Year-End // A Handful of Amazing Things I Discovered in 2015

It’s been a while since we lived in the year 2015 and most ‘best of’ lists have long since been and gone. Alas, given my recent blogging hiatus I hadn’t gotten around to putting together any thoughts on the year. Until now!

The following is a pretty random selection of media that I really enjoyed over the year; there were plenty of other films, comics, and movies that I enjoyed too, but these are the ones that had that little extra personal impact. It’s not ordered by preference, or category, or chronology, and some of it predates 2015 and I just happened to encounter it then. Simply put, all of this stuff left a real impression on me and gave me a lot of pleasure; it’s likely it’ll be with me for a long time.

// The DC Comics of Brendan Fletcher w/ Becky Cloonan, Cameron Stewart, Babs Tarr, Karl Kerschal and Annie Wu

It’s wrong to single out the work of writer Brendan Fletcher alone over his many highly talented collaborators, especially given that it’s impossible to know who contributes what, but the various works Fletcher has been involved in this year managed to do something that few other books have done in almost a decade: get me excited about DC comics again. Batgirl and Gotham Academy have delivered some great characters and moments over the year as have the more recent travails of Black Canary. These are superhero books that have found a way to be refreshing, often through stories that feel like wonderfully spontaneous adventures with a bunch of good friends. At their best these are some of the most fun reads on my pull list.

// The Art of Babs Tarr

Batgirl #37 Pixtagraph (Babs Tarr)

It seems like I’ve spent a lot of 2015 discovering incredible new talent, and the ‘list’ of my favourite artists is markedly different at the end of the year compared to what it was at the start. Chief amongst those changes is probably my quick and all encompassing infatuation with the art of Babs Tarr. Every issue of Batgirl has been an absolute joy to look at and the variant covers and prints that Tarr has produced have all been just as wonderful. Characters look fun, wear modern fashion, and live in a relatable world; these are people I want to be and hang out with, even when they’re fighting tigers or super-villains, or each other. There is a playful and inviting warmth and a contemporary feel to Tarr’s art that captures a welcome shift in the way superhero comics are written and drawn.

// Elementary

Elementary Still 1

Although I am a fan of Holmesian stories I took a pass on this show when I first heard about it due in no small part to my memories of Johnny Lee Miller as Crash Overide in Hackers. My surprise was significant then when I finally did watch the first episode and it was a top notch procedural with a tremendous interpretation of, and performance of, the great detective. The show leans heavily into the drug addiction elements of the Holmes cannon and finds a great deal of compelling pathos in it. The weekly cases can suffer some of the problems typical of procedural shows (the most famous guest actor usually did it, the plots tend to swerve at the same time each episode, etc.), but the ever engaging performances by Miller and Liu, and the character dynamics at the heart of the show keep it very enjoyable throughout. When I finally started watching this show I just couldn’t stop; I ended up watching 3 seasons in about 3 weeks. I even gave dvds of the show as more than one Christmas gift. Plus the New York brownstone set is a place I would love to live in!

// The Steve Jobs Script

'Steve Jobs' film - 2015

The direction was perfunctory and the performances were excellent, but it was the script for Steve Jobs that elevated the film to incredible status. I’ve long been a fan of Sorkin’s work, and for all his problems he can still write dialogue like few others ever have. The fact that the structure of the movie essentially creates 5 ongoing conversations that take turns for 90 minutes means that there is sparkling dialogue everywhere; it is non-stop brilliance, full of smart, funny, piercing, and endlessly quotable lines. There’s a fair argument that it is more of a play than a film,but for me that is absolutely what makes the experience so amazing.

// They’re Not Like Us

They're Not Like Us #3 Panel

I stumbled upon this comic mostly because the striking cover featured the intriguing opening panel of the story, and I am so grateful I picked it up. This book has been the most interesting, compelling, and thrilling ongoing I have read all year – building up from a simple troubled teens with powers origin to a broader, darker rumination on society’s response to a youth culture it does not understand. The slower pace has allowed characters to organically reveal themselves and the sense of paranoia and oppression to really take hold. All the while the tremendous art/colouring from Simon Gane  and Jordie Bellaire has helped to drive the story and provide memorable & innovative demonstrations of superpowers in use. I’ve been lamenting the lack of a good mutant outcast X-book for years, and then secretly this book answered my prayers.

// The Art of Mike Del Mundo

Elektra #11 Panel

Elektra was a book that ultimately felt more like a dramatic rendering of the main characters psyche than a straightforward narrative and that was thanks to the spectacular art by Mike Del Mundo. Del Mundo manages to somehow create art that is both dream like and grittily detailed, and his worlds are both epic and intimate. Every book I’ve read that he has drawn has undoubtedly been elevated by his incredible artwork. It’s also worth noting that the various covers that Del Mundo has worked on have been ingenious and marvelous without exception. I’ve spent endless hours staring deep into Del Mundo’s art; each panel offers a wealth of beauty and detail that reward your attention.

// All New X-Men #37

All-New X-Men #37 Panel

I’ve been quite vocal about my disappointment with the recently concluded X-Men run from Brian Micheal Bendis, but this issue was an exception that genuinely blew me away. Telling an incredibly simple story, Emma Frost takes young Jean Grey on a training mission to Madripoor, this book managed to deliver deeper character, world building, action, and drama than the entirety of the rest of Bendis’ run. Featuring cinematic art from Mike Del Mundo the book has it all: outstanding action, fun moments, funny lines, sharply observed characterisation, and a hidden but palpably warm heart in Emma’s secret devotion to keeping Jean safe. X-Men comics have been in a sorry state for years (and continue to be so), but this issue really shows what you can do when you combine those merry mutants with tremendous art and on point writing.

// Killjoys

Killjoys Team Still 1

This series marked the start of the Syfy channel’s return to making actual sci-fi, and what a return it was. Killjoys is pure fun, a breathless action adventure that follows three good-guy-bounty-hunters as they work on ostensibly unrelated warrants, but it all becomes entwined in both the personal histories of our heroes and the fate of this particular corner of the galaxy. The show puts together a rewarding blend of character- and plot-led drama, comedy, spectacle, and action, all along side some very effective world building. There are plenty of cliche breaking twists and some really smart done-in-one stories, and by the time the season finale rolled around I was entirely hooked by the questions at the heart of the show’s universe and charmed by its likable characters.

// The Age of Adaline

Film Review The Age of Adaline

I’m a bit of a soppy romantic at heart and also a fan of magical-realism-meets-star-crossed-lovers stories (a surprisingly common genre!) so this movie is pretty much made for me. The story and style of the film seem to take their lead from the underated Fincher classic The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, even down to the lighting and framing of many scenes, but the elegance of the execution here ensures that Adaline never comes off as being derivative. Much has been made of Harrison Ford’s return to actual acting with this film, and he is good, but the film’s real secret weapon is Ellen Burstyn how manages to convey a lifetime of love and regret in her scenes with her mother Blake Lively. It also has to be said that Lively herself does an excellent job holding the film, and her performance as the stoic Adaline is full of masterfully delivered small moments of introspection and aching. Although the script could probably have done with a little more oomph at times, this is a beautifully shot, wonderfully acte, modern fairy tale that left me positively aglow with all kinds of emotions by the end. Also the costume design was absolutely on point!

// Master of None

 

Master of None Still 1

Aziz Ansari’s Netflix sitcom took me completely by surprise, both in it suddenly existing at all and in how good it was. I like Ansari from PNR and his live shows, but he can sometimes lose me when he gets deep into a celebrity story or Randy performance. Fortunately Master of None is brilliantly funny and Ansari is an excellent lead. The real strength, though, lies in how it consistently offers a smart, incisive alternative view on ubiquitous sitcom material. The second episode takes time out of the comedy to tell a wonderfully touching story of immigrant family life without ever becoming saccharine, and the way the show positions modern dilemma’s like wanting to spend time with the family that you love but also wanting your own life in a sympathetic relatable way whilst still finding the funny aspects of the situation. Over the 10 episodes there are some touching moments, some profound moments, and many many funny moments.

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Television // Review // Killjoys / Season One

Concise //

Killjoys is the story of three bounty hunters operating in a dangerous corner of the galaxy whose lives become ever more entangled in local politics and their own dark secrets. Although the show isn’t perfect it is a heck of a lot of fun owning to a well crafted season long arc that has been put together with clear consideration and love. The show works wonders through, amongst other things, judicious use of a presumably tight budget, a genuine attempt to develop a unique visual palette and look, lively & characterful dialogue, and a surprisingly fresh approach to many traditional scifi tropes. The core cast bring their best to every scene, giving performances that are believable and charismatic (even when the dialogue occasionally gets clunky) and it is a testament to their talents that Dutch, John, and D’Avin often seem like they are having a tonne of fun living in this world. Another bonus is the strong bench of quality guest and recurring actors and the effort from the writing staff to imbue their characters with their own diverse stories is well worthwhile. The writing team deserve further credit for the inventive and satisfying storylines that they weave through this entire season; plenty of familiar science fiction plots are used, but more often than not there is a clever twist or an innovative climax that takes the viewer by surprise.

I decided to watch this show because I liked the (admittedly generic) premise, but I kept watching because there was an obvious dedication to making an original and inventive show; despite that, it wasn’t until a few episodes in that I discovered that this could be much smarter than I’d given it credit for and by the time I reached the final arc I was fully invested in the lives of these killjoys and the mythos of The Quad. This is fun space adventure done just right and I for one hope Syfy bring the show back for a second season.

Killjoys Team Still 1

Spoilerful //

Following the exploits of team leader Dutch (Hannah John-Kamen), tech wizard John (Aaron Ashmore), and former soldier D’Avin (Luke Macfarlane) Killjoys is a show that takes it’s budget, characters, plotting and traditional science fiction elements and does absolutely everything it can to make sure every ounce of value is on the screen. The killjoys are essentially bounty hunters and they spend their time having action adventure fun catching villains of every stripe, but as the politics of their home, The Quad, grow more complex and dark figures from their own pasts reemerge things might not stay fun forever. The shows setting is well realised through both production design and dialogue and the cast are given plenty of fun dialogue to banter back and forth as they go about moving through the various plots, but where some shows are content to deliver a weekly blast of procedural by the numbers thrills Killjoys has more ambitious plans. Initially I was unsure about the show; despite some slick ads and an interesting visual look the nature of the show seemed to be focused on the smugness of unbelievably good looking and capable bounty hunter types blowing stuff up (not necessarily a bad thing, but not essential viewing either). I was pleasantly surprised then when the characters quickly began demonstrating much more depth than I had anticipated and the show’s adventures took on increasingly sophisticated subject matter and complex structures. This show may not go on to be a timeless classic, but it was quickly apparent that it is one of the most enjoyable and compelling genre shows on right now.

The show is consistently surprising in a number of ways; firstly there is a conscious and well planned effort to develop the mythology of the Killjoys universe. Concepts like the RAC (Reclamation Apprehension Coalition), the political dynasty’s of Qresh, scar-back priests, and unkillable-space-assassins all could have been introduced and left pretty much how they were when they first showed up. In fact the show’s initial quartet of episodes would have you believe that that is exactly what will happen as the dynamics of the team are quickly established and then random space adventures ensue. Fortunately the show is more committed to it’s world than that and elements of those adventures go on to form the basis of a much grander story arc revolving around the economics and politics of The Quad, the nature of the RAC, the history of our leads, and the plight of the downtrodden. The second source of regular surprise is the smartness of the plotting throughout episodes and across the season as a whole. Characters and concepts that are introduced and serve a purpose in a given episode return organically in later episodes with new information to offer or obstacles to overcome, and the writers aren’t afraid to go against expectations in order to deliver surprises (take for instance D’Avin’s actions on Dr Yaeger’s orders or the deaths of supporting characters like Jenny, Turin, or Carleen). A stand out early episode is A Glitch in the System (episode 5) which deploys traditional science fiction and horror tropes (seen even as recently as the week before on the same network) to establish a tone and expectation for the episode that is suddenly proved entirely misleading at the midway point. Sure, the episode ultimately still features some familiar elements in it’s resolution, but the confidence in the writing and the conviction with which the cast (in particular D’Avin’s Luke Macfarlane and guest-star Richard Clarkin) play their parts raises the quality of the entire enterprise. The fact that red-herrings and maguffins from episodes such as this one also go on to play a role in the wider mythology of the show is an other reason that the arc of the series feels so satisfying – we are being given information all the time, but it is only when the missing clues are provided that it becomes clear what we have been seeing.

The show is not without its silly moments or oversights (security cells are not closely monitored, henchmen are all terrible at their jobs, highly secure facilities are easy to access, etc.), but the majority of these feel like concessions to plot efficiency or budgetary restrictions rather than genuine mistakes or an attempt to get one over on the audience. In fact the show seems to go out of its way to drop in smart one liners that justify earlier character choices and plot developments. A particular favourite of mine in this regard is the very reason that nefarious assassin Khlyen (Rob Stewart) has made a reappearance in Dutch’s life – usually these things are passed of as coincidence (take for instance Lex getting out of prison the same day Superman gets back from Krypton in Superman Returns, or, Peter Parker and Norman Osborne getting their powers in the same week in Spider-Man), but here the elegant explanation is that Khlyen has been waiting for Dutch to ‘graduate’ to a kill warrant as proof she is ready for further training, proof that comes when Johnny takes the kill warrant for his brother D’Avin in her name so that they can save him. This all rather neatly ties together the introduction of D’Avin, the reappearance of Khlyen, Dutch’s continuing unwillingness to take on kill warrants, and the subsequent change in the team make-up that signals a new chapter and our jumping on point in their story.

The show has clearly set out with a remit to create a visual palette akin to some of the most popular current science fiction. Fortunately, in trying to replicate the likes of the Guardians of the Galaxy production and Star Trek (2009) lighting design Killjoys actually comes off as a more interestingly filmed show than many of it’s televisual ancestors (or contemporaries). The most recent genre show with a similarly stylised approach to lighting, for example, was probably Battlestar Galactica, but outside of that it is hard to recall a science fiction TV show that wasn’t shot with just a ‘point all the lights at the centre of the room’ kind of feel. Much of the production has been designed to create the feel of a rich and detailed universe; the various core sets have a certain Firefly quality (itself a show angling for a Star Wars (by way of the wild west) flavour in its production design) and seem suitably well-lived in. Lucy, the Royale, and Old Town in general all have the feel of a well thumbed book, whilst some welcome visual variety is offered by the various bespoke locations in each episode (deserts, abandoned starships, bureaucratic space stations, religious training grounds, etc.). Alongside the costume design (mostly functional contemporary gear with the odd sarong or curiously cut jacket to scifi it all up a bit) the production does very well to overcome the budgetary limitations that plague most scifi shows and actually make this into a believable environment (as opposed to, say, Killjoys Syfy stable-mate Dark Matter which, perhaps due to a larger core cast, looks far less ‘realistic’ with larger empty sets that lack character and are occupied only by convenient obstacles to use in fights). It’s also worth noting that amongst the many action scenes in the show there are some well choreographed and well executed fights with those variously between John-Kamen, Macfarlane, and Stewart being particularly good.

Killjoys Team Still 2

Throughout the season the show performs admirably when it comes to creating interesting character dynamics, even with those of secondary and one off characters, with a healthy mixture of neatly resolved and ambiguously open arcs by the finale’s close. Dutch and Johnny have a strong friendship and platonic love that whilst complicated by D’Avin is mercifully free of jealously or unrequited love; it is refreshing to see a male and female relationship in a show like this that is built on mutual respect and admiration and doesn’t necessarily mutate into lust or love. The romances that do spring up (D’Avin/Pawter, D’Avin/Dutch) have some complexity beyond the simple off/on drama with questions like Pawter’s medical ethics, the emotional consequences of mind control, and the ability of adults to reconcile after a relationship ends for reasons out of their control all making things messier and more believable. Similarly the sibling bond between estranged brothers John and D’Avin yields some subtle drama (dealing with abandonment) and some not so subtle stuff (getting stabbed by a loved one who is being controlled like a robot) and there is plenty more in their chemistry that is left to explore. It is also very nice to see plenty of satisfying moments for background & supporting characters across the season. This is especially prevalent in the season finale, as Pree, Pawter, and even Hills get interesting and touching scenes to wrap up key parts of their personal stories, and what’s more the show delivers a few genuinely touching moments with characters introduced in that very last episode as the Rat King and his people are shown to be the only real kind hearted citizens of Westerley ultimately paying the price for the merciless politicking of their ‘betters’.

The show climaxed with a bold, but pleasantly surprising, decision to destroy the majority of the regular season one locations like the Royale bar in Old Town (that is assuming that Old Town was completely destroyed in the bombing). There is still plenty of visual continuity for season two with Lucy remaining intact (as well as Leith Bazaar and the RAC) so this presents a great opportunity for the writers to grow The Quad and take us to interesting and refreshing new locales. There are also plenty of story lines still in play following the events of the finale, each offering many interesting avenues for the characters to go down. Perhaps the one that stands out as most interesting for me is not D’Avin’s fate but rather his brother Johnny’s (we now D’Avin must ultimately rejoin the team after all). There has been some subtle work throughout the season to edge John closer to the scar-back cause and his blood-rite recantation in the finale just serves to evidence that he may have become more indoctrinated than even he thought. Add to that the potential guilt he might feel for Carleen’s death (if he hadn’t stolen that computer-water would she be dead?) and we could see him take solace in religion which may put him in direct conflict with the RAC.

The first season of Killjoys played a smart long game, taking the time to introduce characters and build its world, before leading the audience into a well orchestrated and highly serialised arc for the back half. This structure has really paid off with characters given plenty of time to shine and grow as engaging and sophisticated beings, whilst the various plot strands have been brought together in a way that is not overwhelming, but that does offer rewards to the keen-eyed viewer. Everything that takes place in the finale, and every character caught up in those events, has been well developed across the season ensuring that each arc ends with a satisfying and well deserved conclusion. I wouldn’t have believed it back when I first watched episode one, but Killjoys became appointment viewing for me over the course of the season and I am eager to know where these characters and their story goes next. Let’s just hope that the Syfy channel makes the right choice and commission a well deserved season two.

Killjoys Dutch Still 1

Notes //

–  I’m a big fan of the tightly edited previously at the start of each episode, I especially like the quick cut dialogue free sequence that precedes the plot stuff.

– Characters, particularly our fearless killjoys, often get hurt doing their jobs and boy does it look like it! Kudos to the actors and make-up crew for making the frequent fights seem like they have consequences.

– There are a few instances of cool future tech being a key plot element (notably the genetic bomb, but also things like the crawling-spider-bomb-necklace and the neat floating target ball from episode 7) so I’d love to see more of this kind of thing in season two.

– The weakest moment in the season finale was the fight with a level 6 killjoy – first off, level 6’s have always been a rumour and no evidence of their existence has ever been found, but as soon as Khlyen admit’s he is one they just start showing up on regular missions and admitting to anyone what they are?! Secondly, I have no idea at all why Johnny is the one to save the day here – the entire season has clearly established the roles of Dutch (close combat), Johnny (tech support), and D’Avin (strategy and gunplay) so why was there a sudden need for Dutch to become (albeit briefly) a damsel in distress? She has kicked ass all season so this felt a little forced to me.

– Season Two predictions: There is a great deal more to Alvis than it appears; taking out that guard was some merciless stuff and I’d be surprised if we don’t learn more about his dark past before he became a monk // Pree ought to set up a bar in Lucy’s hanger bay so he is on hand for wisdom and consolation 24hrs a day // Pawter and Johnny have to get together, right? And if they do how will Lucy take it?!

Killjoys Titlecard