Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

A DVD review originally printed in Death Ray #20.


Director: Chris Fisher

Writers: Nathan Atkins, Richard Kelly (characters)

Starring: Daveigh Chase, Briana Evigan, James Lafferty, Ed Westwick, John Hawkes



 A sequel to Donnie Darko! Um, why? That’s what we want to know.

Donnie Darko is love-it-or-hate it cinema, an alchemical cocktail two parts disquieting philosophy, three parts David Lynch, one part teen moping and just the tiniest drop of SF. But its dark view of young adult life came with a certain catharsis, Donnie’s life was expunged fulfilling a role forced on him by the universe itself, it was a powerful metaphor for growing up. At least, that’s the way I saw it. And that was why it was so great – it is infinitely interpretable.

s. Darko is not. A movie reverse-engineered from the smouldering remains of the first, it doesn’t get it right at all. There’s uncertainty, ambiguity, atmosphere as in the original, but these have been self-consciously placed into the structure. The story, concerning Donnie’s kid sister Sam lost in deepest Utah, chooses friendship and sacrifice as its themes, but it lacks the freaky otherliness of Donnie Darko. Furthermore, it relies on robbing a handful of keynotes from the first, diminishing then reversing them, so the film never manages to be anything other than a pale reflection of its predecessor. (An effect of this grave robbing is that all seemingly Godly men in the Darkoverse are represented as evil paedophiles. It’s a shamefully easy target). There’s beautiful cinematography throughout, but the lack of soul leaves these sequences as nothing more than pretentious pop-video images gilding an average tale of small town weirdness.

Critically, s. Darko lacks the weird vision of Richard Kelly. Donnie Darko is a flawed movie; that it intrigues fans may well be a happy accident, but it has the artistic integrity of one man’s madness. s. Darko is a wholly artificial construct.

Extras: A 15 minute making of, a 10 minute music video where the cast bitch about being in Utah, director’s commentary and a handful of deleted scenes.

I really enjoy Terry Gilliam’s work. No matter how patchy it can be, it is at least unique, and sometimes brilliant. Time Bandits was a childhood staple. Brazil helped me mope through early adulthood (until I grew the hell up. There is always a way out, man. Always. It’s still a good film though). Baron Munchausen rewarded multiple viewings. The Fisher King made me teary, Twelve Monkeys made me think, The Brothers Grimm was just… awful. But all power to him. When I went to the press screening of the film, I buttonholed film critic Mark Kermode, who was talking to Gilliam. I did it on the pretence of thanking Mr Kermode for quoting me in a piece of his and attributing the quote. But what I really wanted to do was stand near Terry Gilliam. Which I did, and I exchanged like four whole words with him. I was a bit starstruck, actually, and I generally don’t have time for all that celebrity nonsense.

This review of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was published in Death Ray #21, one of the last major film reviews I did for that publication. Or for anyone, come to think of it. The fudge story is true, by the way. My wife still brings it up from time to time in that way wives do when you make one tiny error once five years ago. Ahem.


Director: Terry Gilliam

Writers: Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown

Starring: Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer, Tom Waits, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell

Gilliam’s movies promise bizarre, hallucinatory experiences (this seems to go for audience and cast alike). If you’re a Gilliam fan, then judged by this criterion alone, Parnassus is an unchallenged success. It is so utterly bonkers it encourages bizarre behaviour from those who see it. Thom, late of this title, who came to see the film for Death Ray’s sister mag FilmStar ended up wandering round a half-deserted warehouse party at 4.00am, accompanied by a Swedish philosopher and nursing a bloody nose after our screening. Whereas I, hastening back to Bath in a fugue, spent eight pounds sterling on a massive bag of fudge. Eight pounds. On fudge. A magic bean moment I blame firmly on Gilliam’s movie. (more…)

From Death Ray #21.

Kevin J. Anderson/Orbit


A book that promises rip-roaring nautical adventure, and then resolutely stalls for time and page count.

This is a simple book set in a simple world with a simple story. But, like a soap opera, though it is pretty much devoid of any kind of artistic merit, it entertains, and you could never accuse Anderson of running a sloppy ship – The Edge of the World sails at a fair clip.

As far as epic fantasy goes, The Edge of the World is not a bad book. It is, however, guilty of false advertising. You think you are going to get a nautically based tale of exploration, as the ship Luminara sets out to rediscover the holy land, but it is soon destroyed, and though a new expedition is proposed, that ship is destroyed also, leaving us to wait until book two before things get going. Instead of the offered adventure we’re given nearly 600 pages of war preparations as the two opposing kingdoms of Tierra and Urab come to blows following a series of terrible misunderstandings.

These kingdoms are the most cardboard of creations. Based very obviously on Christian Europe and the Muslim East, both follow similar religions with key, aggression-causing differences. It’s an artificial set-up, Anderson’s kingdoms exist in a vacuum, have complications regarding their scale and, most egregiously, the Arab-analogue, though possessed of a fine and cultured ruler, is populated by hateful zealots. There’s a conscious effort to balance the two sides, but inexorably, the scales of evil swing to the disfavour of the southern desert dwellers.

Anderson’s gift is in keeping all this moving at such a pace that you don’t care, but if you slow down for even a moment it all becomes painfully clichéd: the wise King, the equally wise Emir-type, the avoidable war, the white woman taken into slavery to become queen of the heathens, the giant octopus, the childhood sweethearts… It’s a long list of very obvious orientalist fantasy tropes. An uncomplicated pleasure, perhaps, but life’s too short when there are so many great books out there.

This TV pilot for a show that was never made (or was it? I didn’t want to check in case it had), has the dishonourable distinction of being among the worst things I have ever had to review for anyone, anywhere. From Death Ray #20.



Director: Christian T. Petersen

Writers: Christian T. Petersen, Greg Benage

Starring: Bonni Allen, Matt Amendt, Chars Bonin, Dawn Brodey, Sha Cage

The TV pilot of the roleplaying game! We are almost asleep with excitement…

Midnight Chronicles is based on the roleplaying game Midnight, standard D&D knock-off (using, like many games these days, D&D’s license-free D20 gaming system) with one big difference to the usual setting – in the fantasy world of Aryth, the local Dark Lord has actually won. Both game and film depict a land in the thrall of evil.

There is absolutely nothing else notable about this straight-to-disc exercise, other than the question, how on earth did they manage to make something so amateurish with such a massive crew? The script is an endless procession of conversations conducted in faux Olde Worlde English, delivered by a collection of miserable looking thesps who look like they all went to the same class, entitled “To sneer, it to ACT!”. Not only does everyone thus sound alike, it’s all quite annoyingly arch.

And by whatever the dark lord is called, it is tedious. Two sloppy fight sequences are our meagre ration of action. There’s no humour, drive, no pizzazz of any kind at all. There’s more incident in a Mister Man book.

If only all involved weren’t taking it so terribly seriously, because it looks good (for a TV pilot – I doubt we’ll ever see a series). Good costumes, nice sets and locations show the real effort put in to conjure up a fantasy world, one with far more weight to it than that in, say, the recent Legend of the Seeker.

But the story drags like a millstone round a swimmer’s neck, a not particularly strong swimmer at that. Frankly, I’d rather stab needles into my feet than watch this again. A squandered chance to make a fantasy show, one to be endured on fast-forward only.

I reviewed these two books in one piece. Sometimes we do that in magazines, it’s interesting to draw parallels between similar items, and it saves space, honestly. I mean, you would not believe how hard it is to try to cover all the SF, Fantasy and Horror that comes out in one month, alright?

My authorial chum Adam Roberts liked The Forest of Hands and Teeth rather more than I did. I’ll leave that as a reminder that reviews spring only from personal opinion, rather than some kind of objective vision of  creative truth.

From Death Ray #20. (more…)

Review: Kill Her Again

Posted: September 30, 2014 in Archive posts, Journalism, Reviews

Kill Her Again
Kill Her Again by Robert Gregory Browne
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Like a so-so episode of the X-Files, Browne’s book brings pulp style and a whole heap of coincidences to a fairly unlikely plot where a sinister gypsy appears to be bumping off incarnations of the same woman over and over again. To say more of it will spoil what surprises there are. Which is not to say there are many of them, the plot is pretty well signposted throughout, but the enjoyment in these crime thrillers is to be had almost exclusively from watching them click along their pre-ordained paths, not from trying to figure out who the killer is a la Agatha Christie. Bloody these plots may be, but this type of low-rent genre fiction offers a kind of comfort. This is particularly in the case of Kill Her Again, with its overtones of fate and arrow-straight seam of true love.

It’s easy to see the book as a mid-range Hollywood effort, and it is exactly as imaginative as that makes it sound. In the end it’s a massive case of sibling rivalry. The police procedural aspect of the story is a long way from Thomas Harris’ quality, while the supernatural goings on are at best serviceable. If you want the definitive scary American gypsy story, read Stephen King’s Thinner. This is pulpy trash; diverting for two hours, but one to toss in the airport trash when done.

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