February 13, 2016

Babylon 5: "The River of Souls"

It's 17 November 1998, and time for another Babylon 5 TV movie.

Archaeologist Robert Bryson (future Emmy and SAG nominee Ian McShane) comes to Babylon 5 with a stolen alien artefact. While the artefact begins to exert a strange psychic power over Bryson, he is followed by a powerful Soul Hunter (future six-time Emmy nominee Martin Sheen) who is desperate to retrieve it at all costs.

"The River of Souls" is an interesting made-for-television film for two reasons. Firstly, it is the first Babylon 5 storyline - outside of the series finale - to be set beyond the original five-year timeline. Secondly it is genuinely odd to see two major and widely acclaimed dramatic actors - Ian McShane and Martin Sheen - performing in a series that is considerably below the quality standards to which both men are now accustomed.

Outlander: "The Garrison Commander"

Claire (Catriona Balfe) and Dougal (Graham McTavish) are escorted by British troops to a nearby inn, where Claire can be assessed and introduced to the garrison's commanding general. Her visit takes a dangerous turn, however, when she comes face to face once again with Captain Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies), her 20th century husband's ancestor and the man who attempted to rape her when she arrived in the 1740s.

"The Garrison Commander" is an excellent episode of Outlander, combining great character work and dialogue with some unexpected plot developments, a harrowing flashback and a fleshing-out of a great new villain for television drama. Jack Randall was clearly going to be an ongoing antagonist from Claire from the moment she first encountered him. It is simply too perfect: a vile, spiteful and cruel monster, bearing the exact facial features of her husband Frank. Tobias Menzies does a startling job playing the two men in the same episode - Frank via a brief flashback and Jack throughout its second half - and he makes them strikingly different to each other.

February 12, 2016

The Pull List: 10 February 2016, Part II

Learoyd and Dusty wake to find themselves rescued from the goats and brought to a peaceful village of sheep. There's a mysterious light in the mountain above, and a strange sickness affecting the village's oldest and youngest residents.

The Autumnlands is such a great fantasy comic. Truth be told I have no idea where the book is going: it started off as a story of rival magicians attempting to summon a mighty champion. Now it's a road trip between the last human in the world and an anthropomorphic dog in training to become a wizard. This book feels literary: it has a wonderful old-fashioned charm to it, one that's emphasised by Benjamin Dewey's exceptional artwork. Its aesthetic all looks more like an illustrated storybook than a comic, and that makes it feel unlike any other comic on the shelves at the moment.

There are plenty of mysteries running through the book. We still don't entirely know who Learoyd is, or why he keeps seeing an illusory golden woman. We have not reconnected with Dusty's masters from the floating city of magicians. Writer Kurt Busiek has hinted wonderfully at a much broader world with a long history, but so far we have only really seen hints of it. There is so much story promise here that I really hope The Autumnlands runs for a good long time. If you are a fantasy fan and a comics reader, you really need to be reading this book. (4/5)

Image. Written by Kurt Busiek. Art by Benjamin Dewey. Colours by Jordie Bellaire.

Under the cut: reviews of Black Canary and The Massive: Ninth Wave.

Time Traveller: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2010)

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a popular Japanese science fiction novel, originally published in 1967. It follows a high schooler named Kazuko Yoshiyama, who encounters and falls in love with a traveller from the 26th century and develops the ability to leap backwards through time. The novel has been adapted to film and television several times, beginning with a 1972 television drama and subsequently with feature films in 1983 and 1997 and most famously as a 2006 feature anime directed by Mamoru Hosoda.

Hosoda's film actually worked as a loose sequel to the novel, with actress Riisa Naka voicing Kazuko's niece on a time travelling adventure of her own. In 2010 director Masaaki Taniguchi attempted something similar, directing Time Traveller: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. It is another sequel to the novel, and this time much more directly, as Kazuko's daughter Akari (Riisa Naka again) travels from 2010 to 1974 in an attempt to pass on a message from her hospitalised mother to the mysterious time traveller she romanced back as a teenager.

February 11, 2016

The Pull List: 10 February 2016, Part I

After throwing Hydra out of New Jersey, Kamala Khan understandably can't wait for a little down-time. Instead she seems busier than ever: there are classes to study for, a brother getting married with his wife moving into the Khan household, and yet more crime-fighting to be done on behalf of the Avengers. She seems to have hit upon a solution, but it's clear that the solution is going to be much, much worse than the original problem.

Marvel do a really good job when finding fill-in artists. Guest artist Nico Leon has a style that is very similar to Adrian Alphona, and as such the book continues on in such a smooth and seamless manner that a lot of readers probably won't even notice the change.

G. Willow Wilson's writing continues to flawlessly present Kamala and her life. This issue presents exactly the sorts of qualities and content that have made the book so enjoyable. Wilson balances the superhero elements of the comic with the high school drama, and always manages to throw in quite a lot of well-observed and funny humour at the same time. Kamala is such an adorable character. I think she is almost impossible to dislike - much like this comic. If you read Ms Marvel and don't enjoy it - why are you reading superhero comics at all? (5/5)

Marvel. Written by G. Willow Wilson. Art by Nico Leon. Colours by Ian Herring.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman, Batman and Robin Eternal and Darth Vader.

The Flash: "Fastest Man Alive"

Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) begins using his super-speed to help those in need, but soon finds himself suffering dizzy spells and fatigue. He has little time to rest, however, after encountering a second meta-human: in this case a murderous scientist named Danton Black (Michael Christopher Smith) who can split his own body into multiple clones.

"Fastest Man Alive" feels a lot more relaxed than the slightly shaky pilot. It has a defined and clear purpose, and goes about its business in an efficient and effective manner. It is still a fairly superficial and breezy sort of a series, but for now at least The Flash seems content to throw super-powered villains at an appealing protagonist on a week-by-week basis, and not too much else.

That's okay: there's definitely a place for this kind of populist, non-taxing adventure show. It's enjoyable stuff, and not too taxing, and Grant Gustin goes a long way to making it all a pretty entertaining hour of television. It's also manna from heaven for hardcore DC Comics fans.

February 10, 2016

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Just as they are on the cusp of going their separate ways for good, consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) and war veteran Dr John Watson (Jude Law) are brought back together for one final case: the inexplicable resurrection of the occultist and murderer Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong).

Sherlock Holmes, which was released to great commercial success back in 2009, is one of those Hollywood projects that makes so much sense and seems such an obvious idea that the genius was noticing that nobody had attempted it before. Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories were the blockbusters of their day, so why not translate the characters into an actual Hollywood action blockbuster? There had been a near-countless number of Sherlock Holmes adaptations made for film before, but I am not sure there had ever been one with as strong an emphasis on action as it did on mystery-solving. It also had the sense to bring in actor just hitting the absolute peak of his popularity (Robert Downey Jr) and to hire a director (Guy Ritchie) who had demonstrated a lot of talent but never had the chance to make a big-budget Hollywood film.

Survivors: "Starvation"

It's 4 June 1975, and time for another episode of Survivors.

Greg (Ian McCullough), Jenny (Lucy Fleming) and the kids find themselves trapped in a van surrounded by a pack of hungry dogs. Meanwhile Abby (Carolyn Seymour) meets two more survivors of the plague - and has another encounter with the shift Welshman Tom Price (Talfryn Thomas).

Then the money ran out. I am assuming that is what happened at any rate. Survivors had until this point balanced its shoot between studio recordings on videotape and location shoots using 16mm film. Now the exterior scenes are shot using outside broadcast video, which on the one hand gives the episode a more consistent visual texture but on the other makes the whole enterprise look an awful lot cheaper. The lower budget affects the episode in other ways too. The sound quality is variable. The performances feel rushed and under-rehearsed. A pack of wild dogs, which should in theory be a terrifying threat to the characters, is represented by a small collection of remarkably sedate and friendly group of pets.