23 October 2018


The December-dated issue of Comic Scene magazine focuses on war comics and includes me praising Jacques Tardi’s It Was The War of the Trenches and The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, books which peer into the abyss of World War I from different angles while both as fascinated and horrified by the nature of war as Francisco Goya ever was. The ending of the original Adèle sequence, when characters from a completely different Tardi series suddenly barge in and start killing people, is such a strange and unpleasant conclusion that it takes a while to see why he did it—and when you do, the story seems even darker. You can find Comic Scene here or in comic shops.

14 October 2018

sub standards

Jack Ryan rides again on Amazon Prime, busted back down to early-career espionage somewhere near the CIAs mail room—the curse of workable IP circling back around like a comet. I joined some of the dots in Ryan’s shift from tackling 20th Century Soviet extremism to the 21st Century Islamist version for Sight & Sound, a change that among other things requires a CIA of good-guy team players on the right side of useless. It involves a delve into the mindset of difficult men too, something VOD series still wear as a badge of entry to the club, even though it’s been clear for a while now that only David Lynch really knows the score there.

The Predators finale was fiddled with and reshot, which is pretty symptomatic of an era when even films so High Concept they’re in Earth orbit still don’t satisfy the people who paid for them when they see them—but not as symptomatic as the fact that it still makes no sense at all. Spotting why the new film is a flub compared to Predator from three decades ago would need a conversation about form rather than content, and they don’t currently happen, but a film that needs a Predator to explain what it’s up to in English through a loudspeaker may have succumbed to self-doubt. There’s some half-decent pastiche in the bunch of scuzzy disreputable males bumbling through an alien invasion, the kind of thing John Carpenter doesn’t do anymore but which was a solid B-movie staple for more reasons than just the accumulated machismo. This bunch hovers around an unconscious Oliva Munn leaving little presents, like the seven psycho dwarves. But I’m not sure I ever wanted Munn to get dragged into the action hero stream, even if those years she spent busking on cable TV stuffing six sausages in her mouth before leaping into a large flan have bred a healthy lack of on-screen pretension. Plus she served her time speaking Aaron Sorkin dialogue and keeping up with the cast of The Newsroom; useful when speaking Shane Black’s attempt at copying what he read about screwball rhythms in a textbook. Her character is a skilled scientist in a semi-transparent lab coat, knows how to unleash ballistic death from large automatic weapons, and at one point is compelled by the plot to strip naked in a crisis. The film stops short of combining the shooting and the stripping in the same scene, but we can assume it was considered.

9 October 2018

class action

For the November Sight & Sound magazine I watched Sink, a British drama about working class men that could fit onto Wednesday night ITV without scraping the sides—so pointing out that it’s not exactly I, Daniel Blake seems unnecessary. It also fits into a department of working class dramas whose political slant is not so much leftist as just left-ish. A while ago I saw Between Two Worlds, in which mouthy young men of a post-Blair generation couldn’t wait to put Britain’s centre-left period behind them and emigrate to Hollywood; and now Sinks beleaguered middle-aged job-seeker played by Martin Herdman is out of tune with his father’s socialism and makes peace with breaking the law in order to treat himself to a nice coffee maker. As it happens Herdman is effortlessly empathetic, while the lads in Between Two Worlds were so insufferable you would have mailed them to Los Angeles in a crate yourself, but both films are most likely invisible to anyone looking to claim working class cinema exclusively for one precise spot further left on the spectrum. Both films might well be invisible to any real audience too, but that’s a different issue.

Final Score: joining Alan Shearer tonight on Match of the Day …Final Score: joining Alan Shearer tonight on Match of the Day …

There might be greater working class passion on screen in Final Score, in which West Ham United fans are so invested in a cup-tie that they don’t notice Die Hard taking place around them. Ten minutes into Final Score the camera pans around the boisterous fans in the stands at the old Boleyn Ground and picks out five terrorists about to take them all hostage sat in a line stony faced and stationary, and the music pounds and the supporters are all jumping and the heavies are all immobile and the fans are all smiling and the goons are all frowning and I missed the next few minutes as I was laughing too hard.

The conveyor belt producing easy-listening action pantos where men with foreign accents are set on fire or tipped into deep-fat fryers and American stars come to London so that they can blow half of it up may never stop—not unless people start looking askance at the violence anyway, and why would anyone start now? I like Dave Bautista, although he looks about as comfortable on London soil as John Wayne did in Brannigan, and I like Ray Stevenson, who can leverage his 0.005 percent of Thor into whatever he wants; but the cobalt sheen and close cinematography and clownish characters of the average jovially jingoistic action film are not exciting any more, and certainly not subversive; just mildly diverting. And to not at least ponder the violence amounts to not watching the thing. You would probably need to start by pondering the violence on television generally, the medium for which Final Score was made and where Spooks tipped Lisa Faulkner into a deep-fat fryer of her own on BBC One all the way back in 2002. The sixteen years since then don’t seem to have clarified what the cultural effect or affect of this stuff really is, beyond showing that ultra-violence has lost whatever disreputable seediness the exploitation sector once relished. Now it’s so reputable that a film can slip an easter egg from the Marvel Cinematic Universe in between maimings.

On the other side of the coin there’s Mile 22, an action film with a straighter face and faith that sweaty fast-cut wobbling-camera colour-desaturated cinema produces intensity and intrigue, rather than, say, a headache. I’ve had a soft spot for Peter Berg the actor ever since Linda Fiorentino made mincemeat of him in The Last Seduction, but as a director his Michael Mann-ish tendencies seem to have been scuttled once and for all by Battleship. Now he’s a trusted purveyor of Mark Wahlberg punch-ups and their conflicted unenthusiastic machismo. The plot has the CIA acting psychotic and out of control, which is a given in this neck of the woods, but even without making any sense the film has an intensity that smaller screens are not yet confident about copying. Possibly because it just might not be worth it any more.

1 October 2018


Mention of some science stories I had a hand in recently:

Taking a bad picture of someone’s retina isn’t difficult, but taking a sharp one at cellular scale is more tricky. There are platforms using adaptive optics to take the distortions and inaccuracies out of the image, although the kit is so bulky that patients have to lie down and keep very still. Duke University has come up with a handheld portable system that could be used more comfortably on adults and restless children.

Also: using a pattern of light instead of a plain beam of illumination can get you a long way in bioimaging, especially when it comes to measuring oxygenation and hemoglobin levels in tissues. A California company called Modulated Imaging has just had FDA approval for a device using spatial frequency domain imaging, which is really just a way to try and cut out the effects of scattering and absorption, two things that biological tissues are often annoyingly good at.

And: improvements in virtual reality don’t only involve getting higher quality display screens to sit closer to the eyeball, but that is a big part of it. A German project has developed an OLED microdisplay that measures one inch across, with a pixel density of 2300 pixels per inch. Put a pair of them in front of each eye in a suitable helmet, and the wearer is looking at authentic WUXGA widescreen. Configure them correctly and that wearer might even not get a headache.

26 September 2018

the moderns

Great faces in The Moderns. But Linda Fiorentino first among equals.

16 September 2018

very British crews

I’m in the current November-dated issue of Comic Scene magazine with a piece about Paul Grist’s comic Jack Staff, a strip which grabs British humour comics and British humour generally in a big warm bear hug.

My appreciation of Paul Grist and his earlier Will Eisner/Frank Miller homage Kane is on record from a long time ago, but Jack Staff is a more expansive gesture, half nostalgic swoon for old comics and half mournful eulogy for acres of British cultural history. The fact that Image Comics picked it up and turned it into a colour strip for US readers who may or may not have recognised Harry H Corbett when he turned up as a vampire hunter is just another layer to conjure with. You can find Comic Scene here or in comic shops.

Supplementary material: Back in 2012 I spoke to Paul Grist about his comics and career for a magazine article which was ultimately unpublished. Some quotes from it are in the Comic Scene article, but the whole interview is here on this site.

Elsewhere: For Tripwire I read the new graphic novel adaptation of Yellow Submarine, which Titan commissioned to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles animated fantasia. Bill Morrison’s background at MAD magazine and Bongo Comics makes him a crafty choice to work at the point where animation and comics overlap, and this particular comics adaptation of a film certainly resembles its source—which is more than you used to be able to say for those old issues of Marvel Comics Super Special. Even having to pretend the film doesn’t have a note of music in it isn’t fatal to the book overall. But at some point this rip tide of nostalgia that’s now tearing constantly at our footing will have to be tempered.