the character:

This isn’t exactly surprising, and actually looks pretty good – it’s probably a mark of how little general Star Wars fandom actually cares about The Phantom Menace that nobody seems particularly upset about it (that, and the fact that the Phantom Menace puppet was weak, and somehow looked less convincing than the one used in Empire 19 years previously). If that was the only change, I don’t think anyone would be worked up right now.

It isn’t.

There are a handful of smaller changes to the original trilogy – like the new and utterly ridiculous sound that Ben Kenobi makes to scare off the Sandpeople before his first appearence, the door to Jabba’s Palace which is now three times the size (and very fake-looking), and the slightly unsettling fact that the Ewoks in Jedi now have CG-created blinking eyes (which really doesn’t make them look any less like dwarfs in furry costumes than they did before) – but then there’s the big one. Lucas has decided to have a play around with one of the key scenes of the whole original trilogy – the final moments of the Emperor, where Palpatine is on the verge of killing Luke, and Vader finally turns away from the Dark Side. I can remember watching that scene in the cinema in 1983, aged 9, completely riveted by what I was watching, and the surge of amazement as what seemed absolutely impossible – Vader suddenly becoming a good guy – happened. It’s one of the finest moments of the trilogy – a trio of films that, while the whole Star Wars franchise has lost an awful lot of its lustre in the past decade, still stand as fantastic works of popcorn cinema. And at no point in the last twenty-eight years did I think that scene would be improved by adding a ludicrously over-dramatic scream of “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” from Vader.

Well, thank goodness that George Lucas is on hand to prove me wrong:

Words fail me. They really do.

I can see the thinking behind it – connecting Vader’s final moments with the Emperor to his first moment with the Emperor back at the end of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith – except that the completely daft Frankenstein-stagger and scream of “NOOOOOOO!!!” in that film is widely regarded as one of the few moments where the otherwise fairly good Episode III (and about the only of the prequels to be artistically valid as a movie) is genuinely, diabolically awful. The thinking may be plain, but the execution of it, and the fact that Lucas is once again going back in to a film that was finished in 1983 and going “It’s okay guys – just one more change…”, and mucking around with such a critical section of the original Trilogy… it’s breathtaking. It really is. The level of clueless arrogance it takes to do this, and not in any way provide an alternate version of the movie, beggars belief. It’s not even as if I care about Star Wars that much any more, and I’m still kind of speechless.

The sad thing is that there’s no reason whatsoever for this. Multiple film versions are a fact of home entertainment life – the recent Alien Anthology Blu-Ray is a masterclass in presenting differing editions of films, while the granddaddy of them all is the 2007 Blade Runner special edition, which gave us every single version of the film available (a newly tinkered one, and the originals). Hell, if the Star Wars Blu-Rays just had the 1997 versions of the Special Editions versus the newly tinkered versions, that’d be a start – or an option to switch to the original, less-tinkered with audio. But that’s not the way Lucas rolls.

I’m a little sad. I’m a little vexxed. But, most of all, I’m glad I knew in advance so I can save myself some money. I’m sure 97% of Star Wars: The Complete Saga will look gorgeous on Blu-Ray, but I’d rather not have to mentally edit the terrible, terrible 3% out of my brain while I watch them. I’ll stick with the DVDs, thanks very much, and the sad fact that while it gave me some very good times in my formative years, Star Wars really doesn’t mean that much to me anymore.

So thanks, Lucas. Thanks a bunch.

(EDIT: There’s an interesting article over at Entertainment Weekly which makes some good points (even if it also overdoes the ‘kids are stupid, and anything aimed at them is generally rather silly and infantile’ theme) especially that while the Star Wars films are great works of popcorn cinema, they ain’t perfect. It’s okay to enjoy the hell out of them, but it’s also okay to grow up, realise their deficiencies, and that there are much better films out there. I think it says a lot that Empire is still widely counted as the best of the bunch, when it seems that the pulpy energy and vitality in Empire was a happy accident that Lucas made damn sure wouldn’t happen again (I have a major fondness for Jedi, but you can already see some of the flatness and woodenness that bedevilled the prequels creeping in in multiple sequences). It’s mainly as a film lover that this tweaking annoys me – as I said, if Lucas just made the originals (or as close to the originals as we can get) available, he could fuck about with new editions to his heart’s content and I wouldn’t mind in the slightest. The original Star Wars (none of this ‘Episode IV: A New Hope’ nonsense) is a significant work of American cinema, and the fact that the director has gone psychotically out of his way over the last twenty years to prevent anyone from seeing it in its original form… well, it’s rather sad. But I’m not really raging about this. I think my days of raging over Star Wars are well and truly over.)

Movie Review: Cowboys and Aliens (2011)

Cast: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Paul Dano ~ Writers: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby ~ Director: Jon Favreau

Cowboys and Aliens Daniel Craig Harrison Ford Jon Favreau 2011 Movie Poster

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 

Reviewer: Jehan Ranasinghe (aka @Maustallica)

The Low-Down: It may have an attention-grabbing concept and a star-studded cast and crew, but summer blockbuster hopeful Cowboys & Aliens has to go down as a major damp squib, stymied by huge tonal misjudgements, a lack of purpose and a shocking paucity of actual fun.

What’s it About?: In 1873, brooding gunslinger Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) awakens in the middle of the Arizona desert with no memory, strange injuries and a mysterious metal band shackled around his wrist. Journeying to the local settlement of Absolution in search of help, the stranger learns that he’s a wanted fugitive, falling foul of local law enforcement and the ruthless cattle baron Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). But all of these problems are soon to become academic when otherwordly lights appear in the sky, and Absolution comes under attack from extraterrestrial forces – ones which may hold the key to Lonergan’s forgotten past…

The Story: You’ve got to give the makers of Cowboys & Aliens this, at least: it’s a bloody good title. It’s commonly said that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we all do it anyhow, so it helps if your cover has a name on it that’s as immediately and concisely communicative as this one. “Cowboys & Aliens” – a neat and playful subversion of the age-old cowboys and Indians trope, and a title that’s pregnant with the promise of two iconic fictional worlds meeting in a pulpy collision. More elaborately conceived movies, such as Inception and Green Lantern, have required four or five trailers to explain what they’re actually about, or why we should care: Cowboys & Aliens does it with three words.

Unfortunately, that’s about where the good omens for director John Favreau’s movie end. Certainly, that title – taken from a graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, which was only at the conceptual stage when the movie began development – created some decent initial buzz around the project, but despite an extensive marketing campaign, the film has underperformed thus far both in the US and internationally, at least relative to its budget and blockbuster aspirations. Undoubtedly, this will lead to assessment of the way the film has been sold, the bankability of its leading players, or the commercial viability of its chosen genre(s), but the explanation may be a lot simpler than that: essentially, Cowboys & Aliens just isn’t a particularly good film, squandering the highest of high concepts in what turns out to be a bland and largely joyless experience.

Certainly, you don’t get the impression that the failure of this movie is down to a lack of trying, at least from an investment perspective. An absurd number of studios – including heavyweights like DreamWorks, Paramount and Universal – have thrown money at Cowboys & Aliens, allowing an almost comical embarrassment of creative talent to be corralled together. In front of the camera are acclaimed stars Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde; behind it is well-liked Iron Man helmer Favreau, shooting from a script credited to two of Hollywood’s most in-vogue writing duos (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby), plus Lost’s Damon Lindelof; meanwhile, backers and producers include the likes of Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Steven Spielberg. Add into the mix a reported budget of $163 million, and you get the impression that the makers of Cowboys & Aliens took this project very seriously indeed.

Ironically, it’s seriousness that proves to be this film’s most prominent undoing. The filmmakers have gone on record as saying they wanted to avoid taking an overtly broad and jokey approach to this material, which is an understandable and potentially sensible decision; however, there’s a difference between avoiding flippancy and avoiding levity altogether, which is the approach Favreau and co appear to have bafflingly settled on. What results is a handsomely-mounted, competently made but staggeringly solemn experience, which resists almost every invitation to have any fun with its concept whatsoever. Characterisation is limited to a few variations on “scowling”, the visual palette is dark and muddied, and the world of the film is generally a cold, dour and dreary place to be.

Cowboys and Aliens Daniel Craig Harrison Ford Jon Favreau 2011 This approach hardly plays to the strengths of the director, who was surely hired on the back of his brash, boisterous and jovial Iron Man films; it certainly doesn’t work in favour of the material, which was surely crying out for a more playful treatment than this. Part of the fun of a typical mash-up is watching the well-defined conventions and tropes of two different genres colliding and feeding off each other; Cowboys & Aliens takes Western and sci-fi elements and grinds them up into a consistent but utterly flavourless grey mush. This would be more forgivable if the film had gained in gravitas what it lost in humour, but that can’t really be argued as being the case either, as none of the constituent parts are sufficiently developed enough to be of much interest without the neutered novelty of the mash-up framework.  Cliché-shackled characters, unmemorable aliens, pedestrian mystery elements and curiously underplayed twists wouldn’t really be anyone’s idea of good building blocks for a light, frothy film; they certainly don’t pass muster in a movie that fancies itself as a brooding drama.

Cowboys and Aliens Olivia Wilde Jon Favreau 2011 Movie PosterIn this kind of unfertile territory, the film’s starry cast comes across less like an asset and more as a crippling waste of resources. Craig probably comes out of it best with a typically intense performance as amnesiac protagonist Lonergan, but the material barely tests him as an actor; still, he fares better than Ford, who was probably hoping this film would restore his movie star status beyond Indiana Jones, but who ultimately fails to bring any real interest to Dolarhyde, a half-baked semi-adversarial role that feels like a leftover from a previous draft. Wilde continues to content herself with turning up and looking striking in another sorely underwritten female blockbuster role (see also: Tron Legacy); meanwhile, vastly overqualified supporting cast members such as Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano and Clancy Brown tussle for scraps on the periphery, making no impression. It says a lot that the cast member who makes the biggest impression is the one who isn’t there: namely Robert Downey Jr, who was originally cast in Craig’s role and would have made an infinitely more interesting foil for Ford (rather than the sour-faced Craig/Ford pairing we get here), as well as adding some much-needed lightness, spark and purpose to proceedings.

In the final analysis, it’s a sense of any actual function that’s the quality that Cowboys & Aliens most demonstrably fails to provide. It’s an uninteresting, middling film that simply sits there, inert, failing to engage any particular audience to any measurable degree; not a big or spectacular enough a disaster to derail the careers of anyone involved, but never doing anything to warrant a place as anything other than a minor, forgettable footnote on a few CVs. For all its potential promise, all Cowboys & Aliens really achieves is showing how easy it is topple off a high concept and fall flat on your face.

The Verdict: Failing to capitalise on the pulpy promise of its title, Cowboys & Aliens is a dreary slog that squanders the talent and money at its disposal, and makes the spectacle of 19th-century outlaws fighting frog-men from outer space seem dry and dull. And I can’t think of anything more damning than that.

[amtap amazon:asin=B000N82K4I]

[amtap amazon:asin=B004BDOF1C]

[amtap amazon:isbn=9781447202110]

TV Links: The Doctor Who Tube Map

Doctor Who Tube Map by Crispian Jago

There’s something about the map of the London Underground (aka the Tube) – it’s got such a distinctive visual style that if you apply it to anything else, the results are almost always eyecatching. There’s plenty of examples I can think of over the years, but one of the most fun is here: the interactive Doctor Who Tube Map, which maps out the entire history of Doctor Who with all his villains and adversaries as stops on the London Underground. It’s the creation of Crispian Jago, a freelance IT consultant and self-declared ‘Godless Cornish Git’, and it has to be said that he’s done a splendid job – there are some typos (which apparently have been already highlighted to him on Twitter), but it’s always cool to see this kind of fan project, especially with the level of dedication that needs to go into it to get it right. So – anyone up for a trip to Judoon, taking in Cybermen, Zygons and Arcturus?

Older posts Newer posts

© 2020 Saxon Bullock

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑