Star Wars: The Clone Wars – Season 5 Review

Darth Maul
STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS Seasons 1-5 Collectors Edition
STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS Seasons 1-5 Collectors Edition

So we get to the end of the run for the superb Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series. Following Disney’s takeover of the Lucas Empire, it seemed unlikely that heads wouldn’t roll, and so it was for The Clone Wars. Did this decision make sense…not really. The Clone Wars has consistently been the brightest and best thing in the Star Wars Universe for some years, with ever-improving animation and a series of storylines that never shied away from the gritty and realistic side of the galaxy far far away. It was both for children and adults, and other than a few clunky arcs, it was consistently a joy to watch. Maybe then, with a slew of new movies and projects coming from the House of Mouse, it isn’t such a surprise that a brilliant, innovative and popular show be shelved…we don’t want competition for the new stuff, eh?

So, we come to season 5. I would love to talk about the brilliance of the Blu-ray release, but sadly there were only DVD copies to be had for preview. However, I am certain that by the high standards of the previous Blu-ray seasons, this one will look and sound as epic as always.

Darth Maul
Darth Maul

After the return of Darth Maul in Season 4, we start season 5 in somewhat slower mode, with the Jedi helping rebels on the Separatist-held world of Onderon learn how to fight back and reclaim their world. There is a nice undercurrent of dark-side growth over these opening four episodes, with both Ashoka and Anakin straining at the leash of Jedi non-partisanship. The writers are building up the hints that the Jedi, and the Council in particular, are missing the obvious encroachment of the dark side, whilst acting in more and more crass and self-serving ways. Unfortunately, the Onderon plot overstays its welcome. At four episode long it feels two episodes over-length and never manages to succeed in making you care that much about the secondary characters. A ‘shocking’ death is not really shocking, and it has very little impact on the rest of the season. However, we do get to enjoy the return of Florrum Crime Boss Hondo Ohnaka (still sounding like Ricardo Montalban) and watch as Ashoka begins her own journey away from her Jedi upbringing.

After this somewhat clunky and tiring opening, the season moves on to another 4-parter…this time focusing on a group of Jedi younglings under the care of Yoda and Ashoka. There is a lot of fun in these episodes, although the ‘learning to work together’ theme is a little obvious. Hondo makes another welcome return, albeit in a nastier mood than we usually see him. With Ashoka captured and the younglings breaking orders to try to rescue her, the series reintroduces General

Yoda and Younglins
Yoda and Younglins

Greivous and Obi-Wan, linking the two plots together cleverly. Whilst this 4 part storyline is much more interesting than the season opener, it still leaves the season feeling a little flat and lacking the spark and originality of seasons 3 and 4.
From Jedi younglings we move to yet another 4 part arc, definitely aimed at younger viewers, but with a lot to offer the dedicated Star Wars fan. This arc follows R2 as he joins a secret team of Republic droids and a diminutive Colonel on a mission to reclaim an encryption module from a Separatist ship. As any true SW fan knows, the films aren’t so much about Skywalker as the hero, but R2. Without him nothing would have happened the way it does, from his opening scene in The Phantom Menace through to the very end of Return of the Jedi. So it is great to see the wee scamp getting so much airtime, and alongside other astromech droids, and without C3P0 around to cramp his style. The adventures these droids have together are fun, and exciting, if a tad overshadowed by yet another ridiculous…one wonders if Lucas directed…comedic character. Colonel Meebur Gascon is a tiny data expert on his first mission in command. He has height issues, as well as command issues and politeness issues. He is fun for about 5 mins but then starts to grate. He’d be fine if it were just 1 episode, but across 4…the season is creaking and groaning under the weight of all these multi-episode arcs!

Finally, the season begins to pull its socks up and get to the meaty stuff. Possibly this was when the team knew the plug was being pulled, because a seriously well-thought through plotline emerges. Darth Maul working with Savage Opress form an alliance with the Mandalorian Death Watch plus several crime syndicates in order to become a dominant force. They lure Obi-Wan to Mandalore, but Darth Sidious decides it is time for him to step in. There is then a bombing at the Jedi Temple, for which Ashoka is asked to investigate, and then accused of killing the key suspect. She goes on the run and teams up with Ventress whilst Anakin and Obi-Wan lead her pursuit. The Jedi Council refuse to consider her innocence, and it is up to Padme to fight for her defence. This 7 episode finale is absolutely superb, pure Star Wars storytelling at its best. It shows just how low opinion of the Jedi has fallen, just how little they are aware of their own deficiencies, and just how much of an isolated group they have become. Anakin’s embracing of the dark side starts to make more sense, and while we may never know what happens to Ashoka after the final episode, it feels like a good way to close her storyline. You can now better understand why so many Clone Troopers obeyed Order 66 without question.

All in all the writers have brought the plot to a very pleasing and balanced point in the existing narrative. That said…damn I wish there was another half season at least, or a movie, to wrap up Ashoka and Ventress, and properly connect the series with the movies.

ACW_IA_112843_RThe DVD look very good, with sharp, bright visuals and a very strong surround mix. There are ample extras to keep you informed and entertained throughout. As usual, it is a great package.

So, what’s the final verdict on the final season? Well, we have definitely been robbed of a wonderful piece of TV and the finale feels half-finished. We may yet get a conclusion, but if we don’t, this isn’t the worst way to go. The reliance on three 4 part arcs is disappointing, and while none of the stories are bad, they all overstay their welcome and you get the feeling that the writing team had been told to string these tales out. Too much Jedi? Absolutely. Not enough hardware, spaceships and troopers? Definitely. Another season of the best the SWU has to offer? Pretty much, yes. Disney has a lot to live up to following The Clone War…here’s hoping they’ve paid attention to just why so many fans loved this TV show.
8/10

Nosferatu – Restored Review

Nosferatu Remastered Halloween 2013
Nosferatu Remastered Halloween 2013
Nosferatu is a movie with a past. It was almost entirely destroyed by Bram Stoker’s widow due to the blatant plagiarism from Dracula presented in the movie (in which, basically, the names were changed, and that was it). Various versions have been found over the years, leading to this latest, restored version.

And it’s a beauty for the most part.

If you haven’t seen Nosferatu before, it’s important to be prepared before you watch it. This is a film that is almost a century old, and should almost be approached as a historical artifact as much as a movie. After all, just about everyone involved in it is long dead. It’s a piece of the past to be savoured. The performances (especially from the main characters) are far away from natural, which can be very disconcerting to modern viewers. Also, there are special effects that have dated strangely. There are scenes where Orlok moves at high speed, which involves a mixture of sped-up film and stop motion. While this would have likely looked creepy and strange at the time of release, it’s now unfortunately reminiscent of Benny Hill.

However, if you put the extra work in with watching it, it’s rewarding. It’s a splendidly creepy, beautifully shot piece of classic horror that centres around an almost-supernatural performance by Max Shreck in the role of Count Orlok which is so good that an entire movie was based on it decades later (The Shadow of the Vampire).

It’s also the fully-tinted version, which is far less often seen than the straight black-and-white version. The movie was projected using tinted film in order to give scenes the impression of daytime or night time. Blue is used for night, and degrees of yellow are used for daytime or internally-lit scenes (the best being a moment where a darkened room is entered by someone with a candle, and it switches from blue to yellow. This also makes sense of scenes that, previously, seemed to have Orlok wandering around in the daytime, making his weakness to sunlight seem rather daft.

The work that has been done on this new version is clear, and I found it a very different experience watching it in the cinema where my mind was far less able to wander. Previously, I’d thought of it as being a fairly straight retelling of Dracula, but this time, I found it more mythical, more operatic and more infused with a Germanic mythical quality that makes it feel more like a dark fairytale than anything else, and as a result, that bit more disturbing.

This doesn’t mean that it’s without problems. While the new title cards mostly fit in well, the addition of a logo making clear that they’re not the originals distracts quite a bit – if this can be removed in the DVD/blu-ray, great. If not, it’s a distracting ident. Also, it looks as if they’ve used a typeface based on the handwritten fonts of the original. While that’s not a major issue, it introduces a uniformity that isn’t there otherwise. It becomes a little like reading lettering that’s been entirely done by typewriter rather than by hand in a comic book. This, combined with the ident means that each time these come on-screen, I felt a little dragged out of the experience. It was difficult to ignore.

However, that’s pretty much the only major issue. It’s a very respectful version of a beautiful piece of film history, that’s well worth taking the effort to watch carefully. If you watch it at home, turn the lights off and immerse yourself in it. There’s a lot there to appreciate, and this latest version will allow you to appreciate it all the more. Over 90 years after it came out, Nosferatu still haunts.

The Wicker Man – 40th Anniversary ‘Final Cut’

The Wicker Man Final Cut
The Wicker Man Final Cut
In celebration of the 40th Anniversary
THE WICKER MAN:
The Final Cut
First-ever full 2k Restoration
Back in cinemas 27th September
First time on Blu-ray 14th October

This new version of The Wicker Man only makes slight changes. However, it’s the most complete version of the film that exists currently, and if you’ve only ever seen the original theatrical release (the one most regularly shown on TV), you’ll be astonished just how butchered it was. The fact that the theatrical release is still a superb film is testament to just how good a movie it is. As a result, a more complete version is something to celebrate.

If you’ve already got the Director’s Cut, then it’s debatable whether this adds enough to justify another purchase. The changes are minor, but they’re all improvements.

The basic story remains the same – uptight Sergeant Howie goes to a remote island to search for a missing girl, and uncovers a disturbing conspiracy. The main changes are that it makes more clear that the action takes place within a defined timeframe – just three days. This may not seem important, but it adds a sense of Sergeant Howie’s exhaustion, which gives an extra element to Edward Woodward’s performance. With these changes on top of the director’s cut that already exists, it just helps everything hang together that bit better.

Here’s an example of how it improves it – one of the most famous scenes in the movie is the one where Britt Ekland’s Willow dances naked in an attempt to seduce Howie. With each version of the movie that comes out, this scene makes more sense. The placing makes more sense (with the movement to the second night, and the insertion of an earlier scene which shows Willow being brought a boy to deflower), and even the layout of the rooms makes more sense (as external shots show the way the rooms are next to each other, which means that when she’s making noises against the wall, it’s clearly on the other side of the wall of Howie’s room – without it, there’s a disconnection, and it looks like they’re against different walls). It’s not something that everyone will notice, but it’s clear how much was sacrificed for the theatrical cut.

It has to be said that the drop in quality of the recovered footage is noticable, so if it’s the kind of thing that’s likely to bother you, you may want to skip it. But the extra texture that these scenes add to the story means that it isn’t as much of an issue as it could be (and it’s not the fault of the restorers – this is, realistically, as high quality as was possible, and it’s obviously been done with great care).

On top of the theatrical release, it’s also worth seeing for far more of Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle, which is his favourite of his own performances. And he’s right – it’s one of the most subtle, nuanced performances he’s ever given, and he’s both charming and sinister. It’s a bonus to get more of him in the film.

Along with the new release, The Wicker Man is being re-released across the UK in cinemas, and if you haven’t seen it on the big screen, it’s worth taking the time to do so. It’s a beautiful looking movie, and it’s a rewarding way to watch it.

To put it simply, The Wicker Man is one of the greatest films the UK has ever produced, and this was despite the fact the film-makers regularly described the most widely-seen version as a compromised one. The more you see of what was cut, the more you can understand why they feel like this. The more complete version adds more to the pacing, performances and texture of the movie. With a film this good, that’s worth taking the time to see. It’s the best version out there of a brilliant film.

Evil Dead Blu Ray (2013) Review Release 12th August 2013

Evil Dead Blu Ray Cover
Evil Dead Blu Ray Cover

Five young people go to a cabin in the middle of the countryside. Once there, things start to get weird. Once they discover a book bound in human flesh, things become worse. Lethally so.

The Evil Dead series has always over-delivered. The big question going into the 2013 version is whether it’ll be able to do the same. Thankfully, it does. It’s a big ludicrous rollercoaster ride, which has all the signs of a big hit.

As stupid movies go, it’s very smart. It takes the original movie and gives it a far more solid grounding, with far more believable character motivations. Why are they in the middle of nowhere? Because one of their group is trying to give up heroin. Why don’t they believe her when she undergoes insane experiences in the woods? Because she’s trying to give up heroin, and is likely to be lying, self-harming or delusionary.

It also uses the demonic book to good effect, by using it to show you exactly what’s going to happen to certain characters, which means that you start anticipating it more when you watch it. This gives a different tone than the all-too-common ‘jump shots’. They’re still there, obviously, but the variety is nice.

  View large image  Evil Dead - Zavvi Exclusive Limited Edition Steelbook (Includes DVD) Blu-ray
Evil Dead – Zavvi Exclusive Limited Edition Steelbook (Includes DVD) Blu-ray

Also, it isn’t a straight remake. There’s an intentional feeling with this that these experiences have happened to people here before, much as there was in the original. “You will die, like the other before you”. Very smartly, there’s no Ash in this film. There’s a character that could be like Ash, but the simple fact that they’re not recasting the most central character in the franchise means that all bets are off when it comes to the well-being of any of the characters.

A certain scene involving trees (which will be familiar to fans of the original) is there, but it feels less gratuitous and more justified in terms of plot development. Also, there’s an extra element involved that means that, while it’s still unpleasant, it isn’t quite as unpleasant to women as the original was. The original scene feels somewhat leering, which this one mostly avoids, which is a definite improvement.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t problems. There are major problems with it, but the overall enthusiasm of the movie means that they’re not the issue they would otherwise be.

The most obvious one is that the cast are fairly dislikeable for the most part. In the original film, the characters were less well-defined, but there was the definite idea that they liked and cared about each other. Also, there’s the point that Bruce Campbell is a difficult person to recast. He carries an innate likeability and trustworthiness, combined with a manic energy, that none of the cast in this film are able to replicate, which means that there’s a lot of heart missing from the movie.

This Evil Dead Review was originally written for the UK cinema release
This Evil Dead Review was originally written for the UK cinema release in March 2013

There’s the issue that for quite a lot of The Evil Dead, it appears that the central message of the film is “women: not useful in a crisis!”. Thankfully, this doesn’t end up being as bad as it appears, but there are long stretches where this seemed to be the case, which made for uncomfortable viewing. Rewatching the original, this is more of an issue there, but it makes a lot of the new version awkward at times.

It’s extremely well shot, and learning that there was an intentional attempt to use as little CGI as possible makes it all the more impressive. The sound is also an important aspect, as it is with most horror films, and it’s very well handled here (interestingly, Bruce Campbell was involved with the sound, primarily in finding sound to use from the original film).

It’s an astoundingly assured feature debut from Director Fede Alvarez, and he’s done particularly well in updating a well-loved film.

The amount of gore and sheer exhuberation in displaying it means that this is going to be fairly heavy going for a lot of audiences, but I think this is going to lead to it being more popular amongst audiences. It’s the first horror film in quite a long time that I could see people talking about in a ‘you’ve got to see this’ sense.

Overall, it navigates its flaws and challenges with flair, and delivers a wildly entertaining horror movie, if not as likeable as the original.

From Up On Poppy Hill – Studio Ghibli Movie

From Up On Poppy Hill
From Up On Poppy Hill
From Up On Poppy Hill

A new film from Studio Ghibli is always an exciting prospect, but this one came with, for me, a certain degree of hesitancy. A post-Korean War slice of reality directed by Goro Miyazaki…could Ghibli deliver their usual magic in a non-fantastical setting, and could Goro-san improve from the utter disappointment that was “Tales From Earthsea”? The simple answer is yes, on both counts. The more complex answer is…well, there really isn’t a more complex answer. “From Up On Poppy Hill” is sublime, wondrous, heart-warming, thrilling, emotional, exhilarating, life-affirming, beautiful and so many other things I could just cut-and-paste a dictionary of positive terms here and be done with it. Out of five stars this is a 10 star film. This is Ghibli at its very best and it was an absolute pleasure to sit in that screening room and experience their stunning tale unfold over and hour and a half.
Written by the legendary Hiyao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, and based on the 1980 manga by Tetsuro Sayama & Chizuru Takahashi, the story revolves around Umi Matsuzaki, a 16 year old high schooler in the Port of Yokohama. It is 1963 and she lives in a boarding house with her grandmother and several female residents, looking after their needs every morning and evening, and heading off to school during the daytime. Her mother, a professor, is on an extended trip to the US, and her father was killed during the Korean War. Every morning Umi raises signal flags hoping to reach the spirit of her drowned father. One day, the school newspaper prints a poem about her flags and she heads off to the clubhouse to find out who is responsible. It is here she, with her younger sister Sora, encounter Shun Kazama, a young man who is part of the journalism club and popular with the girls at the school for his antics trying to save the clubhouse from closure. Umi is instantly drawn to Shun, and volunteers to help with the paper, and encourages the boys in the clubhouse to tidy it up as a tactic to saving it from demolition. Through her involvement, the girls at the school rally to help the boys tidy, clean and renovate the building. Meanwhile, Shun visits Umi’s boarding house home and discovers (without her knowledge) that her father might also be his. This throws him off centre and builds a wall of silence between them, much to Umi’s distress. Finally she is able to get the truth from him, but even though they now believe themselves to be brother and sister, they still profess their love for each other, and they suffer with the pain of having to put that love to one side. As this melodrama unfolds, the school clubhouse, now beautifully restored to its European splendour (it is called the Latin Quarter) is condemned by the school board. Umi, Shun and their friend Shiro head in to Tokyo to petition the school board’s chairman to come see the building and save it. Elated by her trip to Tokyo but saddened by the change in her relationship with Shun, Umi heads home to find her mother returned. She reveals all to her mother and…well, let’s not ruin the final act, eh?

I honestly cannot speak highly enough of this film. The story is compelling and incredibly moving. I don’t think I’ve ever seen tears in the eyes of fellow press reviewers before, but there were a few at the end of this sublime movie. We were fortunate enough to see a subtitled Japanese original version (I know, subtitles aren’t for everyone, but I am a Ghibli purist and whilst I always enjoy the dubbed versions, I do appreciate seeing the original and hearing the original Japanese actors) so I can’t comment on the UK dub (although the previous dubs for Ponyo, Arrietty, Howl and Spirited Away were all superb) but I am sure it will be as good as you would expect from Ghibli. This is a nostalgic film, seen from a teenager’s perspective, with a fairly predictable plot but which nevertheless leaves you feeling elated and uplifted. It doesn’t do anything radical or shocking, which some may feel is a little disappointing, and it doesn’t have the same visual flair as Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle. But then this film isn’t a fantasy epic. It isn’t escapist wish-fulfilment. It is a slice of life drama with a strong comedic vein running throughout. It is a moment in Japanese history that few outside of the country are aware of, and it is an important coming of age tale that works because its female protagonist is someone we can instantly empathise with. Once again Studio Ghibli, under the leadership of Myazaki-san have offered us a strong female lead in whom we can see some of ourselves but more importantly through who we can learn about this very specific time and place in Japanese history. No, the story doesn’t take us anywhere new, but I, for one, was happy to be cocooned in the warm world of Ghibli, to be entertained, moved and entranced.

Visually the film is nothing short of sumptuous. Ghibli fans will love the hand-drawn style so reminiscent from Ponyo, Totoro and so many others. Every frame is stuffed with fine detail, depth and variety. From sweeping seascapes to winding narrow roads, from bustling ports to hectic schoolyards…everything is beautifully animated, with a slightly soft tone but vibrant lighting. Within five minutes I was sighing with pleasure at feeling so at home in this world. Much like Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves or Whisper of the Heart, this is the real world through the lens of Ghibli’s unique eye…at once recognisable and precise, yet at the same time ever so softer and more inviting. In this instance, we experienced a more grown up version of the port town in Ponyo, a teenager’s view of a busy Japanese town changing in the post war boom. I know I wasn’t the only person at the screening to be entranced by these wonderful images.

The soundtrack was equally nostalgic, sadly not by Ghibli go-to-guy Joe Hisaishi (if you’ve not heard his soundtrack to the game Ni No Kuni you are missing out on a real treat), but instead a mix of new tracks by Satoshi Takebe and Japanese versions of some period songs, some European, some American. It works very well for the style and tone of the movie, but I did miss Joe’s input, and the film doesn’t have an immediately memorable theme. Overall though, the music only adds to the brilliance of the movie.

Audio-wise you can expect the usual high-quality sound effects and sound balance. There’s nothing too bombastic or ear-shattering, but the sound designers have clearly had a lot of fun bringing the school and clubhouse scenes to life. And the soundscape of the port, and that of pre-Olympics Tokyo are vibrant and dynamic without sounding like a pastiche.

My only negative with “From Up On Poppy Hill” is that I can’t watch it again, right now. I would happily beg the lovely folk at StudioCanal for a preview BluRay…if I had a first born (I don’t) I might even offer a trade! No, seriously, if they are reading this, let me know what I have to offer to get a copy.

Hyperbole aside, this is just about the perfect (non-fantasy) Ghibli film to date. I am a real fan of slice of life anime, and to see Ghibli take the genre and do something so perfect with it was a real joy. I left the screening smiling, excited and desperate to see it again. It is a film Ghibli fans will thoroughly enjoy, but more importantly it is a film to introduce non-Ghibli fans to anime and Studio Ghibli. If you know someone who is averse to monsters and fantasy, and thinks anime is just for kids, get them to see “From Up On Poppy Hill”…it will show them just what great storytelling can be done using animation, and how anime in particular, and Ghibli specifically, can tell tales in way no-one and no other medium can manage.

My score out of 5: 10 (and maybe another 10!)

Doctor Who and the Planet of the Daleks

Doctor Who and the Planet of the Daleks Classic Novel
Doctor Who and the Planet of the Daleks Classic Novel
Written by Terrance Dicks

Read by Mark Gatiss

Published by AudioGo

There are many treats for Doctor Who fans in this 50th year, but few can fit so neatly in a plastic jewel case. Take Jon Pertwee’s iconic Third Doctor, his arch enemies the Daleks, legendary Who writer Terrance Dicks, and renaissance man Mark Gatiss and you have a perfect gift for every fan.

The story opens with a cliffhanger from previous story Frontier in Space. The Doctor is unconscious, wounded by The Master, and the Time Lords are piloting the Tardis and its occupants to Spiridon in pursuit of the Daleks. Pretty quickly companion Jo Grant is separated from the Doctor on this alien planet, where man-eating plants and an invisible race are but a prelude for the main drama – the efforts of a Thal terrorist cell to destroy a Dalek army.

Terrance Dick’s Target novelisation of Terry Nation’s teleplay is a model of economy – all action and dialogue – and Gatiss’s sometimes breathless narration complements this perfectly, while also evoking the excitement with which the original Target novels were read by fans in the 1970s.

The amazing sound design on this release more than compensates for the lack of narrative description in the audio. Poisonous plants spit, ships explode, scanners beep, and Daleks speak with the familar ring-modulated voice of Nick Briggs. These aural elements (and praise must also be given for Gatiss’ Pertwee voice) combine to create a listening experience closer to a radio dramatisation than a straight audiobook.

Given all the above, it is no surprise that this 3 CD set passes all too quickly. The only remedy is to line up Gatiss, Briggs, and the AudioGo production team to record Dick’s novelisation of Day of the Daleks. If enough fans buy this delight, maybe Michael Stevens will be encouraged to do exactly that.

Blake’s 7: Lucifer

B7 Book 3 - Lucifer cover

B7 Book 3 - Lucifer cover
Blake’s 7: Lucifer By Paul Darrow
Published by Big Finish

There can be few fans of the original TV adventures of Blake’s 7 who haven’t speculated about events beyond the end of Season 4. With Vila, Dayna, Tarrant and Soolin shot dead and Blake’s body at his feet, Avon smiles at the surrounding Federation troops and raises his gun. Shots sound over the closing credits, and the fate of the show’s most complex character is forever unresolved. Until now.

It has taken the actor behind Kerr Avon, Paul Darrow, to construct the (presumably canon) story of what happened after that fade to black. The first part of a planned trilogy, Lucifer reveals a Federation broken by a vicious war against alien invaders, and replaced by a ruling Quartet of dysfunctional individuals. Behind them, however, the figure of one time President Servalan still looms large.

The opening third of this novel is a thrilling read, detailing several attempts by Quartet soldiers to forcibly extract Avon from the planet Gaius 7, where he has been stranded for years. From then, we flashback to the events immediately following the episode Blake. I won’t reveal what happens here, only that the violent treatment of the bodies of Avon’s colleagues seems rather sadistic. That could make for some interesting conversations in the Big Finish green room when the cast regroup for new audios later this month.

Sadly, the novel devotes too many of its 200 odd pages to the machinations of the Quartet, which seem to play out over an interminable number of dinner parties. Most of the new characters lack any real depth, and there is rather too much planet hopping in the final third of the book. Most disappointing of all, the telegraphed reunion of Avon and Servalan is at best perfunctory.

Darrow really needed the guiding hand of a collaborator, or maybe a firmer editor, to punch up the prose. Reading Lucifer, I was frequently reminded of Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars sequels, which had a similarly hefty backstory to shoulder with new and unfamiliar characters, yet did so with significantly more narrative drive. Hopefully Darrow and Big Finish can address this for the remaining books in the trilogy, and give Avon the rich afterlife that both the character, and his fans deserve.

Review: The Returned Episode 1

The Returned
The Returned
The Returned – The Movie That Came Before The TV Series – Available on DVD and Blu Ray

The Returned opens quietly, as we’re walked around a small mountain town in France. We see a bar, filled with the usual teenage drinkers and an older man, Jérôme, who’s come to see one of the waitresses. She apologises and he says he’ll try again and leaves. He arrives at a support group meeting and it becomes clear that something truly awful happened here recently. Many of the residents who were touched by these events have been able to get past it. Jérôme, played by Frédéric Pierrot isn’t even close to it. He’s tired and politely broken by grief, made all the worse by the fact that the man leading the group, Pierre, played by Jean-François Sivadier, is now living with Jérôme’s wife, Claire, played by Anne Consigny. Their surviving daughter, Lena (Jenna Thiam) is barely present, and spends her days getting drunk in the local bar. This is a family, and a town, that’s quietly broken in two, nursing wounds that will never heal, despite the best efforts of Pierre and the support group.

Then, a blackout walks its way across the valley.

When it lifts, the dead start to return.

There is a constant air of otherworldly menace to the first episode of The Returned, whether it’s the offhand way Camille (Yara Pilartz) makes a sandwich or Victor (Swann Nambotin) and his silent, relentless presence in the life of town nurse Julie (Céline Sallette). Each arrival is met, not with the tears and relief that you’d expect, but a tight-jawed acceptance, the terror that the living feel betrayed by their eyes or hushed conversations out of earshot. This is an event so unprecedented, so viscerally wrong that everyone locks in place, unsure whether to embrace their dead or run as far and fast away from them as they can. It makes for a profoundly unsettling hour of TV, made more so by the fact the town is hunched underneath the black, featureless mass of the mountains. There’s an air of Picnic at Hanging Rock to the episode, that same sense of living on the boundary of the normal world and being spotted, and reached out, by something on the other side.

That sense of menace is heightened by some remarkably smart story choices. We’re dropped into the middle of these people’s lives and have to swim to the edges ourselves. The ghosts of the last four years haunt the Returned as much as the people they’ve returned to, with Jérôme and Claire’s relationship, or lack of it, at the centre of this episode.  As we work out more about them, it becomes clear there’s huge emotion behind everything they do, especially the natural way they fall back into speech patterns and mannerisms when they’re around each other. But that familiarity is  swamped, like the town itself, by the sheer enormity of what’s happened. Orbiting around them, Pilartz does great work as the supernaturally calm Camille whilst Thiam’s Lena is a rolling ball of rage, grief and horror. The fact that Camille is the same age as she was when she died four years previously, revealed late in the episode, is one of the episode’s best moments and leads to even more questions about the girls. There’s something else going on with them in particular, with the end of the episode implying that they either share a psychic bond of some sort, switched places on the day of the accident or Camille had a premonition of what was about to happen.

Elsewhere in town, the direction is as subtle. The reveal on Mr Costa’s wife returning, and his actions, are both horrifying as is the sudden, brutal (And I suspect temporary) murder of another character. In both cases questions abound; what did Mr Costa do? How did Mrs Costa die the first time? Who committed the murder in the underpass? It’s a deliberately ambiguous, and horrific scene, with the camera looking on unflinchingly as Lucy, one of the waitresses at the bar, is stabbed again and again. There’s an implication that there’s something more to it though, a suggestion that other people in the town may know what’s happened (And perhaps that it’s happened before) and have chosen Lucy as a test case. Again, just enough answers to keep you interested and lead you on to even more questions.

Then there’s Victor, played by Swann Nambotin. The youngest Returned, Victor is silent this episode but his presence draws lines of tension across every scene he’s in. Attaching himself to Julie, the town nurse played by Céline Sallette, Victor’s glacial calm is the point that the entire episode orbits around. He’s involved in the accident that killed Camille and seems to have no one to return to. His relationship with Julie is muted, calm and, thanks to great work by both Nambotin and Sallette, sweet. Whether it stays that way remains to be seen.

The Returned is menacing, gripping television. Anyone doubtful about spending time with a foreign language show really shouldn’t be, the script is so well balanced that you get swept along in the plot and instinctively follow the subtitles. This is a fiercely smart, unsettling debut and I can’t wait for the second episode. Even if I’m not sure I want to watch it in the dark…

The Returned airs on Sundays in the UK on Channel 4 at 9pm. More details, including MASSIVE face-melting spoilers can be found at the show’s Wikipedia page.

Man of Steel – “best Superman film in the last 34 years”

Man of Steel Henry Cavill as Superman
Man of Steel Henry Cavill as Superman

While it’s easily the best Superman film in the last 34 years, Man of Steel could put off some longer-term fans due to playing fast and loose with what they may be expecting. Which is particularly interesting coming from Zack Snyder, whose Watchmen movie suffered from trying to stick too closely to the source material.

The film constantly raises and subverts your expectations, and as a result, at times, feels like a sequel rather than a reboot, as it deals with storyline points you wouldn’t normally expect from a film that also has to act as an origin story.

As a result, the film hits the ground moving and barely stops for breath. Disconcertingly, this means that it feels partially like Casino Royale (in slowly establishing the important elements of the character, until we finally get the recognisable and complete character) and partially like Star Trek Into Darkness (in having lots of action, with not much time to let anything settle).

There are brave story choices here, which means that you’re going to have to drop your preconceptions of what you’re looking for from a Superman movie. This may well be partially a reaction to both Watchmen and Superman Returns, both of which were overly reverent.

It’s a film about trust and faith. Now, this is where it departs from this reviewer’s usual reasons for liking Superman. The main thing I like about Superman is that he aspires to be human. Clark Kent is someone he desperately wants to be, and he sees a potential in us to be more magnificent than he can ever be. This film doesn’t have that – he is repeatedly told as he’s growing up that he’s better and more important than the rest of us. But, the film pulls it off, by turning it into a theme where Kal El desperately wants to trust us, and for us to trust him. In the moments where this works, it works magnificently. At the moments where it doesn’t work, it feels like the tagline for the movie could be “Super-Jesus is here to save us!”. But it’s more the former than the latter.

This is due, in no small part, to Henry Cavill. He inhabits the role of Superman more completely than any actor has inhabited a superhero role since Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. It’s also due to Zack Snyder, who has often felt like he was all about the visual over the heart, but here delivers a film with a solid emotional core. This is backed by Hans Zimmer’s score, which is generally beautiful, if possibly not quite iconic (although it may be a grower, much like his Batman scores).

This doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. Amy Adams is as watchable as ever, but she didn’t quite feel like Lois Lane. And this is important, considering that Lois Lane is one of the most iconic fictional women of the 20th Century, and not just in comic books. In early scenes, she’s tracking down this mysterious man, and it feels like, in an early draft, she was the viewpoint of the audience, and her journey would be our introduction to the character. But somewhere, it was decided that we needed to balance this with the origin of the character, which means that it doesn’t work quite as well. She’s good (it’s Amy Adams – you don’t need me to tell you that she’s good), but it didn’t feel like she lives and breathes the role quite as well as Cavill does.

Richard Schiff is, likewise, as watchable as ever, but he’s given a rather thankless role. The same with Laurence Fishbourne. In places, it feels like casting great actors has been used as a replacement for writing great characters. And be warned – you may get sick of Russell Crowe. He’s in it a lot.

Also, while there’s a scene that shows that buildings are being evacuated, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that, realistically, a lot of people die in this movie. A lot of people. Like, 9/11 level. And the film plays up that association. It’s uncomfortable at times, although it’s also fair to say that it doesn’t flinch from showing the devastation two super-powered beings fighting in a major city would cause.

If this is the start of the new DC movie universe, and if it is indeed the first step towards a Justice League movie, it’s an exciting one. Overall, it’s a bold movie which is exciting to watch, suprisingly dark in places, but centres around hope and love. It’s a fitting 75th birthday present to Superman – updating him, and allowing a lot of people to love him again.

Evil Dead II – Blu-ray Review

Evil Dead 2 Special Edition Blu Ray
Evil Dead 2 Special Edition Blu Ray
Evil Dead 2 Special Edition Blu Ray

There are some films which are considered cult classics. And then there are some cult classics that are considered all-time greats. And then there are some all-time greats which are considered the perfect example of their type. Evil Dead 2 (Dead by Dawn) sits comfortably in this final category, and with this fantastic new restored BD edition you can finally enjoy it in all its glory.

The first Evil Dead film was a fantastic piece of low-budget, early-entry film-making by Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, but everyone agrees that it was far from perfect. What it did was to spawn a whole new genre of horror cinema (the cabin in the woods) and show that gross-out horror and frat-house humour can sit side by side successfully.

When it came to the second film, the director and star choose to do a kind of re-boot…take what was great about the first film, but apply new film-making techniques and experience. They set out to upgrade, upscale and generally out-do their previous outing. And boy did they manage it?!

Starting with a brief review of the first film (re-filmed since they couldn’t get the rights to use their own movie!) we meet Ash and his girlfriend, enjoying some study-time hanky panky in a cabin in the deep dark woods. Unfortunately, Ash plays a recording of the previous owner (a professor) reading out the incantations from the dreaded Book of the Dead (the Necronomicon). This awakens a dark spirit that dwells in the woods, which possesses Ash’s girlfriend who he is forced to kill by beheading her. Here the new film begins, as Ash is forced to confront the various evil forces lurking within and without the cabin, a mixture of pure body horror and psychological attack. Meanwhile a new foursome are making their way to the cabin, the professor’s daughter and her boyfriend, plus two handy local hicks to show them the secret route through the forest. By the time they have arrived, poor Ash has been put through hell by the evil spirits, forced to cut his own hand off with a chainsaw and is pretty much a raving lunatic. With all five of them holed up in the cabin, it isn’t long before they are being picked off, one by one. There are attacks by forest demons (including the now infamous tree-rape scene), a cellar-dwelling granny deadite and by a possessed Ash. As each one dies (only to become a deadite themselves) Ash must learn from the Necronomicon how to send the spirits back where they came from.

This is a stunning piece of Blu-ray restoration and upscaling. The film has never looked so crisp and clean. Apart from the opening rehash of the first scene, which appears to be purposefully grainy, the rest of the movie is spotless. And in a film with this much spectacle, gross-out blood and gore, psychedelic imagery and OTT horrors, the restoration needed to be superb. The soundtrack has an equally stunning impact, with scenes such as the forest-demon attack and the Ash-goes-mad section having particular audio heft. It is a great session for your surround sound system. All in all, this is THE definitive way to watch Evil Dead II, and you won’t be left wanting.

Evil Dead II Blu Ray Extras

Also on the BD release are some great extras. There is a 1.5hr long making of documentary which is one of the finest examples of BD extras I have ever watched. It is split into sections which you can jump through, and covers every aspect of the film from early days, through production, to post production and the film’s continuing impact. It stars all the main players, with Bruce Campbell leading the way. The only notable name missing is Sam Raimi, which is a shame. Possibly too busy making Oz, or just too far removed from his early films…he is eulogised extensively and features in old footage, but it would have been nice to have even just a few minutes of him from the present day. This is one seriously interesting feature and gives you real value for money. There is a far shorter second feature looking at the original locations of the film. Sounds a bit dull, but it is far from being so. The director locates the original cabin in the woods (it’s still there!) as well as the old school gym where they built the interiors. As a fan it is a very pleasing extra.

Evil Dead II gets a 5/5 from me as a perfect BD package. One of the all-time greatest genre-defining films, restored and upscaled to perfection with a stunning soundtrack and a wallet-pleasing set of extras. If you are a fan, go buy this now. But be warned, watch it late at night and you could end up being “Dead by dawnnnnnn!!!!”

Doctor Who: Babblesphere

Doctor Who: Babblesphere

Written by Jonathan Morris

Published by Audio Go and Big Finish

April is no longer the cruellest month. This year, it’s the month to celebrate Tom Baker’s time as the Fourth Doctor, and as such, former companion Lalla Ward narrates the latest Destiny of the Doctor release.

The Doctor and Romana find themselves on an Earth colony, modelled after the Palace of Versailles, where inhabitants are being killed by malfunctioning implanted microchips. Through these implants, the colonists share their every waking thought with others – creating the Babblesphere – policed by the most baroque robots ever conceived.

Author Morris wittily evokes the spirit of Douglas Adams, script editor for this period of the show, with plenty of repartee between Romana and the Doctor – though the latter becomes rather absent for the middle third of the tale. A scene where the colonists’ Babble is given voice is a real highlight, as is a brief incursion from the Eleventh Doctor and his surprising list of Top Five Foes.

Lalla Ward narrates the story in an engaging manner, but surprisingly struggles to emulate the vocal patterns of the Doctor. Roger Parrot offers good voice variety as the rebellious colonist Aurelius, and the Pedesequod robots are brought to life with some clever sound modulation.

Another strong instalment in the Destiny of the Doctor series then, though one hopes the collecting of artefacts doesn’t become too samey in subsequent stories, as the ‘collecting’ of former companions is already proving in IDW’s similar monthly Doctor arc.

Star Trek The Next Generation – Hive

Comic Book Review – Star Trek The Next Generation – Hive

Star Trek The Next Generation – Hive is the full story (all four issues of HIVE, as originally published), weighing in at a hefty 106 pages.

Star Trek TNG - HIVE Comic Book
Star Trek TNG – HIVE Comic Book

We first meet Locutus of Borg, for he is what Jean Luc Picard has become. No sooner do we learn he has a mission, than the story skips 500 years back to the time after he first returned to the federation as Jean Luc.

We are taken into memes more commonly seen in fantasy than SF – alternative timelines, parallel worlds, other realms (and the demons who live within); all far beyond that seen in the Q days, and further still than from within the likes of Babylon 5.

Swiftly reintroduced are a range of familiar characters – seven of nine is the Borg Ambassador, Riker is a Captain, Data is reborn as Borg; and the ubiquitous Dr Beverly Crusher. A fresh character appears, a Lieutenant whose brother was also assimilated at an unspecified time in the past.

The sequence flips back and forth in time, with clever use of parallel panels and cross break speech bubbles to show the same character spilt across two different time streams, and to visually and verbally smooth the passage between the two. It soon emerges that there has been a massive Borg ‘trick’ and we move into the realms of concurrent time streams where the future intervenes & uses temporal anomalies to time travel and destroy themselves as the strip hops back and forth, with fewer panels between.

The result is a balancing of worlds, and a return to the expected past and future, thus preserving the space-time continuum and the canon of Star Trek: The Next Generation as a whole.

Star Trek The Next Generation – Hive has artwork, by Joe Corroney and David Messina (with colours by Ilaria Traversi and Hi Fi) which is superb and makes good use of the verve and pace supplied by writer Brannon Braga. However this is firmly aimed at the 18+ end of the comics market, and contains themes that might be considered unsuitable for a younger person.