Category: Reviews

Review: Black Lightning

I know the various DC TV shows (Arrow, Flash, Supergirl etc) have some strong followings but there’s something about them that doesn’t pull me in. I think part of it is that they feel a bit old-fashioned or stuck in an uncanny valley that isn’t kids TV or sitcom or serious drama and they can’t quite find the right balance. That’s a problem with superhero stories in general – a balance between the innate silliness and potential drama of the genre. Gotham is an exception and I think it has managed to find its own space by adopting Tim Burton’s stance on Batman. Gotham embraces its own absurdity but also mixes it in with elements of horror and camp.

The second advantage Gotham has is it gets that the fictional geographical setting has to have its own character. That’s relatively easy with Gotham but the show gets it right. The other DC shows also adopt the DC-universe policy of using made-up American cities as settings but I’ve found these places feel too generic and hence nowhere-like.

Black Lightning is the most recent addition to the DC stable of superhero TV shows. Unlike the others, it centres on an African-American superhero but otherwise, it follows a similarish style to the others (e.g. set in the fictional city of Freeland). The first episode didn’t grab me but it had some interesting elements, so I’ve stuck with it. I’m up to episode 8 of a 13 episode season and I think I can pull apart what I like and don’t like about it.

I’ll start negative. I don’t think it has yet managed to find the right mix of humour, gritty crime drama, family drama, superhero-antics. That’s not a surprise, as all superhero shows and movies struggle to find that sweet spot (and the right spot is going to vary among viewers). At times the show is quite violent (or suggestive of extreme violence) but within a show that feels more like it has been written for a more general audience. Like the Marvel Netflix shows, the central character regularly beats up criminals to get information but unlike those shows, the behaviour feels at odds with Black Lightning’s non-superhero persona.

However, there is also a lot to like about this show. The central character, Jefferson Pierce, is unusual for a superhero. He is an older man with a successful career as a high school principal. He has a family and responsibilities and ‘Black Lightning’ is something from his past. By having him as a superhero who is coming out of retirement (due to gang violence initially) is a clever way of avoiding a protracted origin story, while giving viewers an introduction to the character. We have not, as yet, been given an explanation for the source of his electrical powers – although there are hints in a subplot around the death of his journalist father some years ago.

Grounding the central character in a wider group of people (family, school and the techno-support guy in the form a tailor with a shady past) early helps the show rest on multiple characters and creates both motivation and tension for Pierce as a character.

Now I said the show avoids being a protracted origin story but that’s just for Black Lightning. [Mild spoilers ahead] a secondary plot revolves around his older daughter Anissa who (unaware of he father’s powers) discovers she has powers. A genre-savvy social-activist lesbian with a side interest in cosplay, Anissa has her own story as a character thinking about becoming a superhero (including trying out her own costumed identity to demolish a Confederate monument). Using father and daughter to create related but different superheroes with similarish but generationally different attitudes is a really smart addition to the plot.

I think the show is still finding its own voice and style. I think it would benefit from more humour and snappier dialogue but there are some clever superhero action elements and dark hints at a complex backstory/mystery. Overall, good television.



The Cat is a Harsh Mister – A Review

With scincere apologies to the legacy of Robert A Heinlein.

[Scene: the south drawing room, Felapton Towers]

[Camestros Felapton] I think the decorators took the theme too literally…
[Timothy the Talking Cat] You mean the paper floor and walls and the rough pencil sketches of furniture and windows?
[CF] Yeahhhh
[Timothy] You have to admit they did a fine job of the billiard room though.
[CF] Well a room shaped like a giant billiard ball with nothing but billiard balls inside it, is in essence, just a very big ball pit.
[Timothy] Exactly! It’s not like either of us would ever play billiards.
[CF] I can’t fault your reasoning there Tim. But enough critiquing of eccentric interior design, were we not intent on reviewing some work of science fiction?
[Timothy] Yes indeed! One of my favourites ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress‘ by Robert Heinlein.
[CF] I thought you and he didn’t get on?
[Timothy] We had our artistic differences but I admire his work. In particular, the political insights of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress have been very influential on my ideological development.
[CF] Well confession time! I haven’t read it.
[Timothy] WHATTTT???? You call yourself an official-a-now-doll of science fiction and yet you haven’t read one of the greatest works of the twentieth century by one of the most versatile writers of speculative fiction that ever lived?
[CF] Did you just say ‘an official-a-now-doll’?
[Timothy] It’s a fancy term for somebody who knows a lot about a thing – like he is a doll that is officially now. See? That’s ate-him-ology.
[CF] I…no never mind…how about we do this as an interview? I’ll ask you questions about the book and you can tell me things about it.
[Timothy] No, that’ll never work. I haven’t read the book.
[Timothy] Oh! How about I ask YOU questions about the book! That way I’ll find out all about it.
[CF] No but…
[Timothy] Hmm, no that won’t work you’ll just say stupid leftist stuff.
[CF] No I won’t!
[Timothy] Oh, well, in that case, we can go ahead with my plan.
[Timothy] Well then you shouldn’t have agreed to be interviewed about it. No, no, we’ll just have to carry on – that way you’ll learn a valuable lesson about doing your homework before agreeing to an interview.
Ahem…Question one. So what’s the book about then?
[CF] [peering at his phone and obviously reading:]

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a 1966 science-fiction novel by American writer Robert A. Heinlein, about a lunar colony’s revolt against rule from Earth. The novel expresses and discusses libertarian ideals. It is respected for its credible presentation of a comprehensively imagined future human society on both the Earth and the moon.”*

[Timothy] Oh, you cheat! You are just reading out the Wikipedia page!
[CF] The irony is that was the only thing I knew about the book.
[Timothy] Put that phone away! Next question. Who are the main characters?
[CF] I’ve no idea? Bob? Frank?
[Timothy] Hmmm, sounds interesting. Which one is the good guy?
[CF] (sigh) Frank and he lives on the moon and Bob is the bad guy and he lives on Earth.
[Timothy] Motivation?
[CF] Well Frank just wants to be left alone on the moon but Bob keeps asking him annoying questions.
[Timothy] That no good statists Earther scum! What’s he look like?
[CF] Bob well he’s about your hight, purple and has whiskers.
[Timothy] So quite handsome for a villain? See, that’s Heinlein working his magic – instead of an ugly bad guy he picks somebody who looks quite debonair.
[CF] Yup, quite the master craftsman.
[Timothy] Then what happens?
[CF] OK, I’ll act it out. Can you play Bob for a moment and I’ll be Frank?
[Timothy] OK – OH! Can I twirl my whiskers villainously?
[CF] By all means!
[Timothy] Ho ho! I’m the evil Earther villain Bob! You’ve got to do as I say!
[CF] No way! I’m Frank and as an independent moon living man, I just want to do my own thing!
[Timothy] You dare defy the might of world government of EARTH!
[CF] Yes! [Walks over to Timothy, picks him up by the scruff of the neck, opens a badly drawn window and drops the cat outside.}
[Timothy] oofff!
[CF] I can’t believe that worked! Time for some peace and quiet for once!

[A horrific tearing noise breaks the silence. Camestros turns to see razor-sharp claws shredding the walls of the south drawing room from the outside. Timothy’s head pushes through one of the tears.]

[Timothy] HERES BOBBBYYYY!!!!!
[CF] Eeep!
[Timothy] Ha! Foolish Frank – you underestimated the power, determination and claw sharpness of Earth’s government. I’m here to subjugate THE MOON!
[CF] Yeah well I’m guessing you didn’t bet on me asserting my god given right to bear arms with this GIANT ROLL OF DRAWING PAPER!
[Timothy] You vandal! That was the lounge!
[CF] Yeah well now it is my sovereign right to self-defence! CHARGGGGEEEE!!!!!
[Timothy] Eeeep!
[Chaos briefly ensues]

[Enter: Mr Atomic]
[Mr Atomic] Stop this chaos! I HOLMES IV, the moon’s sentient computer otherwise known as Mike, aka Adam Selene ersatz leader of the lunar rebellion command you to stop making all this mess!
[CF] Who?
[Mr Atomic] Mike Holmes – it’s a character from ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’.
[Timothy] Wait? You’ve actually read it?
[Mr Atomic] Obviously – it is one of the finest works of science fiction from the twentieth century!
[Timothy – turning toward Camestros] See – I told you so.
[CF] Earther scum.

[Timothy] OK final ratings:
[Camestros] I give it 10 out of 10 for actually existing as a book and not just a fake title we made up.
[Mr Atomic] I found the themes of artificial intelligence are under-appreciated in this science fiction masterwork: 9 out of 10. I’d give it more but it has too many fleshy humans in it.
[Camestros] No offence taken.
[Mr Atomic]  None intended.
[Timothy] I give it 11 out of 10 because I got to twirl my whiskers. Also we don’t seem to have a south drawing room any more.

*[ ]

Review: Annihilation (movie 2018 – Netflix)

I am a big fan of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. I like the mounting sense of personal disintegration as the primary source of both horror and release. The announcement of a film version of the first book Annihilation was intriguing. It certainly was a book that would gain from a visual expression of the wild and mysterious Area X nut it wasn’t at all clear if the intentionally obtuse and unresolvable plot would work as a drama.

The film (which had a very limited cinema release in the US and then a Netflix release internationally) is a different creature than the book. Events have been changed, plot elements removed, characters adjusted and the structure of the story altered. All of which seems to have been a good idea. The film carries the same sense of paranoia and wonder as the book and the same theme of people trying to cope when confronted with the incomprehensible. However, it has been remade into its own thing – a story with its own structure and characters that shares DNA with the book but which follows its own course.

The essence of the plot is the same. A section of coastline in the southern United States has become transformed by an unknown phenomenon. A government agency has been charged with keeping this event under wraps and given the task of investigating it. The most recent attempt to explore ‘Area X’ is a team of women with military and scientific equipment. Once in Area X they experience strange events some of which may be psychological as they attempt to find a key landmark – a lighthouse which may be the centre from which all the weirdness is spreading.

Where the book drops straight into Area X with the individuals in the team known only by their profession, the film frames the story with elements taken from the later books – a flash forward in which the central character (played by Natalie Portman) is interrogated and a flashback to her motives for joining the expedition and her previous life with her soldier husband (Oscar Issac being handsomely weird).

The film doesn’t offer any more clear answers than the books did but there’s a more conventional story arc. The connections with similar territory-as-character stories such as Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, Andrei Tarkovsky’s film of Solaris and Tarkovosky’s later film Stalker are clearer than the book, as well as tapping into the ‘Lost Patrol’ style story of a military expedition being picked off one by one.

Visually it is wonderful. The boundary aka ‘shimmer’ is a  swirling liquid refraction of light and that same theme of refracted light carries through the film. The plant life (both real and imagined) is shot lovingly making Area X look like it should -beautifully fecund but with a menacing sense of growth and strangeness. The animal life similarly shifts from wonderful to horrific but with a strong visual connection between the elements.

I don’t know if people who found the novel frustratingly obscure will like the movie any better but they might. There are fewer mind games and there is less piecing together what has happened and more of a sense of what Area X might be. The film doesn’t seem to be set up for a sequel – which is a shame in so far as Authority was a really interesting way to do a sequel without being anything like the first book except in that same sense of a mounting loss of identity.

Weird, scary, horrific and beautiful.

Review: Jessica Jones Season 2

A general observation of the gritty ‘street’ Marvel Netflix series has been that even the best of them have meandered in the middle despite strong openings and finales. The second season of Jessica Jones seems to have done the opposite.

The story really didn’t feel like it found its feet until episode 8 and even then headed into false ends. Individual performances remain excellent but the story was unsure what to do with the ensemble of characters that it has. Perhaps this unfair – season 1 had its meandering aspects as well but the sinister presence of Killgrave (David Tennant’s mind controlling villain) lent a tension to every episode whether he was in it or not.

Season 2 has avoided having a ‘big bad’ at all and in principle I like that. The actual conflicts Jessica has to face are interesting ones and not every superhero story needs a super villain orchestrating everything. Its just that I didn’t feel they managed to make this season work without one.

Instead we get something closer to an origin story – complete with tragic deaths as character motivation. An extra tragic death in Jessica’s backstory is added and then seemingly forgotten.

Hard to say more without spoilers. Still worth watching but it never gets to the heights of season 1.

Review: The Wonder Engine by T. Kingfisher

This is a deliciously crafted antidote for your woes. Part 2 of Kingfisher’s (aka Ursula Vernon) Clocktaur Wars finds takes the party to their ultimate destination of Anuket City – home of the centaur-like Clockwork Boys.

The story is structured around solving the mystery of clocktaurs with side trips into the underworld of Anuket City, the culture of the badger-like gnoles and hints at the ancient civilisation that left behind the giant artefacts known as Wonder Engines. However, while that skeleton frames the book, it is the interaction between the characters that really lifts this from being an entertaining fantasy quest and into a story full of human warmth.

Romance, humour, love, a tiny bit of sex, as well as danger and mystery. Thoroughly entertaining. I don’t know if there will be more books featuring Slate and Caliban but I’d love to see more of this world, whether it was the further adventures of Learned Edmund and Grimehug the Gnole  of wholly knew characters.

A satisfying conclusion to this two-parter, probably best read in one go with part 1.

Another Forgotten Space Junkyard: Solider (1998)

In a search for forgotten space junkyard, I’d forgotten the Kurt Russell film Soldier. It’s not a great film but it is a curiosity. The cast is surprisingly good for a film that feels like the long tail of 1980s SF action movies that somehow reached into the late 1990s. You can see a young Connie Neilsen, Jason Issac and Sean Pertwee, as well as an underused Jason Scott Lee.

The film is connected to Blad Runner by the writer David Webb Peoples who conceived the plot as a kind of shared-universe story with Ridley Scott’s film which he co-wrote. The style and depth of the film are not comparable to Blade Runner but there are multiple Easter egg connections including references to locations like the Tannhauser Gate and apparently the wreckage of a Blade Runner vehicle in one of the junk piles. Thematically the connection is via Kurt Russell’s character, a bio-engineered super-soldier raised from infancy to be a killing machine. Not a replicant as such but the film works as if the soldiers are replicants.

Kurt Russell plays the titular soldier whose early life and career are shown in a clunky montage at the start of the film. He and his platoon are under the command of Gary Busey (being Gary Busey) as part of a nearish future space military whose purpose goes unspecified. Unfortunately, the arrival of Jason Issacs wearing a pencil moustache heralds the obsolescence of Kurt’s platoon – Issacs has a new model of a soldier who is even more soulless killing machines and has bigger muscles, epitomised by Jason Scott Lee. Busey is sceptical and so Issacs pits Russell against Scott Lee in a series of challenges. Russell is left for dead and is thrown in the trash…

Cut to Arcadia 234 – a junkyard planet! Kurt Russell is part of the trash being dumped on the planet but it seems he isn’t as dead as he might have first thought! Recovering sufficiently to survive being dumped from an automated trash-dumping spaceship, Russell eventually finds a community of castaways on the junkyard planet.

Arcadia 234 is a classic case of the future junkyard. The people who live there, recycle the junk into useful products. They themselves have been abandoned and forgotten. Russell’s character has literally been dumped there as an outdated product.

The visuals aren’t always convincing but there’s a nice establishing shot at one point which shows the remains of a big aircraft carrier in the background – which on a smaller scale is reminiscent of the ruined spaceships of Jakkuu in The Force Awakens.

Sadly Russell’s character struggles to fit in with the castaways, confused by his PTSD (sort of) and attraction to Connie Nielsen’s character (which is communicated by him staring at her creepily) and occasional violence. Just when things look bad for him, the space army people arrive on the planet for training exercises and Jason Issacs decides to kill the castaways for no particular reason. The rest of the film involves Kurt Russell klling the bad guys.

The film never quite makes good and never quite gets to cheesy-but-funny. The director Paul W.S. Anderson (not to be confused with way too many other directors called Anderson) has made better films but it isn’t unwatchable. There’s a sketch of a better film there but it feels like a Paul Verhoeven movie without the ironical/cynical/satirical bite. It wants to both be anti-war and anti-militarism and also be a bad-ass film about futuristic soldier fighting each other for the heck of it.

Still for 10 out of 10 for a junkyard planet.

Review: Black Panther

[Spoilers are avoided]

Interesting movies should offer lots of potential for disappointment and good, interesting movies create their own pitfalls and somehow avoid them. Black Panther had lots of capacity to be awful – the concept of a hidden kingdom in the centre of Africa was used in the original comics as the background for the character of the Black Panther but drew on the colonial era tropes from H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. While not the most negative view of Africa to appear in Western literature, it was still a perspective on the continent derived from the prejudices and privileges of European colonisation. A myth of hidden wealth that was there if only you could find it.

Those influences are still there in this film but re-appropriated. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the new king of Wakanda and the titular Black Panther – a Wakandan who is also part of world affairs, while his country’s technological and economic advancement remains hidden. Rather than a process of discovery, we first see Wakanda through his eyes as he returns home to be crowned king. Wakanda from then one becomes a central character of the film – one of the most fully imagined fictional countries I think I’ve ever seen on screen. Aside from subverting or rejecting tropes about African nations, it also shows Wakanda as a country of multiple indigenous cultures and lifestyles. Across this clever mix of costumes and implied cultural traditions is an Afro-futurism and technological utopian in which people live both an urban and traditional pastoral existence cut off from the outside.

Both ethically and in terms of plot inevitability that isolation can’t continue and the tension of the idea in terms of Wakanda’s potential impact on the world drives the rest of the story forward. An exiled man of royal blood seeks a way home (Michael B Jordan) and a new purpose for Wakanda; an old enemy Ulysese Claw is intent on cynical destruction (a gleefully appalling Andy Serkis); the CIA has become curious about Wakanda after the events of Captain America: Civil War (in the form of Martin Freeman).

While not quite a simple male/female split, the conflict between Wakanda being forced to change by external forces versus it finding new paths of its own highlights the roles of key Wakandan characters. Shuri (Letitia Wright) T’Challa’s younger sister encapsulates Wakanda’s own technological modernism and a move away from tradition and ritual. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is an agent of Wakanda acting outside of the country (we first meet her on a mission to rescue girls captured by a militant group in an unnamed African country) who sees a role for Wakanda outside its borders. Okoye (Danai Gurira)  as head of the Wakandan all-female special forces and royal guard offers a more conservative, isolationist view. While their perspectives on Wakanda’s future are different, they are portrayed as people working together in the common interests of the nation. Difference versus conflict.

Of course, for plot reasons, conflict gets the upper hand.

The politics of Wakanda are not utopian. It has flaws and aspects of the story are inevitably reactionary – you really can’t have a film about a king trying to hold onto his throne when faced by a usurper without implying some sort of endorsement for monarchy as a system of government. Wakanda’s isolationism and refusal to act in other’s affairs also adds a complex layer to the nation as a character. Wakanda is itself a superhero and like all superheroes, we are left wondering why they only act when they do. Given Superman’s powers could he not have resolved a thousand world conflicts and given Wakanda’s technological and military advantages, could it not have done more? Where Black Panther rises above other superhero films is that it begins to make these questions overt and pertinent. Whether a superhero or a nation should act and when should they act if they have to power to do so? How to act without becoming a petty tyrant or hegemonic power?

You can worry about those issues or you can sit back and enjoy the stunning visuals or, best of all, you can do both. It’s a popcorn movie and a movie that sets up a series of questions about power (without resolving them). It has its own extended James Bond movie elements (form a Q-like briefing on gadgets to a showdown in a casino) and its own Ruritarian romance elements. Getting all that to work and also be a seamless piece with the rest of the Marvel movies is itself a remarkable accomplishment. That it is also a very entertaining film is what makes it really rather good.

Gorgeous, fun and riveting.