Friday, 26 February 2016

Who knew you could get so many laughs out of the downfall of the global economy?

It’s remarkable that The Big Short works as well as it does, really. Adam McKay’s financial crisis comedy takes an incredibly complex situation that very few people understand (and I'm not one of them) and explores it through a bunch of characters who are varying degrees of unlikeable – even Steve Carell and Brad Pitt’s characters, the only two who point out how morally detestable everything is, are, respectively, a rude loudmouth and a paranoid delusional.

But it launches itself at its central issue with such energy and self-awareness that it’s difficult not to get absorbed into it, even if you don’t follow everything - when Carell’s Mike Baum points out that Wall Street deliberately use complex terminology in order to make it difficult for them to be scrutinised, it’s in a way reassuring that the film is aware of its own complexities and is using them as part of its point.  I’m still not entirely sure what a lot of the companies shown in the film actually do, but I’m more sure than I was going in. The cutaways – “to explain this issue, here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath”, etc. – do a good job of making it all a bit more accessible while continuing the satire on this macho world (though if you read that particular cutaway as sexist, I can understand - the fact that a major female character from the book was cut out is the more grating problem for me).

It’s a very funny film, with not only a superb gag referencing David Lynch’s Dune but several examples of meta-humour much better than that seen in Deadpool (an odd comparison, maybe, but I’ve seen them both this week, and they do both have a lot of fourth-wall breaking) – one character turning to camera and admitting that a scene has been changed from what really happened for dramatic effect, for example. There is a sense that the meta-humour, as well as the documentary-esque camerawork, is a distancing device to distract from the fact that the characters are all so unlikeable, but it's one that did work to hook me into the film's world, if not its specific characters.

It’s also a very frustrating film, albeit deliberately so. You’ll be left angry at how the crisis was allowed to happen, and how the same practices which caused it continue today. It does sometimes seem odd to be following people who predicted the crash and yet profited from this prediction – a more typical approach may be to follow characters trying to stop it (there is one disturbing and memorable scene where the two younger characters try to take their discoveries to a financial reporter, and he turns them away because running the story would destroy his links with Wall Street). But this approach ties in to the film’s point – the culture of fraud and stupidity was so ingrained into Wall Street that the crisis could not have been prevented.

It’s a frustrating truth, which The Big Short captures excellently. Your appreciation of McKay’s unconventional satire will be decided by how much you’re willing to be simultaneously angered and amused by its take on this truth.

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Remember Goldtiger? In the 1960s, this newspaper serial from writer Louis Schaeffer and artist Antonio Baretti gained a firm cult following, though never achieved the popularity of its better-known competitor Modesty Blaise. Creative differences between all involved meant it was cut short, leading to Baretti suffering a mental breakdown.

Of course, none of that really happened – in this new book from Guy Adams and Jimmy Broxton, the grumpy Schaeffer and egotistical Baretti are as much a part of the fiction as fashion designers-cum-mercenaries Lily Gold and Jack Tiger. The book presents The Poseidon Complex, a serial in which Lily and Jack face a crocodile-skinned supervillain who’s developing a laser that turns objects into liquid. Around this strip, it provides us with a meta-story following the chaos behind the scenes of Goldtiger, incorporating letters, interview transcripts, and various other historical documents.

The strip itself is a kitschy period adventure, in which both Adams’ sensational writing and Broxton’s simple but lurid art capture the tropes of the source material perfectly; though unsophisticated compared to the comics of today, it’ll provide nostalgic glee to those familiar with the genre.

Goldtiger really shines, however, in the meta-story, simultaneously a hilarious mocking of ‘60s attitudes and a character study of two highly flawed artists who were a terrible fit for each other. The book’s two strands intertwine very cleverly; at one point, Baretti draws himself into the strip, explaining directly to its readers how he’s skipped a slow, boring section of Schaeffer’s script. Schaeffer attempted to regain control, the meta-story tells us, by sketching out later scenes himself, at which Baretti threw a hissy fit and sent off the writer’s sketches as the finished product, leaving the strip amusingly messy.

Goldtiger is a fantastically presented volume, with its collection of documents convincing enough to trick you into thinking this excruciatingly catastrophic creative collaboration is all too real. Using the framing device of a lovingly constructed pastiche of a ‘60s serial, Adams and Broxton have brought us one of the most original and fascinating comics volumes of 2016 so far.

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For the full version of this review, visit Starburst.

Two classic British comics from 1978 are reprinted for the first time in this volume from Rebellion – Planet of the Damned, originally serialised in the first ten issues of Starlord, and Death Planet, from 2000 AD.

Planet of the Damned, initially scripted by Pat Mills before Alan Hebden took over under the pseudonym R. E. Wright (geddit?), gives a sci-fi take on the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle – a passenger jet falls through a rift in space to end up on the same remote planet where all the Triangle’s other victims are stranded. They face off with an American fighter crew and a beached Nazi submarine, as well as the native ‘Ab-humans’, who look either like turds or phalluses, depending on which of the strip’s several artists is drawing them.

The story resorts to a lot of clichés and the dialogue drops any subtlety in favour of everyone spouting exposition. But there’s enjoyment to be found in Planet of the Damned’s bombastic adventure – the pace with which it throws its characters into an unbelievable amount of weird and wonderful situations makes it an entertaining enough diversion.

Death Planet, entirely written by Hebden and illustrated by César López Vera, is very similar in style, albeit more consistent and with slightly stronger characters. It sees a spaceship full of human colonists crash on a planet full of dangerously extreme climates – and from the title, you can guess what happens.

The story revolves around the conflict between spaceship captain Lorna Varn and chief colonist Richard Cory, whose ruthless approach to survival contrasts with her idealism. Varn was 2000 AD’s first female lead character, which represents some kind of progress, even if she does screw up and require rescue a few too many times – comedically falling off an alien kangaroo is the low point for this supposed ‘ace spacer’.

Nevertheless, Death Planet is another slice of classic sci-fi, with a wide and imaginative variety of creatures and obstacles placed in the path of the desperate heroes. This volume is perhaps not for those who’ve grown up with the more sophisticated comics of today but will provide a fun blast from the past for retro 2000 AD fans.
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For the full version of this review, visit Starburst.

And here's my review of issue #1.

A malfunctioning android is on the loose on the streets of Olissipo City, 2042, and it’s a race between a crack police squad and a gang of armed cyborgs to catch up with it. With its main characters in place, this second issue of André Lima Araújo’s comic hits the ground running, giving us some tense action while expanding its world.

As the Special Operations Force investigate both the android and the gang, we get to know some of the team members a bit more, particularly the cynical Rodrigo and the confident young Josu, as they meet with an informant. But Man:Plus isn’t the kind of comic which slows down for long, as they’ve soon got their hands full with a major conspiracy. Some of the plot elements, such as the corporate conspiracy, don’t seem the most original, and some of the heroes are still lacking definition, but there are hints at intriguing twists to come.

But the real appeal of Man:Plus #2, as with the first issue, is the depth of the world. The disparity between the rich and the poor is extended even further here, with a brief glimpse into the life of the wealthiest man in Olissipo. Meanwhile, a visit to the city’s Chinatown offers another stunningly wonderful combination of world cultures and future technology.

Monday, 22 February 2016

The latest issue of Starburst Magazine is available now! Yay!

Pick it up for my Outside the Box column, giving the latest on the world of Doctor Who, as well as my reviews of Air, Tripped, Judge Dredd: Dead Zone, and Man:Plus #1. Oh, and loads of Batman v. Superman themed fun.

As usual, it's available from WH Smiths, Tesco, or online.

Monday, 15 February 2016

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Tales That Witness Madness begins like all anthology films – with its framing story. Dr. Tremayne (Donald Pleasence), who runs a mental asylum with oddly futuristic corridors, tells his colleague Dr. Nicholas (Jack Hawkins) of four special cases he has ‘solved’, and thus begins the flashbacks revealing what made these four patients so mad.

The first story, Mr. Tiger, introduces us to a child who insists he’s visited by an invisible tiger. His parents assume it’s just his imagination, but things escalate, with brutal consequences.

Then there’s Penny Farthing, about an antiques storeowner who inherits a Victorian bicycle and a photograph of his ancestor ‘Uncle Albert’. The photo telekinetically lifts him onto the bike, which sends him back in time. It all gets a little too weird for its own good. 

Third comes Mel, which has an entertainingly lurid concept – a man (Michal Jayston) brings a tree into his living room and falls in love with it. Don’t judge him, it does have sexy tree nipples.

Finally, there’s Luau, in which literary agent Auriol Pageant (Kim Novak) courts client Kimo (Michael Petrovich), unaware that he’s a member of a Hawaiian cult and intends to sacrifice a virgin – Pageant’s daughter Ginny (Mary Tamm). Enjoyment of this one will depend on your tolerance for its dodgy racial politics, particularly considering white actors play the native Hawaiian characters.

Overall, the way the stories play out is very predictable – the first three have almost exactly the same ending. Luau is the one that breaks the mould, and not particularly satisfyingly – it ends abruptly, and leaves you wondering at what point Pageant turned mad. The framing story also doesn’t hit the right notes, with Tremayne’s reasons for showing Nicholas these four cases being somewhat forced.

The film’s main strength is its cast, with big stars like Collins, Novak, and Pleasence appearing and doing the best they can with material that’s, frankly, far from their best.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

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One of the great things about the Judge Dredd comics is how the dystopic setting has evolved over its almost forty-year run. The 2011-2012 epic Day of Chaos saw a brutal virus kill off ninety percent of Mega-City One’s population, and the consequences are still seen in the strip today. 2014 Judge Dredd Megazine story Dead Zone, now reprinted in graphic novel form, uses the Chaos Day fallout to nastily good effect. 

John Wagner’s story opens with Yodie and Belle Planchet, two poor wastelanders hoping to be allowed a new life in the city now there’s suddenly a lot of free living space. Unfortunately, they’re nabbed by a criminal gang, who force Yodie to work in the body mine – where millions of dumped, rotting Chaos Day corpses are looted for valuable possessions. Meanwhile (bear with me, it gets complicated), Judge Dredd’s investigating a suspicious death at the nearby memorial centre. Oh, and then Yodie finds a bracelet that gives him the power to turn invisible, teleport, or shoot giant lasers from his hands. This has been one hell of a plot synopsis, and we’ve not even got to the robot bishop yet.

Yes, it sounds all over the place, and indeed it is, as what begins as a murder mystery becomes a fugitive thriller, leading to a daft sci-fi action climax. The gritty opening is its strongest section, where the scenes in the body mine really are gruesome. The story falters when the characters behind the mysterious bracelet enter the fray – their identity is too big a twist to reveal, but suffice to say they seem to have jumped from another sci-fi sub-genre entirely, which can seem jarring.

Nevertheless, all the ludicrous tangents of Dead Zone are unified by Yodie and Belle’s struggle to survive, with the stakes always about whether they’ll be able to find the new life they need. It’s an ultimately optimistic tale of finding hope among the ruins, and is engaging enough to cover up any cracks in the plot.
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Movies based on old TV shows may not seem so original nowadays, but back in the '80s, the idea was more of a novelty. Inspired by the success of his SNL spin-off The Blues Brothers and his appearance in Twilight Zone: The Movie, comedian Dan Aykroyd turned his attention to '50s cop show Dragnet, which he revived in '80s buddy cop style, now re-released on DVD by Fabulous Films.

And when I say '80s style, I mean very '80s – ‘Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks rapping the theme song over the closing credits’-level '80s. Aykroyd plays the nephew of the series’ hero Joe Friday, who also happens to be called Joe Friday. Like his uncle, Friday is meticulous and formal, except Aykroyd plays this up for laughs; he’s able to rapid-fire any section of the California Penal Code in an instant, and tells his muggers off for assaulting him “on a school night”. He’s paired with Hanks’ laid-back Pep Streebeck (again, how '80s is that name?), the perfect foil for the rule-obsessed detective.

Friday and Streebeck investigate a series of robberies committed by a secretive society named P.A.G.A.N., leading them to the mansion of a porn mogul, a zoo with missing animals, and a ludicrous satanic ritual. As plots go, it’s hardly coherent – if you come out of Dragnet fully understanding what all the pagan stuff was about, or why the villain seemed to change his motivations every five minutes, or why the film needed its final elongated chase sequence, you’ve done a better job than I have.

But that hardly matters. The appeal is not the plot but the comic tomfoolery of Aykroyd and Hanks, perfectly cast against each other, and the mocking of '50s cop show conventions, which, though sometimes playing it safe, provides many genuinely funny moments, not least the take on Dragnet’s opening narration.
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For the full version of this review, visit Starburst.

The Earth has been all but destroyed by chemical weapons; Norman Reedus’ Bauer and Djimon Hounsou’s Cartwright are the maintenance workers who wake up every six months to perform checks on the underground bunker they, and hundreds of other cryogenically frozen survivors, live in.

And then one day, for some reason or other, Cartwright’s bed sets on fire. Bugger. Unless they find him a new one, he won’t be able to go back into stasis – and there isn’t an Ikea in sight. This quest leads to tensions rising between the two workers and dark secrets about humanity being uncovered.

It’s a good concept for a low-budget character-based sci-fi drama, but the way the story plays out is, frankly, frustrating. The characters and world are set up nicely – Bauer’s the untidy one who won’t stop singing The Clash, Cartwright just wants to get his job done but is hiding the fact he’s having visions of his lost love. There’s clear tension here, and Reedus and Hounsou convey this unstable friendship nicely. And then they spend half the film looking on some shelves for a bed. 

Nevertheless, Cantamessa and production designer Brian Kane have done a good job of making the bunker into an effectively claustrophobic setting, with the technology being a great cross between futuristic and falling apart, in the same way that made iconic sets such as the Nostromo and the Millennium Falcon so believable. 

Monday, 8 February 2016

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It’s the apocalypse. Everyone’s dead. You know the drill. The eponymous Survivalist (McCann) lives alone in a hut in the forest. He grows crops, he carries a shotgun, and at one point he has a wank into a plant pot. And then, one day, Kathryn (Fouere) and her daughter Milja (Goth) show up at his door, desperate for food. He lets them stay in exchange for sex with Milja. Somehow, despite his constant aggression and his habit of pointing guns at her, Milja falls for him. And it all gets bleaker from there.

That’s basically the concept of writer/director Stephen Fingleton’s début feature, a harsh survival thriller with minimal characters and action. In fact, it has minimal everything – the cinematography and sound design are stripped-down, while whole scenes go by with hardly any dialogue. All of this results in a movie as miserable and slow as the life of its characters, at times feeling like a short film being played at the wrong speed – indeed, this plot done as a short could be well worth watching.

What should, in theory, be The Survivalist’s strength is the relationships between the characters – with three leads in a confined environment, good performances are essential. And yet they often repel us, with little compassion or depth on show; McCann’s titular Survivalist is cold and nasty at the beginning and continues to act as such throughout the film, leaving his final act of kindness unconvincing. The saving grace is Mia Goth’s performance as Milja, the most interesting by far of the three characters; Goth lends nuance to the girl’s confusion between loyalty to her mother and affection for the Survivalist (despite his brutality and ridiculous hair).