Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

I enjoy this sort of mid-budget, pet project SF made by auteur wannabes in the same way some people enjoy rubbish horror films. This sort of film fits into a category all of its own, where slightly mismatched ideas (usually one or three too many) are crammed into a stylish, dark world where the creator tries very hard to work out their intellectual kinks. You can practically smell the tortured creativity, along with whisky and salty tears. They are always too clever by half, and therefore not clever at all.

A large number of French SF/fantasy/horror fits into this category (Eden Log, The Martyrs, Malefique are good examples. Click on the links for reviews, where available. English language representatives include Split Second, Reign of Fire, Outpost and Perfect Creature). They all fail somewhere, but they are glorious, admirable failures nonetheless, like Franklyn. A review of the DVD release from Death Ray #20. (more…)

A fantastic book by one of my favourite writers, from Death Ray #19. Read my interview with Le Guin here.

158 x 240

Author: Ursula Le Guin

Publisher: Gollancz


One of the best writers of the age gives us, perhaps, her best book.

It’s not often that you will hear a journalist to admit this but Lavinia is a book I really do not feel appropriately qualified to review. It’s not just that it takes inspiration from one of the great texts of European literature – the Aeneid, by Vergil (or Virgil, if you prefer), which I fear my minor critical skills provide too small a set of cutlery to properly digest, but that it is such a perfectly balanced blend of feeling, metre and storytelling it is hard to describe. (more…)

This series, Kröd Mändoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire was a game attempt to make a comedy fantasy show. We reviewed the series over two issues of Death Ray, and both reviews are included below I was inclined to be generous to it, but in the end it didn’t quite work.



Directors: Various

Writers: Peter Knight, Brad Johnson

Starring: Sean McGuire, India De Beaufort, Matt Lucas, Alex MacQueen

Comedy fantasy that just about succeeds on both scores.

Comic fantasy is a difficult to pull off . Few beyond Terry Pratchett manage to raise genuine laughs in print, and even his stuff doesn’t work well as TV comedy.

Being created specifically for telly, Kröd Mändoon is friendlier to the format. In some ways it’s reminiscent of Roman comedy Chelmsford 123 (one of Kröd production company Hat Trick’s very first efforts). Perhaps we’re being generous here, but it just could be fantasy’s answer to Red Dwarf.

Why? Well, the first episode of Red Dwarf, like Kröd Mändoon‘s, was hardly hilarious, but as the characters and situation became established, it became so. There’s plenty in fantasy to tease, and Kröd attacks the cliches with gusto, Michael Gambon’s voice overs doing a great job of popping the genre’s vasty pomposity.

Matt Lucas and Alex MacQueen’s double act as evil Chancellor Dongalor and his put-upon number two Barnabus is easily the highlight of the series thus far. Despots always have the most fun, but Dongalor’s employment of teeth-grinding modern management techniques punctuated with murderous violence demonstrates comic fantasy’s greatest strength: as a satirical tool it works extremely well. If the later episodes make more of this it could well succeed. As it is, the second episode is better than the first. And though the rest of the characters are not as strong as Dongalor, McGuire’s insecure freedom fighter Kröd shows some promise.

However, Red Dwarf at its best managed to be good science fiction and good comedy. We’re not so convinced Kröd‘s fantasy is robust enough to be more than simply silly. Secondly, although the market for literary fantasy is larger than that of SF, the genre’s habits and foibles are not as familiar to the broader public. Still, it’s brave, and raises more than the average number of laughs. We’ll keep watching.

Part II

Broad fantasy comedy that raises more than a few laughs, but doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Last issue we left Kröd after two episodes, hoping the series would come good on the promise it showed. We can report that it did. Mostly. Kröd’s full outing was not exactly a laugh riot, but it managed to remain entertaining throughout.

We’ll reiterate our reservations from last time: do sufficient people know fantasy well enough to get Kröd? And can it be more than simply silly? The first remains an unknown, only audience figures will give us any indication, but the second we’ll have to say ‘no’ to. The series’ jokes are almost entirely predicated on three things. First: Chancellor Dongalor’s murderous governance and family affairs. Secondly: the incompetence of Kröd’s crew. Thirdly: sex. There’s so much smut in Kröd it should really be called Crude Mändoon and the Big Fat Cock Joke.

But hey, Death Ray likes a good cock joke as much as the next Englishman.

It’s the heroes constant bickering that works less well. To be sure, each member of Kröd’s plucky band has some kind of issue, and these play off well against each other, but it’s a forced kind of comedy. It doesn’t play off against the heroes’ quest they’re on either. Yeah, sure, the band of idiots who succeed in spite of themselves is old as time, but it doesn’t quite hold up here. Better would be to follow the model of Asterix the Gaul, whose adventures manage to be hilarious without the hero being a total chump.

Unlike Red Dwarf, or the more recent No Heroics, both of which used standalone ideas for each story, Kröd Mändoon depends on the ongoing story of the rebellion against Chancellor Dongalor, and his attempt to reactivate an ancient magical weapon. Most episodes have a standalone element to them, episode 4, for example, has the team attempting to rob a Cyclops of his magic gem. But, you guessed it, it’s all nookie jokes. There’s just not enough scope in individual episodes to build truly comic situations. The arc-plot is to blame. It’s too close to the thing it’s parodying. It’s too… BIG. Sitcoms depend on the situation as much as the comedy, and that situation has to be confining. Whether it’s Red Dwarf‘s spaceship, No Heroic‘s pub, any number of living rooms and flatshares or, more broadly, Royston Vasey, the relationship between Mark and Jez in Peepshow or Blackadder II‘s Elizabethan era, they all restrict. Kröd has no base, and his exploits are less funny because of it. It’s notable that the Dongalor/ Barnabus scenes remain the most successful. This is in part due to Matt Lucas’ performance, but also because it adheres more strictly to the formula of all truly great TV comedies – they barely leave the castle.

It is a warmhearted romp, and there are good jokes and good lines, but if it comes back for a second run, it will need to be tighter and just a bit more imaginative.

A DVD review from rom SFX #223. Putting this up here reminds me that Bob Hoskins died this year.

DVD Two and a half stars
Extras: Three and a half stars
2011 * 12 * 162 minutes
Director: Nick Willer
Cast: Charlie Rowe, Rhys Ifan, Anna Friel, Bob Hoskins, Charles Dance

Peter Pan prequel doesn’t fly

What is it with this constant need to reinvent popular icons? Have we become imaginatively bankrupt? And why do we need to put an inferior modern stamp on classics while doing so? Neverland is the latest in a growing run of such, ahem, entertainments.

A prequel/ reimagining (shudder) of Barrie’s beloved tale, Neverland has some merits. There’s an obvious amount of money been spent on great sets and costumes (although some of the CG is dreadful), Charlie Rowe is a very good Peter, and there’s a measure of directorial flair from Willer.

The same can’t be said of his script. Neverland is a fundamentally magical place; Willer’s reductionist attempt to explain how it works steals much of this magic away. Borrowing tedious tropes from fatbook fantasy and the shallower end of SF, the story makes Neverland into an alien planet, introduces wizards, and has Hook and Peter enjoy a confused Vader/Luke relationship. Locales like Neverland and Oz are marvellous because of their illogicality; as with a magician’s trick, you can’t get lift the curtain on their workings and expect them to hold up as well.

There are simpler flaws evident in the narrative. The story is saggy, and when not held in thrall to Willer’s sensawunda-murdering infodumps, repetitive. What should have been enthralling is often tedious.

An ill-advised attempt that entirely misses the point.

Extras: Two two-part documentaries, four interviews (Dance, Friel, and two with Willer). Not a bad amount, but they tend to celebratory puff rather than incisiveness. Guy Haley


Did you know?

Barrie’s Hook was a pirate and one-time associate of Blackbeard, Willer has him recast as a disgraced 19th century aristocrat muddled up in occult doings.

Review: Origin

Posted: June 17, 2014 in Archive posts, Journalism, Reviews

Origin by J.T. Brannan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

From SFX #229.

The Da Vinci Spaceship

The Bilderberg Group, Area 51, the Nazca Lines, Greys, world government, alternative archeology – name an element of alien-connected conspiracy silliness, and it’s in SF thriller Origin.

Evelyn Edwards is a scientist in Antarctica who discovers a human body frozen into 40,000 year-old ice. Not only should this corpse not be there, but he’s also possessed of advanced tech. After reporting the find, Evelyn’s team are wiped out by members of the US Army. She goes on the run, hooking up with her ex-husband – ace Native American tracker Matt – and discovers a conspiracy that threatens the human race.

Origin is the kind of book that spoon feeds its readers. Everything, from its characters’ motivations to geographical locations, is not so much artfully described as ladled into one’s mind. We suppose that’s fair enough; this is a simple thriller, not the ambiguous latest from Christopher Priest, but the common audience denominator being aimed at here is pretty darn low.

Matt’s Indian background and an okay-ish final twist aside, there’s not a great deal to recommend Origin. The main characters are uninspired ciphers designed to absorb exposition, and there are some jaw-dropping bits of narrative fudgery that derail what is otherwise a pleasantly brainless ride. If this were a film, it would be directed by Paul Anderson. No doubt it has the potential to sell very well, but there are a lot of better books around – even in the unambitious technothriller subgenre of which Origin is firmly a part.

Did you know?

J.T. Brannan trained as an army officer at Sandhurst before deciding to be a writer. This is his first book. He’s also a karate expert. Ulp.

View all my reviews

I really didn’t rate this much, although I’ve read more positive reviews elsewhere. From SFX #233.

2009/15 /38 mins

Director: Fred Gerber, Sturla Gunnarsson, Peter Howitt, David Straiton

Writers: James D. Parriott, Sheri Elwood, Meredith Lavender, Marcie Ulin

Cast: Ron Livingston, Malik Yoba, Andrew Airlie, Paula Garces, Florentine Lahme. Karen LeBlanc, Eyal Podell, Laura Harris, Dylan Taylor, Christina Cox, Ty Olson, Zahf Paroo


Defies enjoyment.

This TV show deserves to be liked. It’s so earnest. But it’s like an introvert at a party – a little distant, and well, boring. SF TV demands extroversion.

Charting a near-future voyage to the nine planets (it was made before Pluto was demoted), Defying Gravity takes a Grey’s Anatomy approach to astronauts, with the SF-y twist of a telepathic something in a pod secretly running the mission.

Defying Gravity was cancelled after 13 episodes. Neither factual enough to be enlightening, nor SFnal enough to be entertaining, Defying Gravity goes to lengths to establish some scientific truths, yet the astronauts are all head cases, and messages zip over 30 million miles of space in an instant, allowing endless heart-to-hearts between parted lovers.

Is it a romance show? SF? Realism? All and none of the above. The characters mesh well, even if they are unsuitable as astronauts, but the series makes the fatal error of playing the long game with them. Nothing happens. We get to one planet, Venus, right at the end. Many SF series save money with tense “bottle episodes”, but this is one long bottle series, barely enlivened by its accidents of the week.

Real astronauts are rock-solid, thoughtful people. Introverts, actually; competent, capable, modest and highly intelligent. This show is not enough of those things.

DVD Extras: Picture gallery, deleted scenes, documentary. The doc’s a preview where the actors are all excited, and tells us nothing of how the story would have progressed.

Did you know?

Peter Howitt, that’s Joey from classic 80s sitcom Bread, features as a prying Brit journalist in the show, and directed three episodes.