July 29, 2015

Blake's 7: "Killer"

It's 20 February 1979, and time for more Blake's 7.

Avon and Vila teleport down to the planet Fosforon, where a Federation communications base holds a vital crystal needed to translate newly encrypted security transmissions. While they conspire with the base's corrupt commander, Blake is more concerned with a 700 year-old derelict spacecraft that's just entered Fosforon's orbit - and the possibility that there might be something alive inside.

Blake's 7 gets another new writer - its fourth - and thankfully it's of a much higher calibre than Allan Prior. Instead it's Robert Holmes, former Doctor Who script editor and one of the finest television script writers in the history of British television. He brings all of his talents to bear on the series, providing a well-constructed thriller that showcases one of the best combinations of characters the series will ever have.

July 28, 2015

The Book of the Dead (2005)

Nara, Japan: 750 CE. Iratsume, a young noblewoman, becomes obsessed with the Chinese religion of Buddhism that is spreading across Japan. When she transcribes one thousand copies of a particular sutra she has a vision of the Buddha between the peaks of a nearby mountain. When she follows the vision she discovers a mountain temple - and learns that her vision may not be divine at all, but instead is the apparition of a long-dead Prince whose soul cannot rest.

The Book of the Dead is an animated feature film directed by Kihachiro Kawamoto. I suppose it could be described as an anime, being as it's both Japanese and animated, however it's not like any other Japanese animation I've seen. This film employs not hand-drawn animation but rather stop motion. Its story plays out via elegant theatricalised puppets against miniature sets.

I have no idea whether Japan has a particularly rich history of stop motion animation or not. I know Europe does, starting with Ladislaw Starewicz and running through the past hundred years. Kawamoto even went to Europe to train in the field, working underneath the Czech master Jiří Trnka in Prague.

Bosch: "'Tis the Season"

Police detective Harry Bosch (Titus Welliver) is supposed to be sitting at home waiting for the verdict in a civil lawsuit laid against him for shooting a murder suspect. Instead he's up in the Los Angeles hills investigating a grisly discovery: a child's skeleton.

The police drama is a very crowded marketplace in television. It's been one of the most popular genres for TV drama for about 60 years. Bosch's production arrangement - it's been produced directly for Amazon in the USA - may be reasonably new, but its heritage is very, very old. Titus Welliver plays Bosch: a weary loner working the streets of Los Angeles. He's a maverick, prone to rushing off and investigating things on his own rather than playing by the book. He's constantly circumventing authority in an attempt to crack his latest case. He's troubled by his own personal traumas: a murdered mother, a childhood of abuse, and several years' experience as an army ranger in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. This is to an extent less of a TV pilot and more of an extended series of stereotypes and clichés.

And yet to a certain degree it all works.

July 27, 2015

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

Generally speaking I am not hugely fond of DreamWorks Animation. I liked them at first, with their excellent cel-animated features The Prince of Egypt and The Road to El Dorado demonstrating some willingness to push beyond their Disney origins. Their hugely successful CGI-animated Shrek, however, seemed to overthrow that particular apple-cart, leading to a long-running series of bland, weakly designed films packed with celebrity voice casts and unnecessary pop culture references. Films like Bee Movie, Shark Tale, and The Croods seemed to be about the most boring animated films coming out of America in the past 20 years.

The one massive exception to this trend seemed to be Chris Sanders and De DeBlois' 2010 fantasy film How to Train Your Dragon. Here was a film with strong design, beautiful animation and a well-considered, very well-crafted storyline. It wasn't perfect - there never was a satisfactory explanation for why all of the adults in the film sounded Scottish and their children like Californian teenagers - but it really did stand out as something really special.

Last year DreamWorks released a sequel, because if nothing else sequels appears to be the company's raison d'être. I initially resisted watching it, since the risk seemed pretty high that the studio would ruin what made the original so effective. Thankfully they've avoided that risk, and presented an excellent film. It is not quite a solid as the original for a number of reasons, but does a fairly strong job of expanding the self-contained first film into an ongoing franchise.

Blake's 7: "Trial"

It's 13 February 1979, and time for more Blake's 7.

Emotionally shattered by the death of Gan, Blake (Gareth Thomas) abandons his crew to an apparently desolate planet. Once there, he discovers it is not as uninhabited as he had been led to believe. Over at Space Command, Travis (Brian Croucher) faces trial for a civilian massacre - although everyone knows he's simply a victim of power games between Supreme Commander Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce) and the Federation President.

"Trial" is an episode of two largely unconnected halves, as both Blake and Travis face up to some kind of justice. Both men undergo a transition during the episode, although by the end it's largely business as usual. Blake is back fighting the Federation, and Travis - while now a runaway criminal - continues to hunt down Blake. One storyline - Blake's experiences on the alien planet - is fairly dull and tedious. The other - Travis' trial - is a wonderfully written and performed little political drama.

July 26, 2015

The Pull List: 22 July 2015, Part II

Kudos to Boom Studios for pushing such an aggressive schedule of intriguing non-traditional comic books as part of its schedule. They've had some great success with it as well, with both Lumberjanes and Giant Days finding solid readerships and an awful lot of critical acclaim. They're likely hoping for something similar from Power Up, their latest all-ages comic series. Sadly I'm not sure they're going to get it.

The concept is great: some cosmic force basically turns four individuals into a super-powered monster-fighting team. Instead of picking, as the genre would indicate, four Japanese high schoolers, magical powers are granted to a suburban mother of two, a construction worker, a disaffected shop assistant, and a goldfish. Matt Cumming's artwork is also great for the most part. There's a section towards the end of the first issue where things get very muddy and it becomes difficult to clearly follow what's going on.

It's at the scripting level where things seem to fall down. Kate Leth has written the book is a two-by-three layout of six panels per page, and that doesn't leave the book much room for things to actually happen. By the time I had finished the first issue the story had hit the point I would have expected it to reach by page 10. This is very decompressed stuff, and with such a silly and whimsical premise that kind of slow storytelling could be the kiss of death. (2/5)

Boom Studios. Written by Kate Leth. Art by Matt Cummings.

Under the cut: reviews of The Book of Death: The Fall of Bloodshot, Justice League 3001 and We Are Robin.

Blake's 7: "Pressure Point"

It's 6 February 1979, and time for more Blake's 7.

An over-confident Blake (Gareth Thomas) launches a covert attack on Control, the Federation's central computer network located on Earth. With the Federation secretly aware of the attack, and with a traitor in his midst, Blake may have over-extended himself too far.

"Pressure Point" is a more significant episode of Blake's 7 than most, and we'll get to why in a paragraph or two (in order to spare anybody planning on watching this for the first time from discovering it's fairly shocking conclusion). Even from the outset, however, it's clear that Blake's plan is a big deal. For a season and a half he's been running, and launching odd little strikes against outlying garrisons and communication centres. Now he's charging headlong into the very centre of the Federation's power, whether his crew are behind him or not.

July 25, 2015

Babylon 5: "Conflicts of Interest"

It's 5 May 1997, and time for more Babylon 5.

Garibaldi is on the receiving end of Sheridan's wrath, but finds himself a new employer. Ivanova is tasked with setting up the station's "Voice of the Resistance" broadcasts, but struggles to find sufficient power to send a signal all the way to Earth.

"Conflicts of Interest" is a reasonably enjoyable episode, although it does suffer somewhat from an excess of clichés and stereotypes. It focuses in the main on Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle), in his new job as private investigator on the station. It also seems to be introducing further set-up for storylines down the way. Is it great television? No, but it is sufficiently entertaining television - and sometimes that's enough.