Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category


This review of season one of The Clone Wars was printed after the release of the DVD. There’s a longer piece laying out my opinion of the show and of Star Wars here. From Death Ray #19.

 War in the stars, it’s – The Clone Wars! Er, hang on…

The first season of The Clone Wars is over, but don’t worry, there’s another four to go, or thereabouts.

Season one ends in true Star Wars style, with a big war in the stars. A three part story set on and around the Twi’lek home planet of Ryloth sees Asoka, Anakin and Mace Windu attempting to liberate the tail-headed aliens from the droid army of the Trade Federation. There’s a hint of the horrors of real war with our half-starved Twi’lek civilians huddled by artillery, coerced into being living shields, the ruins of their bombed out cities visible in the background. But mostly war is depicted as a big old lark. That the droid enemy is on top comedy form and the only real casualties half-humanised clones doesn’t really help. For all its spectacle, the Ryloth trilogy leaves an odd and not entirely agreeable taste. It’s fun to fight robots, but people get killed, you know?

Far better is the finale story, ‘Hostage Crisis’, which introduces the Neimoudian bounty hunter Bane. His successful attempt to bust Zero the Hutt out of jail brings us neatly back to the beginning of the series, when the space slug was incarcerated, and sets up the next season in which Bane is due to play a major part. This kind of small-scale caper where real characters are in peril is what Star Wars does second best (best of course being massive space battles). As usual success is guaranteed our heroes – though in this last episode it is deferred – and everything is reduced to the monochrome of a child’s morality. Whether this is a good thing, and actually such fare helps the kiddies work their way up to a more complex understanding of the world, is open to debate. But this show is fun and pretty, at the least.


I watched Lucy last weekend, primarily on the recommendation of The Week‘s mini-review, which called it “Ludicrous but highly entertaining.” I agree with the first part of that sentence.

Owing to the criminal machinations of stereotypically wicked yellow people and a stereotypically dastardly Englishman, a young white woman living in Taiwan (the eponymous Lucy, played by Scarlett Johanssen) absorbs a huge amount of drugs that allow her to unlock the 90% of her brain we don’t use. There are some unlikely fights, a car chase in Paris, and a soulful French gendarme as she is pursued by the criminal gang to France. Then there is some sketchy stuff about God. I think. And Morgan Freeman  (he’s not God in this one, okay? Okay).

I’ve seen very entertaining films with slimmer premises. This was poor on all fronts.

That we only use 10% of our brains is a myth that has become pervasive enough to be used in advertising campaigns. A beloved science fictional truth, it was the basis for the whole “psi” craze that gripped SF in the mid-20th Century. I can be a bit of bore about scientific veracity in SF, however, there’s nothing wrong with using bad science to create an action premise or for the purposes of allegory. We all like superheroes. Fair enough.

But Lucy does not do that.

Writer/Director Luc Besson has fallen in love with this idea, so much so that large, indigestible chunks of the film are taken up by Morgan Freeman (here playing earnest, gravel-voiced scientist) lecturing us about the Earth-shattering implications of this truth, which would be earth-shattering if it were true and not a fallacy, over footage of animals shagging. You sit down to watch an action flick, and find yourself instead being bombarded by some fringe New Age cult’s recruitment message.

The pacing of the film is lousy. The long, confused preamble segues into a muddy plot spiked with bad exposition and action sequences that are lacklustre and fake looking. Unlikely things keep happening to kick the moribund story along. Apparently one can wander into a Taiwanese hospital and shoot someone with no reaction from the authorities until it is narratively expedient (though, I hasten to add, this sort of thing is a problem in nearly all action films. Like Taken. Hang on, that’s also Luc Besson).

Lucy is also a fine example of geek culture’s odd relationship with girls. In geek land, when a woman becomes hyper-intelligent, she becomes yet another tedious Kick Ass Heroine™, a sex object who can break a man’s neck. Lucy starts off as a warm hearted tart (a tart nonetheless) but becomes cold and otherworldly. Compare this to the effects on men in movies with similar themes – the John Travolta vehicle Fire in the Sky or Limitless, with Bradley Cooper, for example. The men in that become warm and super-smart. Violence is a part of their repertoire, but not the larger part. To create their drama, I suppose these films go against perceived gender traits, adding emotion to men and removing it from women. Still, Lucy leaves us with the uncomfortable feeling that empowered women are dangerous in the same way that scorpions are dangerous. Mixed into that is a kind of maternal weirdness. Once Lucy disappears and states via text message “I am EVERYWHERE”, the rest of the almost entirely male cast stand around looking sheepish, like their mother has caught them doing something they’ve been told not to a hundred times.

Bah. That’s enough. Bogus philosophy off the back of bogus science makes for a bad movie. Rubbish.


A DVD review from the very last issue of Death Ray.

2009/91mins/£15.99

THREE STARS

More Kevin-Smith style glib-witted slacker comedy, this time with giant bugs. A fun diversion, and what more does a film need to be?

Shot in Bulgaria for pennies, this story of big bugs taking over the world on a slow weekday is more than the sum of its parts (mind you, Ray Wise is one of those parts, and he’s a big plus in this particular equation).

It’s played for laughs, like Tremors (someone come up with a new paradigm for comedy monster horror already!). Unlike Tremors, the funnies are all that sort of smart mouthed Clerks-style nerd nonsense issuing from lead Chris Marquette’s wiseass mouth. And his character Cooper is a wiseass, a workshy, immature, scruffy, dough-faced layabout. You’re supposed to root for him but you can’t but help think his dad (Wise) is right in castigating the shiftless little fucker for being so useless.

He shows his mettle in the end – though he can’t can the flippancy – by taking on (possibly alien?) insects who have, it seems, subjugated the world, and coming off best. There’s much that’s unbelievable here, and we’re not talking the bugs. Cooper’s romance with cute Sara (Brooke Nevin) stresses our credibility-bearing ganglions, as does Sara’s apparent unconcern with her own mother’s death. Some bits are pretty smart, though, like fragile weathergirl Cindy’s (Kinsey Packard) reaction to the whole situation, a fairly convincing portrayal of deep shock.

The effects are okay, pacing’s peppy and gags good. But the script’s seesawing between geek-wishfulment, Marquette’s stand-up career, 1950s giant ant horror and alien takeover plot only part works. It’s too grim a situation for anyone to maintain such a high quip rate, and far too grim for such romance as is depicted (in any case, Cooper is too damn annoying to pull even in a last-man-on-Earth style scenario).

In the movie, Cooper admits that he fantasised about such situations in the past, we think writer/director Kyle Rankin does too. Perhaps, someone should tell him there are easier ways to get laid than hoping some kind insectoid apocalypse will push a gal in your direction. Oh, and if you want to impress your dad, do something impressive. Slacker.

 

Extras: A Making of featurette, but we have not seen it. Guy Haley


Last April I wrote a review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  Do the thing and click the words to read it. Yesterday, I went to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. This is the only one of the three that I saw at the cinema. I kind of wish I hadn’t. Partly for parenting reasons; having watched the first two and found them adventurous romps more or less suitable for six-year-old Benny (as with many other 12 certificate films featuring fantasy fights), we took him with us. He loved it, but my wife was quite shocked at how much more violent than the other two it was, and that made me a bit uneasy. There is a shift in tone between films two and three. That’s a failure of judgment on my part, though. It says 12 on the packet for a reason, kids.

Despite my shocking parenting, Benny will be okay. He’s only ever been frightened of Spooky Spoon from the Numberjacks, and not even that any more. I pointed out to Emma that much of our formative viewing experiences were super-violent Westerns, where although the many men that died fell bloodlessly and easily, they still died. Furthermore, such films and shows culturally sanctioned racist violence by celebrating the genocide of the original Americans. No one in fifty years, I think, will pen a post-post-modern retrospective on the unjust portrayal of the orc as Savage Other.

Instead they’ll bemoan the awful CGI said orcs were presented in, but more of that later. (more…)


I was always disappointed by Torchwood. It had its moments, but mostly it was just very silly. I heard that series creator Davies (who I should say here is generally an exceptional writer/producer) thought Death Ray couldn’t get over the gay sex. That is not the case. We couldn’t give a monkeys, and the most moving relationship in Torchwood was a homosexual one. What bugged us was that everybody was shagging everybody else all the time, and that the team was so damned incompetent. Torchwood was arch farce, not the “grown-up” SF we were promised.This miniseries, however, was really rather good. A highpoint for the show. This review of it was originally published in Death Ray #21 in the autumn of 2009.

FOUR STARS

2009/295 mins

Directors: Euros Lyn

Writers: Russel T Davies, John Fay, James Moran,

Starring: John Barrowman, Eve Miles, Gareth David-Lloyd, Kai Owen, Peter Capaldi, Liz May Brice, Cush Jumbo, Lucy Cohu, Paul Copley

It’s shiny! It’s scary! It’s exciting! It’s got a lot less silly sex! Torchwoooood! Lemme hear you sing it Torchwoooooooooood!

Torchwood! Oh how much you have promised, and so little you have delivered, until now. What can we say? We can say: ‘Well done!’

Personally, aside from a few episodes, I’ve loathed the show. It promised us ‘adult science fiction’. Torchwood has not been adult, it has had the sensibilities of a randy teenager, and its welter of bi-curious bonking was a poor stand-in for characterisation. We don’t care who our characters are boffing, but we do like is my characters to be believable. A lot of the time, the sex was in there purely because it could be, not because it should be. It never really helped itself, Torchwood, undermining the bits that did work, like the tender relationship between Jack and Ianto. Lastly, they’re a bunch of clowns, unprofessional to the end. Above the UN? Responsible for the security of planet Earth? Bollocks. They couldn’t run a branch of Gregg’s The Bakers.

Some of this remains true in Children of Earth, where evil aliens known only as ‘the 456′ demand 10% of Earth’s children. The klutzy Torchwood are nearly destroyed. Although they put themselves back together quite neatly, the special ops outfit run by the stern-faced Johnson (Liz May Brice) is more how we’d imagine Earth’s frontline defences to work. She’s an A-grade grafter compared to Torchwood’s common room slackers. I mean, the Hubmobile gets stolen by kids. Torchwood are chumps.

There are other weaknesses in Children of Earth. Like, the Earth has stood up to bigger threats before. Would a government really destroy its best anti-ET agency to cover up something that happened 40 years ago? Would the Americans really be able to waltz in and take over? Nope.

Then there’s Ianto’s death scene. It’s very moving until until Jack (Barrowman), crouched over his dead lover, looks as if he is about to burst into song…

But it’s breakneck, and it piles on the tension. The Torchwood moments are still ridiculous, but they entertain and they’re exciting. (The epitome of both Torchwood’s general incompetence and the series pep has to be the moment when Captain Jack blackmails his way into the alien’s audience chamber. Cock out, metaphorically speaking, he tries to out macho them, and it goes horribly, horribly wrong).

There’s a dissonance between Torchwood’s Keystone cops adventures and the sober, sweaty scenes where the cabinet debate how to fulfil the aliens’ terrible demands. Peter Capaldi’s Frobisher, a hardworking mid-level civil servant ground up in the cogs of history, is a marvellous character. Ironically, when Torchwood are not on screen, it’s great televison. But mostly, the mix works well.

This is what adult means, not giggly snogging precipitated by alien jizz. This is a story no-one comes out of well, the pressure of the story stamps out well-moulded characters and good performances from all. When Captain Jack is called upon to make a sacrifice of unconscionable magnitude at the end, that is the moment Torchwood finally grows up.

Extras: ‘Children of Earth: Declassified’ (30 mins) takes us behind the scenes of the show, and Eve Myles gives us a few pages of breathy Welshness with a Torchwood audio book extract.


This morning I got an email from fellow author Mark Barrowcliffe asking for help promoting his book, Son of the Morning, which comes out today in paperback. I have absolutely no problem with this, because Son of the Morning was the best book I reviewed last year. Here’s the review I wrote for SFX 245 back in February 2014. It’s sadly brief, but you get the idea. If it were any longer, I’d only be giving you more reasons why it is so great.

I really hope this is Mark’s ‘break-out book’, as they say in the trade. He deserves it; his work is meticulously well researched and painstakingly written. The result here is phenomenal.

Mark’s request suggests to me that there’s nothing wrong in asking one’s fellow scribblers for help, something I’ve shied away from personally owing to nebulous British desires to not be a bother nor blow my own trumpet. But really, doing this is no bother at all, and if I feel that way, maybe others will too… So watch out. Anyway, read this review − this novel is genuinely one of the finest fantasies I’ve read for a long time − then go buy it here (Kindle) and here (paperback).

Son of the Morning

FIVE STARS

The Hundred Years Angel War

Author: Mark Adler

Publisher: Gollancz

An alternative 100 Years War set in a world where God takes a direct interest in his creation, Son of the Morning is a smart, gripping historical fantasy. Here angels dwell in cathedrals and fight for their kings. Adler’s is not a kindly God, but an unforgiving, Old Testament smiter who relishes sacrifice and casts people into Hell for the least of sins.

Adler’s taken the Luciferian heresy as the starting point for Son of The Morning – God usurped Lucifer, the true creator, and imprisoned him and his followers in Hell. Lucifer came to Earth as Jesus, and God took all the credit. God then did a savage PR job on the fallen angel, and the rest, as they say, is history. Lucifer and his demons have taken control of part of Hell, throwing back Satan’s devils. This war spills onto Earth with the advent of the “antichrist”.

Despite first appearances, the book is not a Christian-bashing polemic, but a sharp attack on inequality as applicable to the wild inequities of today’s super capitalism as it is to Feudalism’s self-justification through Christianity. If that sounds a bit heavy, trust us, it isn’t. There’s a great deal of humour, well-observed characters, glorious occult and historical detail, plenty of intrigue, and great battles. Adler’s depiction of Crecy, with both sides supported by angels and devils, is particularly enjoyable.

Did you know?

Mark Adler is actually Mark Barrowcliffe, AKA M.D. Lachlan, author of the interesting but not quite as good Wolfsangel historical fantasy series.