FREELANCE WRITER. JOURNALIST, AND SCRIPT READER – FILM AND TV RUNNER – FAN OF SCI-FI AND CHOCOLATE DIGESTIVES – YSTV'S BEST DRESSED MEMBER 2013

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

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Doing a new take on beloved characters is always a risky move – just look at the abuse hurled at the new Ghostbusters cast before anyone’s even seen the film. The prospect of a new take on Dad’s Army, meanwhile, elicited much tutting and mutterings of “this won’t end well” – a gentle disparagement befitting the classic British sitcom. Unfortunately, in this case, the cynicism turned out to be accurate...

The problem isn’t with the cast. If you’re going to make Dad’s Army today, Toby Jones is the perfect Mainwaring; he nails the Home Guard captain’s frustration and lack of authority, plus shows off a surprising talent for slapstick pratfalls. The likes of Bill Nighy, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon and ex-Inbetweener Blake Harrison fill up the team nicely, though often seem to be doing impressions of the original cast rather than anything particularly new. Where the film does differ from the ‘70s incarnation – and to its benefit – is by giving greater focus to the female characters than the sitcom ever did; Catherine Zeta-Jones entertains as a wily Nazi spy, while Felicity Montagu (of I’m Alan Partridge fame) gets more to do than you’d expect as Mainwaring’s long-suffering wife.

The plot feels like a sitcom episode stretched out longer than it ever should have been; Zeta-Jones’ Rose Winters embeds herself in Walmington-on-Sea under the guise of a journalist, writing a feature on the Home Guard, and over the course of the film, everyone in the platoon obliviously falls for her.

It’s all just an excuse for the series of comedy set pieces, really, and that’s the main problem – they’re just not funny enough. The gags are never any riskier than an innuendo about jam roly-poly, and the outcomes of the physical set pieces are as foreseeable as the twists in the plot.
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The penal colony on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, has long been a part of 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd world. Recently, the prison played a prominent role in a run of stories written by Rob Williams, with art by Henry Flint, now collected in this new volume.

In the title story, Titan, Dredd is sent to the colony to deal with a breakout led by former Wally Squad judge Aimee Nixon. This is followed by Fit, a one-shot exploring Dredd’s increasingly erratic behaviour as a result of injuries sustained during the Titan mission. Then there’s Enceladus: New Life and Enceladus: Old Life, a sci-fi horror epic in which the escaped prisoners, having ended up on the icy moon of Enceladus and subsequently been possessed by an alien force, return to attack Mega-City One. Finally, there’s Melt, a Christmas one-off only thematically linked to the rest; it’s a take on classic animation The Snowman, except in typically brutal 2000 AD style – amusingly subversive!

It’s an exciting collection of stories, and Williams deftly brings in characters and plot threads from past Dredd strips without relying too heavily on them, making this suitable for hardened fans and new readers alike. What really sets this apart from the typical Dredd story, though, is the focus on his increasing age – the character has been appearing in 2000 AD since 1977 and, unlike many other comic book characters, has been ageing at the same rate as the publication. Throughout this volume, Dredd makes mistakes, gets seriously beaten up, and his competence is called into question – an intriguing development which hints at major changes to come for Old Stony Face.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

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Full review on Starburst.

Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu) has been alone for three years, ever since her husband Yusuke (Yadanobu Asano) went missing. And then, one day, he suddenly reappears. Yusuke explains that he is in fact dead, having drowned at sea, but his spirit has journeyed back to see her. Somewhat unfazed by this whole thing, Mizuki agrees to go on the road with her ghostly lover, so he can introduce her to all the people who helped him on his trip back from the dead.

Journey to the Shore is a supernatural love story from writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, meant as a drawn-out version of a conversation between a man on his deathbed and the loved one watching over him. Indeed, as the film goes on, we get to know Mizuki and Yusuke well, and they get to know each other, learning secrets they’d previously held and eventually working their way towards a more fulfilling conclusion to their relationship. This reflection is helped along by subtle, understated performances from Fukatsu and Asano; along with Kurosawa’s thoughtful direction and Akiko Ashizawa’s cinematography, which brings out the best of the beautiful Japanese countryside, this allows for a contemplative and oneiric atmosphere.

In all of the towns they visit, Yusuke introduces Mizuki to a range of people, all of whom have recently been affected by deaths in their own families, and some of whom are ghosts like Yusuke. However, this journey does, as Mizuki says herself at the start, “take a long time”. One visit, to a couple who run a restaurant, almost repeats the same plot points as the previous encounter – and this isn’t the only point in the film at which the ponderous pacing becomes a chore.

Those willing to stick with it may find themselves absorbed by Journey to the Shore’s melancholic exploration of death, so it’s such a shame that Kurosawa’s film is let down by its repetitive, unclear plotting and its languorous pacing.

Friday, 20 May 2016


The new edition of Starburst Magazine is out now! 

This issue explores the best and the worst of alien invasion movies, from Body Snatchers to Battlefield Earth. I've written the cover feature, a preview of Independence Day: Resurgence. In addition, my Outside the Box column brings you up to speed on what's going on in the world of Doctor Who, and my review of that Leninist propaganda box set I watched is printed.

Starburst 425 is available from all good newsagents, some bad ones, and online.


To many who grew up alongside the revived Doctor Who, David Tennant is the Doctor, and so this month is very exciting – there’s not just the new Tenth Doctor audios, but this novel as well. Jenny Colgan’s In the Blood fits into the timeline towards the end of series four, and sees the Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble return to contemporary Earth, where a strange affliction is making people hyper-aggressive before killing them.

Like many great Who stories, particularly those from the Russell T Davies era, there’s a socially relevant, satirical edge – this affliction begins by preying on Internet trolls. Inspired by the intense aggression that can sadly be seen on any social network, Colgan pokes fun at all sorts of Internet users. The concept also allows for big scale, and their investigation takes the Doctor and Donna on a journey from London to South Korea, then on to the jungles of Brazil. It’s a fast-paced adventure with tense set pieces, the highlight being a scuffle on a train speeding out of control. The plotting sags a little in the final act, however, when two major villainous forces are revealed and their motivations aren’t entirely clear. It’s also worth noting that you may want to listen to Colgan’s audio Time Reaver before reading In the Blood, as a certain plot element ties the two together.

But the real highlight of In the Blood is the characterisation. Despite fan cynicism about Catherine Tate’s casting, the Doctor and Donna very quickly became one of the most beloved pairings of the revived series. They were incredibly funny together, and from the book’s first chapter, in which Donna gets kicked out of a spa for causing a robot masseur to explode, Colgan captures this perfectly; it’s easy to read the dialogue in Tennant and Tate’s voices. 

Sunday, 8 May 2016

 

[I get very SPOILERY in this. Because fuck it, there's loads of non-spoiler reviews out there and they're getting boring.]

Back in 2014, I was surprised by how much I liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which turned the annoyingly patriotic origin of the title character on its head to create a tense political conspiracy thriller. The third Cap movie, though directed by the Russo brothers again, takes another shift in tone, bringing in a myriad of Marvel characters and being in many ways more of a third Avengers movie, as well as an adaptation of Mark Millar’s landmark comic series Civil War.

The first half of the film is very strong, with a Bond-esque opening action sequence in an exotic locale, which also acts as a springboard for the main plot – the Lagos mission is the latest in a line of collateral damage-rich screw-ups for the Avengers, and so Tony Stark has a plan for them to become answerable to the UN. This conflict builds up at a steady pace, escalating the divide between Steve Rogers and Stark in a way that feels entirely natural and not like it's crowbarring its way towards the bit where they fight each other. It’s a particularly bold move to have Stark – previously a very unsympathetic ego-driven capitalist – be the one on the side of regulation, and to have Cap – previously the poster boy for governments of both the ‘40s and modern day – be the one who ends up the criminal. This could have worked out shambolically, but Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script handles these developments in their characters deftly, adding layers to both of them – the scenes of Tony confronted by his guilt in the form of a grieving mother highlight strong progression in his arc over the past few films – and the Russos are on solid ground with the political thriller style, this first half tonally similar to The Winter Soldier. I do expect someone more politically astute than me to write a thesis on what it all means in terms of today’s politics (Does presenting the film’s main hero as the one fighting against regulation of superpowers have a worrying parallel with America’s gun lobby? Or does having Stark side with the government act as criticism of America’s capitalist establishment?), but it’s important to note that Civil War takes care to show both sides, and focuses on individual character stories rather than deliberate political comment. Plus, frankly, once it gets past the half way point, this isn’t what the film cares about any more.

Because, once Cap and his team are on the run and the battle lines have been drawn, Civil War does very much become a film about chucking two teams of superheroes at each other, and this is where its flaws start to show. There’s an extended team-building montage, in which both Cap and Tony bring other heroes on board, not because these characters have any relevance to the story, but because they’re all planning to get into a big fight.


The bit that grated with me most was – and I know many other people really loved this appearance – Spider-Man. Yes, Tom Holland seems to be a lot of fun in the role, and yes, the idea of Tony wanting to be a father figure to him is kind of sweet, but… why is he there? Tony’s in Germany. He wants to track down some criminalised Avengers who are also in Germany. So he goes to New York to recruit a school kid based on a hunch that he’s been helping the police arrest some street criminals. It just stinks so bad of “We have the licence to use Spider-Man! Quick - add him into that film that we’ve already written” that it spoiled the fun of his appearance for me.

The same applies to Ant-Man, who’s shuttled all the way from America to Germany just so they can all get in a fight at a German airport whilst trying to escape Germany. Perhaps it would have all seemed a bit less pointless if Cap and co. had actually managed to escape to somewhere and that fight had taken place in a different country? (Also, while all these characters were being brought in, the absence of Nick Fury, who would actually have something to say about all this, felt notable. I guess Sam Jackson was busy.)

Part of the problem is that the Sokovia Accords, which put the Avengers under UN supervision, don’t have the same scale as their equivalent from the comics’ story, the Superhero Registration Act, which required all superpowered individuals to make themselves officially known. Hence in this scaled down version, additional characters have to be brought into the story via the most tenuous of links. Presumably going full-on Superhero Registration was decided against because it would take time away from the Cap/Bucky story, and because the Marvel Universe films haven't really done anything with the idea of secret identities, but it does strip the film of a level of depth and allegory that could have really elevated the second half.

Still, that big fight is what people are coming to see, right? That’s where the money shots are. There are indeed a lot of great moments in the punch-up, and it’s impressive how every character is given stuff to do. Personally, I found it went on too long, but hey, at least they didn’t blow up another city. (Why was the airport empty, though? It seems odd, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an explanation that I totally missed.)


While I’ve mainly been talking about the two main ‘teams’, however, I haven’t yet mentioned either Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther or Daniel Brühl’s Zemo, two characters who don’t really have affiliation to any of the established leads and yet have their own plots which stand out among all the other chaos going on. Both of them initially seem dislikable (and yet thoroughly watchable, due to charismatic performances), and when their motivations are revealed, both turn out to be more sympathetic than they initially appear – if you can call anyone the villain of this film, it’s Zemo, and it’s nice to have an antagonist in a Marvel movie who has a personal, believable motivation for what he’s doing, cleverly paralleled with the ‘collateral damage’ theme of the main plot and with Black Panther’s own motives.

So, while I have my reservations about the second half of Civil War, it’s a film that I do look forward to revisiting. It tries to do a hell of a lot of things - more even than either of the Avengers films so far - and does most of them rather well. It convincingly and dramatically develops the characters of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, while bringing in many other characters, to varying levels of success. And lots of superheroes punch each other.