September 2, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

It's a pretty good indication of how cleverly Marvel Studios are producing and marketing their movies that they can have two films released in one year, both set in the same fictional universe, both grossing more than half a billion dollars worldwide, and one is Guardians of the Galaxy and the other is Captain America: The Winter Soldier. One's an espionage thriller with superheroes in it, and the other's a sci-fi action comedy starring a talking tree.

I missed The Winter Soldier at the cinema, so it's only now that I've caught up with it on home video. It's really very good. I was not a fan of the first Captain America film, which took much too long to get to the interesting bits and then ended without a proper climax, but it was well anchored by Chris Evans as super-soldier Steve Rogers and did set up the character for a more interesting adventure here.

SHIELD is about to launch a pre-emptive strike network to combat international terrorism. When SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) realises something is going wrong with its implementation, assassins violently take him out of the picture. His last words were to Captain America, who subsequently finds himself on the run from his own government, aided only by fellow Avenger Black Widow (Scarlet Johanssen) and a retired Afghanistan War veteran (Anthony Mackie).

September 1, 2014

Babylon 5: "Shadow Dancing"

In "Shadow Dancing", Season 3's penultimate episode, Delenn and Sheridan prepare to lead the first major counter-offensive against the Shadows. Dr Franklin's "walkabout" adventure comes to an abrupt and very pointy conclusion.

As is often the case, this is an episode of two halves. One of them, the fight against the Shadows, is a thrilling and extremely well staged space opera adventure. The other, Franklin's epiphany in the bowels of Babylon 5, is a trite and obvious exercise in cliché and stereotype. This is a pretty common situation with Babylon 5, and as always how the episode ranks in the end boils down to which half of the episode dominates. Thankfully this time around it's the good half that dominates the proceedings, with Franklin's predicament reduced to a minor irritation by comparison.

This episode must have cost Warner Bros a fair amount of money, because it's got a huge space battle during its climax. It's enormous, frantic and, despite the technical limitations of CGI 20 years ago, visually very effective. On a level of sheer visual spectacle, "Shadow Dancing" pretty much marks the climax of Season 3. There's finally a proper fight between the Shadows and the collected civilizations they threaten.

The Pull List: 27 August 2014

I am struggling to reconcile how I'm feeling about Saga, the hugely successful and widely feted science fiction comic by writer Brian K. Vaughn and artist Fiona Staples. I absolutely adored its first and second arcs, and found my attention flagging a little by the third. Now that we're two-thirds through the fourth arc, I'm finding my opinion of the comic has shifted again. It's trapped somewhere between disappointment and dislike.

I'm disappointed because for a short while this was my favourite comic, and now it's failing to interest me in the same way. I'm beginning to feel fatigued by what seems like a glacial story pace, and a narrative that feels stuck in a rut when it should be barreling forward. I'm feeling dislike because this arc in particular has taken Alana - a character I loved in earlier issues - and made her an actively unpleasant character to be around. She's fallen into drug addiction and is neglecting her husband and daughter, and with the way Vaughn has written it I'm finding it almost impossible to enjoy reading about her any more. I flat-out don't like the person that she's become, and it feels as if she has dragged the comic down into a smaller and smaller domestic spiral as a result. It used to feel imaginative and expansive. Now it feels like a by-the-numbers soap opera.

Now it's possible that the arc's final two issues will reveal this was the intent: Alana is, after all, starring in a soap opera to pay the bills. Maybe it's a deliberate move to have her real life mirror her fake one. I really hope that isn't the case, because it would be precisely the kind of simplistic writing that Saga used to avoid. Vaughn and Staples have earned a lot of goodwill from me with their early issues, but they're cashing that goodwill in at an alarming rate. (2/5)

Under the cut: reviews of All-Star Western, Aquaman, Batman Eternal, Black Science, Doctor Who, The Flash, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, The Massive, Revival, Silver Surfer and Star Wars: Legacy.

August 31, 2014

Doctor Who: "Into the Dalek"

The Doctor discovers a rebel human spacecraft hiding in an asteroid belt from a Dalek saucer ship. Inside they have a Dalek prisoner, that for some reason has swapped sides and decided it is good. To find out what has gone wrong inside it's apparatus, the Doctor, Clara and a team of soldiers are miniaturised and head inside.

That all seems vaguely farcical when you try to type it into a one-paragraph synopsis. This isn't the first time the Doctor has been face-to-face with a solo Dalek, of course. Robert Shearman's exceptional 2005 episode "Dalek" covered that territory astoundingly well, and "Into the Dalek" recalls elements from it quite regularly throughout. This also isn't the first time the Doctor's been miniaturised and injected into someone's body, although for that first time you have to go all the way back to the 1970s and Bob Baker and Dave Martin's "The Invisible Enemy". I had a few flashbacks to that serial as well. Rather curiously, however, this episode also spends a remarkably large amount of its running time developing a new romance between Clara and fellow teacher Danny Pink, and those scenes reminded me quite strongly of Steven Moffat's earlier work including Press Gang and Coupling.

So it's all a bit of a stew, but if there's one thing Doctor Who handles masterfully it's pastiche - even if it's now hit the stage where it's making a pastiche of itself.

August 30, 2014

Babylon 5: "And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place"

Lord Refa returns to Babylon 5 to continue his political game against Londo Mollari. Mollari meanwhile has his own plans to gain status within the Centauri court, involving Vir Cotto and his arch-enemy G'Kar. While that goes on Captain Sheridan focuses on the Shadows' next move from the war room, desperately looking for a pattern among their seemingly random attacks.

This episode is blessed with what is perhaps the longest and most elaborate titles of any Babylon 5 episode - and the series has had a few. Whether it's "And the Sky Full of Stars", or "The Geometry of Shadows", or even this season's Passing Through Gethsemane", Straczynski has never been afraid to be bold when titling his episodes. It makes other episodes like "Convinctions", "Knives" and "Infection" seem rather dull by comparison.

The title is from an old spiritual song, which forms a critical part of the episode's climax. It's rather cleverly used - but is the episode clever as a whole?

August 28, 2014

Over on FictionMachine...

This is just a reminder that The Angriest is not my only blog. Over on FictionMachine I engage in longer-form critical writing about films, researching the origin and production of interesting movies and trying to work out what makes them tick. Since June this year I've added more than 27,000 words of critical writing on seven different films.

My most recent piece is on Michael Clayton (2007), Dan Gilroy's exceptional legal drama starring George Clooney and Tilda Swinton. You can head to that particular piece by following this link. Other recent pieces focus on Dominion: The Prequel to the Exorcist (2005, link here), Unbreakable (2000, link here) and Danny Boyle's Sunshine (2007, link here). If you're keen to read some free filmmaking stories and criticism, head on over and check it out.

FictionMachine is also the subject of an ongoing Patreon campaign. Patreon is a crowd-funding website that allows you to pledge regular micro-payments to artistic pursuits, so for as little as one dollar a month via Paypal you can support the writing of the FictionMachine essays into the future. Check it out and pledge a buck if you want to see me continue blogging. The Angriest will continue in its present form alongside FictionMachine regardless.

Doctor Who: "The Rescue"

With the Doctor and Susan still captive, the Daleks prepare to launch their neutron bomb and destroy the Thals once and for all. Meanwhile Ian, Barbara and a small group of Thals work their way through the caverns in a desperate attempt to reach the Dalek city in time.

Just to clarify I'm talking here about "The Rescue", the seventh and final part of Terry Nation's original Dalek serial, and not "The Rescue", a two-part serial aired in Doctor Who's second season about a year later. Using correct terminology in early Doctor Who episodes can be tricky, since internal documentation at the BBC referred to this Dalek serial as "The Mutants", which is of course the name of a six-part Doctor Who serial made a decade later that starred Jon Pertwee. So just to confirm: we're talking Daleks, and not Koquillion or Solonians.

To be honest there's very little you can do wrong with this kind of an episode. It's the last part of an adventure serial, so the difficult is never in ending it but in keeping the story interesting on the way there. Now that they are there, there's little else to do but defeat the Daleks, save the Doctor and Susan and move on to the next adventure.

Wolverine: Old Man Logan (2009)

"Old Man Logan" was a story arc that ran in Marvel's monthly Wolverine comic for seven months in 2008 before being concluded - somewhat tardily I recall - in a giant-sized final issue about a year later. It was written by Mark Millar with art by Steve McNiven. I never read it at the time, mainly because I've traditionally been more of a DC fan than a Marvel fan, and certainly never read Wolverine. I have, however, now read it in a collected edition, as part of the fortnightly Marvel Graphic Novel Collection to which I have been subscribed these past few years.

The first thing I wanted to note is that McNiven's artwork is great. He's a stunning comic book artist and packs an extraordinary amount of realistic detail into each panel. I'm not surprised there were delays in completing this arc: McNiven's work must take him an absolute age to finish.

That out of the way, it has to be said that this is an appallingly poor comic book. It is pretty much a poster child for Mark Millar's writing in general: great high concepts saddled by adolescent execution.