Insta Inspiration [#44]

The recent update to Lightroom (and descent into League) means that photography has taken a bit of a backseat once again, but I have actually managed to turn posting to social media into a bit of a trend. I’m enjoying it so far, which is good, but have discovered that my reasons for enjoyment are very different across the two platforms I’m utilising.

On 500px, the kick I get from uploading a new image is very much a stereotypical social-media hook. I enjoy seeing people’s enjoyment; getting likes, follows and comments. Sure, each upload comes with a slight worry about how it will rank compared to those that came before, but each image that reaches Upcoming or Popular status feels like an achievement, which makes me want to upload again. It’s a simple feedback loop that keeps me engaged with their website, even if some photos do unexpectedly well or bizarrely poorly (seriously, as far as I’m concerned my shot of the Old Man is the best photograph I’ve edited to date).

However, my engagement with Instagram has come from a very different source, which has surprised me. Possibly because I’ve been using the service as a log book for several years, I really don’t care how much traction my images get. In fact, unlike 500px, I basically view likes on Instagram as irritations, creating notifications on my phone to be swiped into oblivion. That does change if I know the person that has liked the image, especially if they’re someone who enjoys photography or creative outlets themselves, but otherwise I’m completely nonplussed by direct engagement metrics on the platform. So why bother uploading there in the first place?

It sounds completely strange, but I actually find Instagram much more valuable as a tool than as a service. Uploading an image is less about the sharing as having a very quick and intuitive way of tweaking settings and playing with filters to see if I can improve it a little more. Once that’s been done, I’ll often fire up Lightroom again and actively compare the two images, slowly tweaking Lightroom’s settings to make it more Instagram-like before re-exporting a ‘final’ version for 500px. I strongly believe that the style of images presented on both platforms should be different, and never try and copy Instagrams filters wholesale, but they do tend to point me in a new direction or just help with refinement.

That’s the process that I used on my Old Man shot and is largely why I love the outcome as much as I do. I thought it was a great photo before I ran it through the Instagram tweaking process, but the version that came out the other end blew me away. Taking those changes and reproducing them myself ultimately led to a final image that I think is better than either of the previous two outcomes. Other times I’ve decided to just upload to 500px, partially because I couldn’t see how Instagram could make the image better and partially because the process of getting a file onto Instagram is incredibly frustrating. In pretty much every instance that I’ve chosen this route I’ve regretted it, often re-uploading to 500px at a later time having flip-flopped on my decision.

Just to show what I mean, here’s my latest upload, a shot of a snow leopard checking out his recently snow-bedecked surroundings at the wonderful Hellabrun Zoo in Munich, Germany (taken on a trip almost two years ago):

Snow Leopard, Winter, Munich Zoo by Murray Adcock on 500px.com

I uploaded the image to 500px first because I didn’t think it could be tweaked any more. I also wanted to retain a very natural feel, which isn’t exactly Instagram’s forte. That said, here’s the same image uploaded a few minutes later and tweaked subtly in Instagram:

Now, I wouldn’t ever consider copying that style wholesale to 500px. It definitely isn’t as natural looking, with a weird purple haze, and it’s lost some of the ruggedness of the environment as a result. However, something about that combination of settings on Instagram really makes the leopard pop, creating a much nicer sense of depth and focus. I was extremely tempted to try and replicate the look, except for the colour, and re-upload to 500px. Unfortunately, I can’t picture in my head what settings to push around in Lightroom to achieve the outcome I want, so right now the original remains.

How I’ve come to use Instagram is not at all what I expected, but speaks volumes about how clever their rendering algorithms are (or how much I still have to learn about Lightroom, of course). For now, it feels strangely inspiring knowing I can quickly iterate a number of ‘looks’ for my image and then replicate the bits I like. That’s a creative process which seems to be providing quite a hook.

Asking the Right Answers [#43]

I have been taking part in Google Rewards for over a year now. For the most part, I complete the various surveys to feed an ongoing habit without feeling like I’m being too indulgent or wasting money. It’s a fast and easy way to make a bit of completely disposable income and, honestly, the service works well.

Broadly, the surveys I get fall into three categories: store feedback, google reviews and marketing surveys. Store feedback is usually a case of confirming that I visited a given location and then rating them out of five. It’s quick, interesting enough to see which businesses feel the service is worthwhile and lets me provide some limited feedback. I don’t really imagine that the data is all that worthwhile, but enough stores do it, some of which having done so for an entire year at this point, that they must get something from the results.

Google reviews are a little more tedious but also have a higher reward, so I quite enjoy receiving them. I’m one of those people that routinely reviews online purchases, fills out in-store questionnaires and generally says “yes” when asked if I have a minute. I totally understand why most people ignore these types of things, but I try to do them whenever I have spare time for two main reasons. The first is that I’ve worked retail, I’ve been the person with the clipboard and I am fully aware how much that role sucks. I literally spent two months, for 4-5 hours a day, wandering around Durham trying to get people interested in taking a flyer for a store I worked for, and that was difficult enough. Getting people to actually engage with you for longer than ten seconds… that sounds like hell on Earth. The second reason is that I like having a record of my opinions, which should be fairly obvious from this website (and elsewhere), and that extends out to the services I’ve used and the items I’ve purchased.

So, the first two groups are easy for me to understand and pretty common. But once every month or so I’ll get a survey from group three: marketing research. Not market research, but questioning me on the adverts that I remember having seen or my awareness of brands. I imagine most of these are Google trying to gauge how well its own advertising algorithms are, something which is totally apparent when I get a survey like the one I received this morning.

That survey was incredibly quick and began by showing me a thumbnail of a Youtube video by Philip DeFranco. The video was several years old (I could see the uploaded date on the image) and the survey wanted to know if I had watched it. Now, I’ve been subscribed to Phil since I first created a Youtube account back in 2009 and had already been watching him for over a year before that. I quite literally created my account just to be able to track which of his back catalogue of videos I had watched. As a result, I could say with pretty high certainty that I had watched the video they were showing me. I also assume, considering that Youtube is tied to my Google account, that they already knew that I had watched the video. The first question on these surveys tend to request confirmation of known information, so that made sense.

But then they did something which I don’t understand, at all. I think what they were trying to do was refine their suggested videos algorithm but the way they went about it was just weird. There were two more questions to the survey and both showed another thumbnail of one of Phil’s videos from over a year ago. Both asked me to rate, out of five, how useful these would be as suggested videos on Youtube. Now, I don’t propose to understand the exact results or answers Google are looking for here, but I can imagine that they’re hoping to confirm that, yes, someone who wants to watch a video on current affairs would like to watch more videos on current affairs. The problem, though, is that their survey is completely ignoring my own video watching history. I am subscribed to Phil’s channel; I have watched every video he’s uploaded in the past decade. I don’t need to have his old videos suggested to me because I’ve already seen them. However, none of that information has been requested by the survey, so from the perspective of the questions I’ve been asked then, yes, based on the fact I enjoyed watching the first video I would want the other two videos to be suggested.

Yesterday I was reading an A List Apart article on why asking the right questions in user testing is key to not screwing up. Perhaps because that was on my mind, this survey through me round a loop. On a personal level, completely honestly, those videos are useless suggestions to me and I would have liked to rate them 0 out of 5 (which is, irritatingly, never an option). However, I’m a huge fan of Phil and want his channel to keep growing. Saying “Yes, I watched that one video of his and never want to watch another” seems wrong. I don’t want Google to take that message away from this survey. On the other hand, I hate how my current suggested videos feed is full of videos I’ve already seen and content from channels I’m already subscribed to. It’s a personal pet peeve of the current Youtube setup because it makes that page incredibly pointless, so I really don’t want to reinforce that behaviour and say that these are good suggestions.

At this point, I’m definitely over analysing what’s going on, but you would hope a company the size of Google would understand that the way they present a survey will have differing impacts. The questions are needlessly broad and non-specific, leaving the interpretation open to the user, but the subject matter leaves me stuck trying to guess what data Google actually want from me. Do they want me to know if I like those types of videos or do they want me to ‘confirm’ that suggesting other videos from channels I’ve watched before is a good thing? Unfortunately, I don’t know which it is, which means I don’t really know what the question is, and if I don’t know that, how can I answer it?

In the end, I just stuck them both at 4/5 stars. Typing this up now I feel that was probably the wrong thing to do, but oh well. At the end of the day, Google asked what seems like a fairly innocuous question, but one which has two wildly different answers. I doubt I’m the only person getting that question but I’ll probably be an outlier in my response. Still, it’s a prime example of where the phrasing, setting and simplicity of a question can leave it horribly ambiguous. The result will likely go on to inform some form of policy at Youtube, which is a shame, because no matter what question they thought they were asking I doubt it’s the one they’re actually having answered.

Welcome to the Grid [#42]

There are a lot of new web technologies emerging at the moment which really feel like we’re entering a new era. Over the last decade, the likes of HTML5, ES6+, flex box etc. have brought the web, and the technologies on which it is built, very much into the modern day. Accessibility, responsiveness and flexibility have become standards, instead of the nice-to-have pipe dreams they were when I first built a website. Still, a lot of the new features and developments have been addressing limitations of what the web was back in the early noughties.

Right now, then, is a little different. There are still plenty of problems with how the web operates, limitations to its functionality and misuses of its resources, but with a little time and effort a website can become everything it was ever designed to be, and much more. The next round of technological implementation, then, is redesigning the way the web works. Do you need an active internet connection to be ‘online? Not any more. Want a website to do more than simply house and interlink static text? That’s getting pretty common.

Despite these huge leaps forward in terms of functionality, one element of those old, dark days has remained missing. Right when I started to learn HTML the standard approach was to mimic page setting from magazines by using <table> elements. That practice died a deserved death, but ever since the web has been slightly restricted in how it can display information in a dynamic, yet rigidly structured, manner. There have been improvements, such as display:table, flex box and semantically clearer HTML (section, article, aside etc.), but ultimately none have met the ease of application of a table layout.

Hopefully that’s about to change, thanks to CSS Grid. It’s a technology I’ve heard bits and bobs about for some time, but I’ll admit it hasn’t excited me like service workers or PWAs have. Thanks to (yet another) great article from A List Apart, I’m now firmly on board the Grid train and willing it to go faster, and faster, and faster. Honestly, I love the whole concept, but for me one of the most exciting aspects is the quick prototyping available through template-areas. For a full breakdown, read the article, but the “aha!” moment for me was seeing how this:

.cards {
        display: grid;
        grid-template-columns: 1fr 1fr 1fr;
        grid-gap: 20px;
        grid-template-areas:
               “a a b”
               “. d d”
               “c e e”;
}

Is automatically translated into this:

Layout of 5 grid blocks and 1 empty cell, showing how CSS Grid can span columns and rows, auto-fill containers and be easily spaced.
The beauty of CSS Grid.

That’s not just replicating all the functionality of the table-based layouts of yesteryear, it’s taking the best part of it, the flexible rigidity, and removing all the irritating parts, leaving just the essence. It’s wonderfully simple yet extremely powerful and has clearly been thought through to an obscene degree. The fact that even blank cells are inherently catered for, rather than having to just set a blank <div> or similar, is just fantastic. Vendor/browser support will be the next big hurdle, but by the sounds of things that’s coming along extremely well. Give it a year and CSS Grid looks like it could well be the new standard approach.

Forgotten & Surreal Instruments [#41]

Two nights ago we had the privilege of listening to the latest show put together by the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments. Never heard of them? Well, neither had I. In fairness, had we not known one of the musicians (who, it turns out, was stepping in for another member) we still wouldn’t know about the Society and certainly wouldn’t have heard them perform.

Which is rather lucky, because both the members and the performance itself were brilliant. I had absolutely no idea what to expect and, frankly, even if I’d read a blurb or heard an explanation I doubt my expectations would have fitted the reality. In brief, the hour-or-so performance was a string quartet playing a medley of medieval and modern compositions, interspersed with readings from Sir Francis Bacon, the 16th century philosopher and naturalist. Oh, except the string instruments on which they played were not your standard violins, cellos etc. but rather the likes of the trumpet marine (one of the only ones in the world), viola bastarda (the only one in the world), gothic bray harp and utterly bizarre looking nyckelharpa (to name only a few, with each musician swapping instruments at least once throughout the performance). Layered on top of these medieval instruments were sound recordings, (occasional) electronic music and various distortions – these being the remit of the fifth musician, whom we know.

The result is a fascinating walk down both scientific and musical history. Francis Bacon has some wonderful excerpts on the nature of sound, the concept of his titular “Sound Houses” (from his New Atlantis, which I really must read) and Medieval anecdotes about noise in general. I doubt that a group of revellers truly did clap hard enough to “make the air thinner and cause the birds to fall from the sky” [paraphrased] but his observations on sound propagation are wonderfully modern and his vision for the future of music consumption is, at times, eerily prophetic. The excerpts were performed brilliantly by a live actor, lending a very clever degree of wit, movement and comedy to proceedings.

Alongside, and greatly overshadowing, the classical excerpts from Bacon was the music itself. For the most part, the musical performance was just incredibly well played Medieval fare. It’s a genre which I love, because it feels somehow incredibly alien whilst the core rhythms and structures, at times, feel almost pop like. The sound mixing was brilliant, allowing the whole medley to produce a wonderfully lyrical and complementary music whilst still permitting you to hone in on individual instruments, which you absolutely wanted to do from time-to-time. In particular, the trumpet marine was fascinating. A single stringed instrument with dozens of hidden vibration panels and sympathetic strings it could produce a bizarre array of sounds. I’m not so convinced as to the claims likening it to a trumpet, whose sound is much fuller and cleaner, but there is definitely a level of reverb and rasp which I’ve never heard from a stringed instrument before. I’m genuinely tempted to donate to their crowd funding campaign to get four of them made, just to hear what several of these instruments could produce together! Personally, though, my favourite was the weirdly altered bray harp, with small pegs fastened to the end of each string creating a very harsh, discordant noise completely antithetical to the classically perceived sounds of a harp.

Whilst there were new compositions interspersed with ancient, you really couldn’t tell them apart, and although the mixture of Medieval strings and modern audio sampling sounds odd on paper, in reality it worked extremely well. One of the last pieces performed, with the most electronic overlays, in fact felt ripe for sampling beneath a grime track, a combination I would happily pay to listen to. When paired alongside the esoteric poetry of Bacon’s prose and the atmospheric setting, an equally ancient church in the centre of a mist enshrouded town on the Moor, the result was wonderfully evocative and utterly riveting. An extremely fun way to spend the evening!

Capital Numbers

A List Apart has long been a fantastic source of knowledge and inspiration in terms of both website design and writing, but on top of these accolades every now an then it manage to completely floor me. Sometimes it’s because an explanation finally hits home after years of misunderstanding, but other times it’s simply by providing a piece of information which is simultaneously brand new and yet perfectly obvious. The type of fact which leaves you a little wide-eyed, questioning your very purpose of existence. A mind-blower, if you will.

That’s what happened today whilst reading the (brilliant) article/excerpt on Web Typography: Numerals. The article is well worth a read just for the thoughts on how the web finally makes footnotes genuinely useful (and, in doing so, guilt trips me about how these same ideas have been sat unacted upon in my head for years). However, it was a simple comment near the start that struck me like lightning:

We have at our disposal ‘uppercase’ numbers 0123456789 called lining or titling numerals, and ‘lowercase’ numerals 0123456789 called old-style or text numerals.

Wait… what?! Numbers can have cases? I read the sentence once, thought “that’s strange”, then read it again and noticed the different cases. These different glyphs are subtle but still instantly recognisable, yet I have never realised they existed before. Such a simple little thing which makes complete sense. Much like the recent viral expose of Papyrus or the infamous Fight Club burn marks, I get the feeling that text numerals are now going to be one of those things I just can’t not notice. Which is equal parts infuriating and awesome.

Month in Media – July 2017 [#40]

We watched a lot of films this month (EDIT: so many it took almost four months to write them all up!). I’m not really too sure why, although entering the summer blockbuster season has definitely helped. Otherwise, it just seems to have been easier to fit a movie around our lives than an on-going TV show. Definitely not complaining about that, though I do wish I could ‘collapse’ reviews once written – the scrolling feels endless! Perhaps it’s time to make some of those long overdue changes (ha!).

Ongoing media:
TV – A Series of Unfortunate Events (definitely brilliant, but really doesn’t hook you like a lot of modern TV, which is quite refreshing);
TV – Iron Fist (just snuck in at the very end of the month, so haven’t seen much, but it’s a lot better than I had expected so far; even if it is a bit of a poor-man’s Arrow).
Video games – Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [Gamecube] (Honestly, I have stopped playing; will remove next month if I don’t come back to it).

Films

John Wick

John Wick is a film that knows what it is, who the potential fans are, where its actors and characters strengths lie, and which never oversteps any of those boundaries. As a self contained film, it’s nearly perfect; taken in the broader context of Hollywood and it’s a little derivative, a little pastiche and a little ridiculous.

Keanu Reeves is great in the titular role, in so far as anyone can be whilst embodying a character eerily similar to the lead in Taken with much less emotional attachment or charisma. Soulless is a little harsh to describe the performance, which feels very real (in a totally wooden sense), but if you remove the negative connotations it’s also not far wrong. It’s a little hard to explain but fair to say there isn’t much in the way of range required to play John Wick.

Most of the surrounding cast are similarly two-dimensional entities, with clear roles, associated emotions and objectives. The idiot, entitled gangster heir is an entitled, childish idiot; the hard grafting, respected mob boss is a hard-ass, slightly terrifying monster; the morally oblique sexy assassin constantly double crosses people; the overly efficient receptionist is overly efficient, and so on. The same flat feeling can be found in the plot, where criminals have a strong moral code until it gets in the way of pacing or story development, at which point it goes out the window (“more a set of guidelines than a code, Ms. Turner”) and guns are magically never out of bullets until an opportune moment to reload presents itself.

Although, in fairness on that last point, at least the guns are routinely out of bullets. John Wick is not a film seeped in realism but you can tell the director has tried to make the action sequences believable. Guns do not infinite bullets and the magazines they use are consistent in their capacity; reloading isn’t easy and fight sequences frequently devolve into scrappy messes. It still takes an incredibly short amount of time to strangle someone and our lead can still take a level of punishment which would make Wolverine wince without blinking or dying, but props where props are due: the action doesn’t feel ridiculous. It’s gritty, dark and frequently over-the-top, but it never crosses the boundaries it sets itself.

Plus, John Wick is choreographed sublimely. At the end of the day, the plot and characters are entirely derived to facilitate two hours of watching an extremely efficient hitman kill a huge number of people, so the fight choreography is where the film lives or dies. Luckily, it works brilliantly, with some completely ridiculous set pieces which leave you genuinely amazed. The stunt performers, including Reeves himself, are great and are backed up by perfectly smooth film work, with some wonderful ‘one take’ sequences, particularly the first real piece of action in Wick’s home which has a fluidity to the camera which really stands out. Humour is placed well throughout the action to enlighten the mood at times and break up what would otherwise be a tiring experience, sometimes through dialogue but largely physical gags.

The result is a visually stunning collection of set pieces strung together by a good-enough plot and hung around the neck of characters with just enough, well, character for you to not care. Like I said at the start, John Wick knows what it is and chooses to just focus on that and do it well, which it achieves in spades.

tl;dr: A gritty, sublimely choreographed action sequence with some largely forgettable characters and plot. A perfect action film not trying to be anything other than a perfect action film.

Central Intelligence

Central Intelligence can only be described as phoned in. You managed to get Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson to star in a whacky buddy cop comedy: this should have been an easy win. Unfortunately, it appears that the studio felt the same way, so just had an intern write the script and then hoped the natural charm and humour of the leads would carry it.

Which, to be fair, almost works. If the script hadn’t been quite as awful as it was, there was a mediocre film to be had. The humour is occasionally funny, the plot is entertaining and the pacing is decent. There are moments which make you sit back and think “Yeah, that works”. But, these are swiftly killed off when Kevin Hart is forced to make weird noises, or Dwayne Johnson’s character flips between loveable idiot to psychopath for the umpteenth time, or literally any other character is given a moment to assassinate their personality or irritate the audience.

Then you have the set pieces, some of which, like the shoot out in Hart’s office, are unbelievable but fun. However, for each of these, you then have a psychiatrist’s office which makes no sense and adds nothing to the film except padding out the run time. These happen a lot and break the pacing, humour and story each time they occur. Even then, if the story underneath was a little more interesting, something could have been salvaged, but it just isn’t. What exactly is the plot? Are we focusing on Kevin Hart being an abject failure and failing to see the positives in his life (trope), or are we focusing on Dwayne Johnson’s CIA agent struggling with emotional trauma from when he was bullied in high school (trope that makes no sense for an active field agent). Or, are we focusing on the “badger” super villain plot device which is, le gasp, all a red hearing to loop us back around to points one and two, but gives us an excuse to have some gun fights. It’s never really clear, though based on the surreal ending (with equally surreal Melissa McCarthy cameo) I guess it was point 2, with point 1 playing a minor subplot role? The thing is, not only is that not overly clear, but none of those options are interesting!

The result is a film which is just dull, with some decent moments of humour which are near universally ruined by everything that happens either side of them. It’s filler, start to finish. I can’t even recommend it as a feel-good film or something to stick on when you just want to switch your brain off. Somehow, it manages bypass both those criteria and come out as infuriatingly poor. Not bad, not awful or rubbish or terrible and certainly not so-bad-its-good. Just poor. Mediocre. Middling. Vague. Do yourself a favour and just pick something else.

tl;dr: Dull. Its not bad; just boring and bland and ultimately pointless. Don’t bother.

Hotel Transylvania 2

I guess the first Hotel Transylvania earned just enough to warrant a sequel, but the plotline really didn’t. I remember enjoying the first film, even finding it funny, but rapidly realised during the opening sequence of part two that almost nothing else had stuck with me. There are monsters, they run a hotel. That much I remembered. The whole love story between Dracula’s daughter and a walking surfer stereotype I had completely forgotten.

Honestly, I think Hotel Transylvania 2 will fit exactly the same niche. Memorable is not a word I would use to describe this film, but nor are rubbish, awful, boring or dull. It made me laugh a couple of times, made me smile a few more and kept me entertained throughout. I feel like they managed to have less fun poking at movie-monster tropes, but then (as I’ve mentioned) I don’t really remember how much of this happened in the first movie. Is there room for improvement: absolutely. Does it really matter to the end film: not hugely.

Which about sums up my experience as a whole. The plot, humour, script, characters, pacing and animation are all perfectly acceptable. Nothing every truly stands out, but nothing ever makes me want to sigh or change channel. The result is a perfectly entertaining kids film that is worth a watch if you have nothing else better to see or just need a cerebral break. I wouldn’t cry if you never get the chance to sit down with Hotel Transylvania 2, but it isn’t the worst use of your time.

tl;dr: Distinctly middle of the road. I will have completely forgotten the film in a few months, but it was entertaining enough for a couple of hours.

G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra

Not great, at all. I mean, I wasn’t expecting much, but the plot is formulaic (when it’s comprehensible), the characters and script are completely forgettable and the action is actually quite dull. Given that the film isn’t even that old, the CGI hasn’t stood up well either.

I was never someone who played with or watched G.I. Joe as a kid, so I can’t speak of any nostalgia, but the character interactions are just completely bizarre. Why do a major, international elite arms force allow two pretty random soldiers just join them? Sure, the main character (name genuinely already forgotten) has intel they need but he could provide them with it in a couple of hours, at most. Plus, the nature of that intel makes him instantly compromised from a security view point! But oh well, it’s not like the intel makes any sense, so perhaps the Colonel was just keeping him close to work out what the game plan was. I mean, the solider tasked with transporting the latest super-weapon is attacked by a previously unknown group of extremely advanced terrorists, who just happen to be lead by his ex-fiancée. Yeah, no way in hell is a trained military leader going to buy the “coincidence” line here. Especially considering the soldier’s story is that they only broke up a few years back, at which time said terrorist leader was a homely soccer mom type who could barely cope with the knowledge here fiancée was going to war. Now, she’s openly killing dozens of soldiers whilst wielding incredibly advanced technology and displaying a level of hand-to-hand combat skill that would take a lifetime to develop. But that all makes sense because… no, actually, forget explaining it. Maybe it’s a side effect of her brain control injections… given to her by her brother… who she believes to be dead.

Yeah, you know what, I’m done here. This film is just stupid. Not bad, or ridiculous or garbage, just intellectually stunted to the point of pity. Don’t bother, at all. If you want mindless violence framed around a beloved kids play-thing from the late 1900’s, watch Battleship. At least that makes an attempt at humour, understands what it is and is vaguely entertaining.

tl;dr: Terrible, nonsensical and boring.

Transformers: The Last Knight

Yes, we went to see this in the cinema. In our defence, my partner knows one of the actors in it (King Arthur, of all people) and that was the real reason we decided to go. I can honestly say that, outside of his scenes, nothing about this movie was worth watching. Which isn’t to say that he was a stand-out, but more that in the midst of dozens of jumbled storylines and patched together set pieces, watching a giant, robot, alien dragon tear apart some Medieval knights was actually kind of cool. Merlin was awful, but otherwise the “Dark Ages” scenes were quite fun, in a Michael Bay-ish manner.

Back to the ‘present’ day and The Last Knight is yet further proof that the franchise died long ago and any further sequels are merely the equivalent of gas passing from the lungs of the already rotting corpse. The last film, which introduced the Dinobots, was so forgettable I forgot I’d watched it. Twice! To it’s (partial) credit, The Last Knight at least manages to create a plotline so poor that it will likely stick around in my memory.

The plot feels like a rough draft of a Dan Brown book, having long since been discarded by it’s author, was discovered in a Hollywood trash can and somehow ended up on an executive producers desk. Once there, in an attempt to ensure someone would watch it, the Transformers were bolted on. But which Transformers? Well, franchise staples Bumblebee and Optimus Prime are back, though the latter is relegated to a bit roll spending more time as a narrator and transforming a total of once, off screen. For the villains, we get Megatron and assorted Decepticons we’ve never heard of, have zero characterisation and designs straight from a rejected 90’s “x-treme” comic book tie-in. There are no character arcs for any of the Transformers (unless you count inexplicable dino-babies) except for Prime, whose own purpose can be summed up as ripping off The Winter Soldier, but doing so having only read the DVD blurb and watching a single trailer. His ‘brain washing’ and betrayal, followed by a subsequent return to character, really only serve to ensure he isn’t around for years, in which his fellow Autobots are all-but hunted to extinction. Of course, Megatron is still on Earth, but doesn’t both using this time to consolidate any of his own power. Indeed, for the great villain of the franchise, Megatron seems utterly useless; Bumblebee (whose origins are retconned yet again to include serving in WWII) is clearly the most powerful Transformer at this point. Every other Transformer has it’s head cut off and is dead, but ‘Bee just flies back together like some robotic Jedi.

If the story is a mess, the dialogue is almost unbelievable. There are some good actors here, but they have been given nothing to work with. There are lines which make no sense, character revelations which are so forced they feel scripted and pieces of dialogue that feel left over from previous iterations of the plot. Characters explain some actions which have already been explained by other plot lines, creating confusing paradox-like moments, whilst major plot twists aren’t covered at all. Most characters are entirely superfluous as well. Mark Wahlberg returns as the sole protector of the entire race of Transformers, for reasons that are never really explained, but which lead him to the exact position to receive some magical pendant and become the titular “Last Knight”. Except the pendant serves no purpose except to make a magic sword appear to save Optimus Prime from would-be executioners whose presence or actions are never explained. The sword then disappears and is never mentioned again. I think it’s meant to be Excalibur, but honestly have no idea. Joining him are comedy black man (good but played zero role), impoverished orphan child (good but utterly pointless and clearly used because Wahlberg’s daughter refused to return for another film) and discount Angelina Jolie (not great despite being the only character with legitimate reason for being involved). Oh and for reasons probably only known to himself and the debt collectors, Anthony freaking Hopkins. I have no idea why an actor of this calibre would agree to do a Transformers film, but even he couldn’t save the script. His presence did allow us Cogman, the only Transformer with any character (even if it was one which wildly swung between extremes) but beyond that his role was a walking excuse to advance the plot.

Really, there is nothing much to say that is positive about the film. The explosions were big (often far too big to make sense), the CGI was acceptable (but never great) and the pacing existed. I spent more time laughing behind my hand at the serious moments then at any of the (many, many) “jokes”. All-in-all, just don’t bother. Unfortunately, based on the final scene (and box office takings), it looks like The Last Knight will not be the last Transformers film. I think, though, it may be the last one I watch.

tl;dr: God awful, but proves that I would watch a film about King Arthur teaming up with aliens to defeat the Saxons (possibly).

Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher

Black Widow & Punisher is set in the Marvel Anime universe, alongside several TV shows and Iron Man: Rise of the Technovore. That means the dialogue, action and characters all follow very Japanese animation tropes and styles. In many ways that’s quite fun, but it does have some negatives.

Chief amongst those is the script, which feels stilted and poorly paced compared to more Western animation. Part of that is just the differences in intonation and phrase emphasis between the cultures, but I imagine a large part is that the translation has been done a little too quickly and forced to fit mouth movements. The result is passable dialogue that occasionally leaves you scratching your head, and which frequently veers wildly away from the standard characterisation of the main heroes on display.

Notably, the villains aren’t as badly impacted by the disjointed script because they’re basically brand new. Whilst the terrorist organisation Leviathan have a long history, they ultimately just exist here to provide nameless henchman for beat-downs. The main villain is Elihas Starr, whose name fans may recognise as that of the villain “Egghead”, but beyond the name the two are utterly different. This version of Elihas is still a scientist, but one that was also a S.H.I.E.L.D operative, close friends with Fury and Black Widow’s ex-lover, thought dead. Elihas is an interesting character, largely because his motivation is something other than world domination or money, but rather a desperation borne out of perceived inadequacy. He believes that, to truly have a shot at a life with Widow, he must become more than just a world-class scientist. Yes, it is a bit contrived and no, it doesn’t have any hidden depths, but it just about works. The one down-side is that it doesn’t really give the film much in the way of stakes, with the super-serum soldiers appearing pretty easy to take down, but that actually allows the script to focus more on the Punisher and his place in the Marvel-verse, which is much more interesting.

Script and slightly dubious villain/love-interest subplot aside, the rest of Black Widow & Punisher is a decent attempt at a fun superhero storyline. Focusing on two non-powered heroes allows for a much more stealth-based plotline, though action is still ever present and wonderfully animated (although the amount of back flips Widow does is often, shall we say, overzealous). Animation in general is good, with clever frame transitions, good use of light and smooth movements. It is, as mentioned, incredibly manga-esque, but that’s part of the fun. Action sequences are generally well choreographed, though the fist-to-fist punch stand-off trope is used far too regularly. The final show down, for which the Avengers and a weird assortment of Z list villains show up to help with, is well paced and interestingly put together. Plus, character design in general is just interesting; not great, but as anime variations go, these are done well. Overall, definitely a significant improvement over Rise of the Technovore.

The end result is a perfectly acceptable movie. It starts a little rocky, with some slightly awkward dialogue, but once the plot is well under way it’s watchable enough. There’s nothing particularly new or unique on offer here, but what you get is interesting, entertaining and fun.

tl;dr: A decent outing for Marvel Anime, though nothing too special.

Jupiter Ascending

I’ve heard both very positive and highly critical reviews of Jupiter Ascending, but I think the reality is somewhere in the middle. I enjoyed the film, but it definitely isn’t one I’ll be rushing back to watch.

The plot is interesting enough, though feels quite derivative of The Matrix, which is a shame considering they’re both Wachowskis films. I mean, at some point I’d like to see a move by the famous duo which doesn’t place humanity at the centre of a plot to use us for fuel. That said, the intergalactic world of near-immortal god like people was beautifully designed and quite intricate at times. I liked that immortality had lead to a slightly more nuanced ‘world’ for once, where hedonism was absolutely indulged in but ultimately had worn off millennia ago to be replaced with various other, longer term appetites which varied between characters. That feels a lot more likely then the infinite life = infinite pleasure concept which is often bandied about amongst science fiction works.

I also enjoyed that this ancient intergalactic civilisation was neither perfect nor thought of itself as such. It was aware that it had failed at times in the past, such as with creating genetically engineered super soldiers which couldn’t be controlled, and allowed the audience to directly see some of the results. Again, though, a lot of these ideas felt derivative. The correlations between Jupiter Ascending and certain parts of the Hunger Games world are likely coincidental, given the timelines involved for both projects, but use of angel imagery, anti-gravity devices and genetic splicing (especially with misrepresented ‘wolf life’ traits) all feel a little well worn if you’re even just a passing fan of the genre.

In honesty, then, the plot and world aren’t too special. They’re passable, entertaining enough and never particularly irksome, but they also won’t be particularly influential. In reality, much of what steps the film up from simply mediocre are the performances and special effects. The latter are simply stunning, with some clever-enough ideas executed well beyond their requirements, such as the blue plasma bursts on the anti-grav boots. As mentioned above, the set building, costumes and general world as shown by the film is visually stunning and if you enjoy that side of film making Jupiter Ascending will not disappoint. Stuck on top of the pretty veneer are some pretty fun performances from most of the lead actors. Both Channing Tatum and Sean Bean (who doesn’t even die!) are well cast as low-class but highly trained police and bring a much higher level of humanity to their characters then the script alone would have conveyed. Eddie Redmayne is characteristically brilliant, giving the megalomaniac dictator role a slightly off-hinged and disconcertingly quite spin. It doesn’t work in every scene but when it hits home it makes him far more sinister then I think anyone else could have managed – definitely not your stereotypical sci-fi bad guy. Then there’s Mila Kunis, who frankly does extremely well to breath a bit of life into a character whose main purpose is to be the largely characterless audience analogue, another tired genre trope. Again, none of these characters are going to stick with me for much time (with the possible exception of Redmayne’s performance) but they’re, frankly, far better then the script and plot deserve and lift the film up from being completely mediocre.

What you’re left with is an entertaining, overlong and trope filled science fiction epic with some clever action sequences and just enough by way of plot to keep you happy. The pacing is done well, the score is forgettable but fitting and the direction is barely noticeable, which is neither good nor bad. If you like the genre you’ll enjoy the film but if it isn’t your cup of tea then definitely one to skip.

tl;dr: Definitely mediocre but fun enough with some decent acting, interesting world building and beautiful effects/sets.

Ghostbusters: Answer the Call

Ah, the film the internet loves to hate. Derided for everything from its script, to the casting choices to the special effects, I can’t say I had particularly high expectations going in. Possibly because of that, I ended up having an absolute blast and laughing more than I have done in quiet a while.

To which I should stress that this reboot is far, far from perfect. Considering how beloved the original is (rightfully so, imho) I can understand some of the hate. The film can be considered in two parts: the first half is an origin story, getting the Ghostbusters together; the second half is a paranormal mystery and action film when they begin to actually bust some ghosts. With the exception of the opening sequence in the manor house (effectively a prologue), the first part is pretty awful. There are some nice enough character moments, but for the most parts people are introduced, given a quirk and then never developed further. Several key plot points are never explained, such as why one of the main characters believed so fervently in ghosts she wrote a book about it (very recently based on the photographs) yet is now adamant she is wrong, or even why people have suddenly started reading said book despite it still barely selling in a market littered with competition. In fact the opening half is so full of comedy ex machina (for want of a better term) that it can be quiet painful. Why are Abby and co fired by the Dean (whose entire character is awful) when they’ve just brought an Ivy League professor on board to a failing community college, along with genuine ground breaking evidence. They don’t even end up in the fire station until the end of the film, so this entire sequence appears to be just to setup a partial punchline to the running Chinese food gag. Although, conversely, that gag appears to have only been put in place to serve as reasoning for why they work above a Chinese restaurant, so the whole thing is circular!

Also, no one ever explains whether Leslie Jones has quit her main job or not. At times she seems to say she has, then she brings in clothes “from work”, then complains about quitting her day job. And if they can barely afford to hire a secretary (how do they even afford that?) why does no one bat an eyelid at Jones just rocking up and sticking around? In fact, the whole money thing is too big of a rabbit hole, considering the amount of heavy elements and nuclear devices lying around.

The issue is, the film doesn’t need to be clever. Some of its best moments are when it is just self aware and lazy, like when Jones explains she can borrow a car from her uncle and turns up in a hearse. Of course it’s a hearse, it had to be a hearse and that explanation holds up. Plus it lets Kate McKinnon get a quick quip in about irony which is genuinely funny. When Answer the Call is being self-aware it works, without really having to try. It could have lent on viewers expectations and fan service a lot more, without all the mess that we get in the first half instead.

That feeling of “you came so close, how did you drop it!?” is repeated with the casting. I personally really like the female cast, it twists up things enough to make this a reboot rather than a remake, which allows a lot more creative freedom. I also like the actresses that were chosen, who are all solid comedic actors. Yet they do feel a little wasted and frequently have to make do with less than stellar writing. Perhaps some of that is riffing gone slightly off, but I feel with this much talent present the problems must stem from the base script itself. That said, Kate McKinnon is brilliant throughout and, frankly, worth watching the film for alone. Definitely someone I will be keeping track of in the future, she’s just brilliantly eccentric and genuinely hilarious. A nod of appreciation also needs to go to Chris Hemsworth, whose bumbling secretary is exactly the kind of humour I would normally cringe at, but instead had me laughing. I definitely feel the end sequence making the cops perform Thriller should have actually happened (at least a short sequence) during the film, but he clearly had a huge amount of fun in that role.

The old ‘buster’s cameos are a little different, feeling just worthwhile enough. They’re a little cringe inducing, sure, but I can almost forgive them. Bill Murray is almost entirely wasted, however, playing the sceptic character and simply killing him off is both an odd choice and jarring. It doesn’t work from a character stand point, it’s clearly telegraphed from a mile away and it creates a large plot hole in terms of why no one is prosecuted for killing a minor celebrity. Just weird.

However, despite all of these obvious and often-irritating flaws, I found Answer the Call funny, nostalgic and with some pretty fun scares. It’s not a horror movie, but it shouldn’t be, so the ghosts go just far enough to leave you a little creeped out but nothing more. That’s how Ghostbusters films should be. The action is adequately campy, the ghosts are ridiculous and the plot leans on all of the standard paranormal nonsense that it should. Again, these are all elements of what a Ghostbustsers film just is and arguing that they’re in anyway wrong would be to miss the point. The film needed to be a lot more self aware, but when it gets it right the result is pretty enjoyable. Plus, for all the issues of the first half, the second half just runs with the logical formula. Stakes are upped, laughs are had and supernatural antics are ramped to breaking point. The actions characters take aren’t always that logical, the money issue never goes away and the sequence with the table-clinging in the diner is just awful, but otherwise the second half is enjoyable. The metal festival is funny (and creepy) and the final invasion is spectacular.

The result is that I actually really enjoyed the film. It felt enough like the originals to work for me, whilst bringing new material to the table that modernised it all a fair bit. Yes, there are a load of big issues, but I laughed a lot and I never asked for much more from the franchise. Ultimately, I would genuinely go and see a sequel in the cinema if they ever made one, and personally hope that does happen. I feel like, with the awkward origin story out of the way, a sequel could be really quite good. Great, even.

tl;dr: Hilarious, campy and just creepy enough. There are some bad parts but overall a very enjoyable reboot of the franchise. Zuul, grant us a sequel!

Miss Congeniality

Full disclosure: I am not a Sandra Bullock fan. Whilst I think she can definitely act well, there’s something about the way she chooses to portray characters that just takes me out of a film and irritates me. As a result, I’m a little biased.

That said, I did enjoy Miss Congeniality… just about. At the core is a fun premise with a decent execution, but I wouldn’t say the film has aged that well. The script, plot and, particularly, the humour feels very 90’s and not in a good way. As a whole, the film seems to simultaneously embody the zany, whacky vibe that the 90’s committed to in big way whilst also attempting a more self-aware type of humour, which became popular in the early 2000’s. Given the Millenium release, that makes a lot of sense, but the result is a film which is too whacky to make the self-awareness stick, whilst constantly calling to attention how ridiculous it is.

There’s also the other spectre of the 90’s looming marge: Girl Power! The film goes out of its way to be Modern and Feminist and embrace the same values as ladette culture, meaning a brash mouth and openly gross female lead. Bullock isn’t just pretending to be “one of the guys” to fit in or advance her career, she just genuinely is one, being so painfully macho that she’s frequently the most “manly” agent in the room. At the time, this hit a societal trend that would have felt refreshing, genuinely modern and actively progressive. By current standards though, it feels a little misguided and blunt. It’s still clearly a lot of fun from a female perspective and at no point comes close to true sexism (in either direction), but there are plenty of moments which made me cringe or feel a little uncomfortable. Some of that is hard to pin down, and Miss Congeniality definitely gets points in eschewing a lot of Hollywood gender stereotypes, but I can’t feel fully comfortable with what happens. At the end of the day, Bullock’s character still has to go through a process where she realises that she isn’t truly ‘complete’ as a woman unless she embraces her feminine side. That would be an acceptable critique on the trope of women having to be uber-manly in order to be treated with respect, but her character isn’t set up as someone who is having to play a role at work to get by. Far from it, we see her male colleagues accept her completely, with the only person standing in the way of career progression being herself (also a bit of a stupid plot device) and through the use of flashbacks we know that she has had a typically masculine personality since she was very young. So instead the film tells her that, despite being exactly who she is (a weird stereotype of Girl Power), she needs to become more feminine, interested in hair and makeup and shoes, in order to be fulfilled. Oh, and she needs to find a man. So yeah… there are points here for progressive gender ideas but also some pretty large problems.

Putting that aside, the film holds up well enough. The plot is genuinely ridiculous and the main villains explanation for attempted murder is never more than “woman scorned” syndrome (albeit scorned by an employer rather than a lover), but the characters you meet along the way feel real enough to keep you invested. The story plays out by the numbers, but the script occasionally sparkles, with some genuinely funny moments. The action is a little clunky but never distracts, much like the soundtrack. Plus, overall, the cast is great and provide perfectly enjoyable performances (particularly if you don’t cringe every time Sandra Bullock starts hamming things up). Miss Congeniality is a fun film with enough positives to be worth watching, but I can’t say there’s anything here that makes me want to watch the sequel.

tl;dr: Feisty fun but definitely beginning to show its age.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Everybody has always said that the only way Spider-Man would ever be done right is if Marvel did. Everybody was (sort of) correct: Homecoming is brilliant and perfectly captures everything Spidey, whilst also managing to be a genuinely clever and interesting film. Right now, Marvel is very much back in its groove and top of the superhero game.

But I say sort of correct because I genuinely don’t think that Homecoming could exist without the original Raimi trilogy or the Andrew Garfield reboot. Why? The original trilogy did the truly comic-book, fan service films that had to come first. Peter Parker was a little wet-behind-the-ears and the third film was awful (though none have stood the test of time), but crucially the characters all felt like they’d been lifted straight out of the Silver Age comics which made them famous. It also contained just enough of the 90’s TV cartoons to appeal to the younger fans. The films are riddled with bad acting, poor scripts and terrible direction and feel completely amateur by modern standards, but they were very definitely Spider-Man films. To contrast, Homecoming takes extreme liberties with the source material. There’s no origin story, there are new characters, Aunt May is young and attractive, MJ is a non-white brunette and there isn’t a hint of Osborne or Oscorp in sight. If Homecoming were the first cinematic outing for Spidey the fanboys would have their pitchforks out screaming blue murder.

Similarly, the Amazing Spider-Man films got a bit of the grittiness out of the system. I will further maintain that Andrew Garfield was an almost perfect casting for Peter Parker, and Emma Stone was brilliant as Gwen Stacy. The films were poorly paced and had terrible villain designs, but the main characters and action were great. They also provided a crucial buffer and got Gwen some well deserved time on centre stage. Again, without these films ticking off the last few items on a fan’s wish-list there would have been much greater pressure on Marvel. Between the original trilogy and the two Amazing reboots, pretty much all of the iconic Spider-Man scenes and plots have been told. Marvel was therefore clear to take the character and truly mould him to fit their vision, making him work within the MCU without having to tip-toe around fan service.

Which is brilliant, because the end result is truly fantastic. In Homecoming Marvel is finally starting to play with the incredibly intricate universe it has built. The villain is directly tied to the Chitauri invasion of New York, but in a human and believable way. Peter is being directly mentored (read: monitored) by Happy and Stark. The US schooling system has a library of inspirational video recordings of Captain America. Not only are the cross overs between the other films genuinely clever and entertaining, they make Homecoming feel incredibly included. Whereas films like Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy feel divorced from the events in the Avengers franchise, Homecoming is happening around the edges. It’s very well done, often incredibly humorous (“I think he’s probably a war criminal now, but whatever”) and makes these new characters feel like they’ve been there since day one. It’s something the TV shows in the MCU are desperately needing, but for a more street-level hero like Spidey, it works perfectly.

On top of the nods to past events in the MCU I have to mention the possible hints at a pretty major future event: Miles Morales. And by possible I mean that Kevin Feige has heavily hinted that they’re going to happen. Donald Glover is in this film, which is a fun nod towards his year’s long campaign to play Miles in a Sony reboot. Unfortunately, instead of playing the Ultimate Spider-Man, Glover has a role as Aaron Davies, a small time crook. He does, however, mention that he has a nephew in Queens, which instantly made me wonder if that nephew could be Miles. Sure enough, in the comics, Davies is Miles’ uncle. We also have Parker losing his backpack in an alleyway in Queens near the start, which is a similar origin to how Miles original gets his webs in one variation of his origins. It’s an incredibly exciting Easter Egg for long time fans of the black web-slinger and personally I’m so much more hyped for future Spider-Man films now there’s a (good) chance Miles may make an appearance.

All of which is to say that, yes, you absolutely should go and see Homecoming. It’s easily the best Spider-Man film we’ve had to date, with perfect casting across the board, some very clever humour and a genuinely interesting plot. The Vulture may not be top of Spidey’s rogues gallery but Keaton plays him brilliantly, and combined with the twist of his relationship with Peter makes him a genuinely chilling yet believable villain (not something I thought I’d be saying about the Vulture…). The inclusion of Iron-Man does feel a little forced at times but also helps explain Parker’s appearance in Civil War whilst also making the universe a lot more believable, with both inhabiting the same city after all. Plus, that Iron Spider wink-nod near the end is a brilliant fan moment. Homecoming has set up an interesting, nuanced and funny version of Spider-Man whose future outings are now firmly atop my Must Watch list.

tl;dr: The Spider-Man movie you’ve always wanted but never imagined. Truly brilliant and a welcome addition to the MCU.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Probably the least Tim Burton film made by Tim Burton in years. To be clear, I love Burton and his style (in fact I’m a rare believer that his interpretations of the likes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland are either as good as, or better than, the originals) but it was a little refreshing seeing it take a backseat for once. It also likely helped Miss Peregrine’s feel a lot more unique and original then it otherwise would have done.

Overall, though, the art direction and visuals were stunning. The plot and characters occasionally felt a little over-borrowed (see below) but the film looked incredible throughout. Each “peculiar” person was imbued a real sense of character and the clothing, lighting and – most of all – the locations were brilliant. Blackpool felt real, the Welsh village felt real, the house itself felt… somehow, hyper real. It was cleverly done but simultaneously helped create this fantastical world whilst keeping it firmly grounded in our own. From a character design and art direction perspective alone I would definitely recommend a watch.

In other areas, however, Miss Peregrine’s had some weak spots. For the most part, acting was more than acceptable (though never truly memorable) and it was a lot of fun seeing the likes of Sam Jackson and Graham Linehan in a fantasy. Plus, Eva Green was born to play these sorts of roles; if you want to see her stretched in a fantasy then watch Penny Dreadful, but to see her just having a lot of fun then Miss Peregrine is a great role. It makes me realise that the Harry Potter franchise definitely missed out on casting her within the premiere wizarding world.

Speaking of Harry Potter, if there’s one area I would say Miss Peregrine’s felt flat, then it is definitely the world building. The ideas behind the Peculiars, time loops and Hollows are great and have all the elements to feel like a genuinely unique world. I’ve never read the book, so perhaps that does the world more justice, but there was something about the film which meant you never truly felt immersed. Unlike truly great fantasies, like Harry Potter, Middle Earth or Narnia, the world of Miss Peregrine and co. never quiet feels real. It doesn’t draw you in and make you wish it was real, although I’m not really too sure why. Perhaps it’s the fact that you have to be born a Peculiar, which means that there is less potential for wish fulfilment. Perhaps it’s just that, individually, none of the ideas are truly unique. The result is that the world feels like a mash-up of the X-Men, Potter and (weirdly) Jumper franchises, with a dash of Groundhog Day thrown in on top. Even the Hollows just screamed Internet creepy-pasta, rather than unique creature. They looked like monsters from several Guillermo Del Toro or Burton films mashed together, with a healthy dose of Slenderman blended on top.

All of which is a shame, because underneath these similarities is a genuinely intriguing and well laid out world. Whilst some of the main characters had “run of the mill” super powers, like fire starting and invisibility, others were far more interesting and clever. Dream projection was a fun concept and the animation and control of non-living objects was disturbing but definitely unique! Top of all, though, was the main love interest. Her powers are never fully explained, but she’s effectively an Air Avatar, able to manipulate air and wind. Alone, that would be an interesting but meh power, but combined with her constant struggle to prevent herself floating away it leads to some fascinating visuals and clever plot twists. In a film introducing a whole race of super-powered individuals, you were always going to get some that had been done before (and should do, it makes sense) but Miss Peregrine’s also manages to create some very memorable and unique powers, which is impressive. It’s something the myriad X-Men films have attempted on dozens of occasions and largely failed at.

The disjointedness aside, though, I did really enjoy the film. There’s definite room for improvement but the overall plot, acting, sound work and – above all – visuals are excellent. A couple of tightening screws to the characterisation, a recast for “resurrection boy” (he had a weird role and poor scripting, but also an honestly impressive lack of energy or emotion despite being the centre of a secondary love story) and some more time painting in the details or the world and Miss Peregrine’s would have been one of the most intriguing fantasy tales in years.

tl;dr: A great effort at some genuinely interesting and unique fantasy, let down by a lack of world building and the occasional blunder. Enjoyable but buzzing with greater potential.

The Princess and the Frog

After a string of animated ‘failures’, The Princess and the Frog was somewhat of an interesting pivot point for Disney and arguably kick-started the renaissance of Disney Animation that has gone on to create the likes of Tangled, Frozen and Moana. Yet it’s also one of those films which has always failed to capture my attention, so it was great to finally sit down and watch it. As a result of that lack of attention though, the end result was almost completely unexpected.

I knew the film was a more modern take on the “Disney Princess” formula, being set in a modern (ish) city with non-white (le gasp!) characters in main roles, but I had still expected it to be largely about a ‘princess’ meeting a ‘prince’. I had thought the twist was that the prince in question was going to be the damsel in distress, which is partially correct. I wasn’t expecting the ‘princess’ to also be in the same distress, resulting in the almost total removal of the plot from the vibrant, modern world it was suggestively set within. Nor was I expecting to have this many talking animals.

In some ways, then, it harks back even further then I had anticipated to the likes of The Sword in the Stone and Robin Hood, both firm personal favourites. Unlike those films, however, the animals in The Princess and the Frog are less nuanced personifications of certain emotions or motifs and more personifications of racial stereotypes. We have the Cajun firefly, the idiot alligator with no sense of purpose beyond fun which felt a little uncomfortably similar to a minstrel of ages (thankfully) past and the French frog (I realise the Prince wasn’t literally French but the accent and stereotypes all fit France better then anywhere else). Our main character, Tiana, is a little better and does feel quiet sensitively written, both towards her race and her gender, though her arc isn’t going to be winning any awards for originality.

That said, the heart of the story is distinctly Disney and wholesome as all get-out. Again, it’s nothing too new: one character lives for the future, the other lives for the present, neither are wholly fulfilled – action! But it does remain a plot that works and gives the story just enough direction and heart to take you along for the ride. Which is a good thing, because the ride is completely beautiful.

There were two big elements I was looking forward to from the design of The Princess and the Frog: the animation of the Voodoo world and the soundscape possible with early 1900’s New Orleans. Luckily, the film delivers both wonderfully. The music is frenetic and rich, with plenty of Jazz but also dabs of soul, Cajun folk and even some country which really produces a flavour of the South States. Again, it could be argued that it really is a flavour of the stereotype of the South States, but it’s still a fun ride. Layered on top of that music are some beautiful and arresting visuals. The sequences with the fireflies at night and any time the Shadow Man is in frame are magical, but far and away the living shadows themselves steal the show. The fluidity with which they move through a scene is genuinely horrifying to watch and lend the film some much needed drama and tension, but they are also used for good comedic effect on several occasions.

Unfortunately, with such a solid backdrop of musical accompaniment, the songs themselves are almost entirely forgettable. The animation surrounding them, such as the scenes noted above and also the sequence with Mama Odie, is often fantastic and draws you in to the action, but I’d struggle to recall a single chorus line or title. There’s certainly no equivalent to the Circle of Life or A Whole New World that will have you humming refrains for days, but the music is certainly not bad either.

Which I think is largely how to sum up The Princess and the Frog: nothing on offer is bad, and taken together the sum of the parts is genuinely enjoyable, but it also won’t set your imagination on fire. It’s definitely worth a watch but it won’t be a Disney film I’d particularly bother coming back to.

tl;dr: The shadows are awesome, the jazz is slick but ultimately the story a little flat. Worth a watch but no modern classic.

Les Misérables

I’ve heard the music, I’ve seen the posters and I’ve read about the hype but at long last I can claim to have finally actually seen the film (though not yet the stage show). My thoughts? The hype is real, but I also see why this isn’t a slam-dunk critics choice.

As I’ve never seen the stage show I don’t know how faithful the adaptation was, but from what I gather it sticks pretty closely to the source material. With that in mind, Les Misérables is an absolute triumph as a stage-to-film adaptation. It consistently feels somehow real yet the constant use of verse rather than dialogue never feels at odds. The set pieces have a hint of spectacle but they never feel like a “number”, unlike films like Moulin Rouge. It manages to feel somehow stage like yet doesn’t feel staged or stilted; actors behave naturally and interact with their surroundings on a logical way, but the direction and camera angles emphasise them in a similar manner to stage lighting. It’s clever and beautiful and utterly spell binding.

Indeed, purely from a cinematic point of view, Les Mis is stunning. The colour grading, compositions and shot sequences are brilliant, creating a film as visually entertaining as it is just plain entertaining. Costume, set design and makeup are equally exceptional and really help emphasise the tone of the film. Of course, the sound design is brilliant too, not just the score (obviously great) but the folly work and various sound effects all slot together incredibly well. The result is a brilliant piece of cinematography, start to finish.

That isn’t to say it’s all good. Whilst I felt the casting was spot on and every actor gave a great performance, there are the occasional odd moments. I’ll admit to being pulled out of the film several times during the opening sequences as Hugh Jackman’s vocals flitted between Australian and Irish, leaving me slightly confused as to where his character was meant to be from. This was reinforced by several minor characters also appearing to have Irish accents, something I can only assume was weird casting or poor sound mastering. Above all though, there is the utterly appalling and unintentionally comical sound effect dubbed over Javert’s death. I have no idea why they didn’t have his body hit the centre of the whirlpool, as that seems far more fitting as a framed shot when compared to the style of the film, but even with the impact in shot… why that sound effect? I’d heard it was a bit crap but it took me so utterly by surprise and was so poorly done I burst out into laughter at what should have been a very sombre moment. Misstep is a little too kind.

From a plot perspective, characters were not always introduced in the most straight forward of manners and back stories are sketchy at best. You find out most of the main details the plot necessitates, but these aren’t fleshed out and wildly interesting characters. Everyone you meet is fairly one dimensional, becoming utterly so the further they are removed from Jackman’s focal point. For the most part this is both acceptable and not much of an issue, but it does occasionally leave irritations in the plot. Why doesn’t Valjean just leave France? Why does he try to steal the priest’s silver, despite seeming petrified of going back to jail? Why are the rich aristocrats sons plotting revolution (or is just genuine empathy)? Why doesn’t Valjean flee with Cosette? How are they still living in Paris so many years later? As I’ve said, none of these issues are that great but they do leave you wishing for just a little more exposition. That lack of exposition also leaves you feeling like the film is about to end several times, which does begin to get a little Return of the King-esque in pacing.

Minor niggles aside though, Les Misérables was an excellently crafted, thoroughly entertaining, stunningly acted and brilliantly executed film that no one should miss. The music and vocals are brilliant, the adaptation remains pleasingly theatrical whilst embracing the realism of film, the cinematography is beautiful and the story is wonderfully miserable. Les Mis is not a happy film, but it is a triumphant one, especially with that incredibly emotional ending. You really should hear the people sing.

tl;dr: Superb. A truly brilliant adaptation and well deserving of the praise

Warcraft

Warcraft isn’t quite as awful as I was anticipating. Well, that’s a lie, it absolutely was, but let me explain. Yes, the acting, direction, script and plot are all fairly weak. Yes, the CGI has some dubious moments. Yes, the plot manages to systematically overload you with information whilst managing to remain incredibly hard to follow. But, ultimately, yes I would watch a sequel.

Whilst Warcraft suffers from the source material effectively just pasting together all the most popular fantasy tropes it could get away with, the result is actually quite fun. The one unique (and I use that term extremely loosely) aspect of the games is the divide between magic users (which is effectively the Force divide from Star Wars), which luckily is used as the central question in the film. That works, and allows the world of Warcraft (heh) to be built around it fairly reasonably and very accurately. It has been years since I last played any of the games, and even then it was only ever a passing interest, but the art design feels very faithful. Personally, I appreciated that, but it does give a lot of the races and creatures a bit of an “uncanny valley” vibe. If you don’t know what they’re going for, then, the CGI can look utterly terrible. However, I don’t feel this is a fault of the studio; had they utterly reinvented the look of the universe the existing fans would have crucified them. Basically, they were stuck between a rock and a hard place and I feel the end result was a decent compromise, well executed.

Still, there are several scenes where the backgrounds and large CGI components look incredibly dated, far beyond the actual release of the film. Considering the budget they were given, this feels particularly odd, though some of the main CGI characters (the orcs in particular) are very well designed. The magic is also worthy of mention, though unfortunately the novelty was missed for me because Doctor Strange has done something very similar since.

Alongside the good notes of the visuals, the action is solidly maintained and well choreographed. Battle sequences feel epic yet remain easy to follow and key characters are always clearly framed. Again, you could definitely make the argument that the actions and strategies are a little unrealistic, but they also have the feel of the games about them. Fan service vs realism: fan service wins, and again I can’t really complain about that.

Less well put together are the casting decisions and scripting. I would struggle to say any one actor did a bad job, but they weren’t really given much to begin with. The script is very paint-by-numbers, with the major reveals, plot points and character relationships able to be deduced within the first third of the film. The first moment you meet the captain’s son, a single sentence tells you he will die. Similarly, the amount of hints given that the Archmage (or whatever, I do not remember the incredibly convoluted naming schemes) is evil leaves you wondering why the hell anyone trusts him in the first place. Less obvious was the love interest between female orc and human captain; I mean, again it was clear this was the route the story would take, but there wasn’t any plot development to call it an arc. Instead, midway through one scene, they suddenly go all gooey eyed and declare love for one another. It’s a bit weird, to say the least. It’s also a bit weird that everyone in the kingdom (of importance) is exactly the same age. How is it that the King, the captain of the army and the Archmage are all best friends? How insular or corrupt is this government? And how easy is it to learn magic? The circle of mages (or whatever) who appear to never help anyone are all old men, suggesting it takes a life time to master their spells, but the Archmage looks like he’s 30? Just cast some older actors and the whole plot becomes a lot more believable!

Still, as I said above, I enjoyed the film. The first third is confusing and poorly paced, but once the action gets started and the characters are all defined, Warcraft actually manages to weave an interesting tale. There’s enough novel compared to the likes of Lord of the Rings to make the story intriguing and enough similar to make it entertaining. Now the awkward world building is out of the way, I wouldn’t mind seeing what happens next.

tl;dr: Not great, not completely awful. Yet another flop that I wouldn’t mind giving the chance of a sequel, just to see what would happen.

Spy

I’m starting to think that there is just something about Melissa McCarthy that means she ends up in films that have an awful setup but a genuinely funny second half. Much like Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, once Spy gets the character introductions out of the way and just runs with the premise it becomes a very enjoyable and outright funny movie. In order to get to that part, though, you do need to wade through a swamp of awkward moments and gags that feel like someone found a high school student’s improv diary and just started copy-pasting. I mean, why is the CIA office infested with bats? Even if you buy into the (crap) running joke about how the office staff aren’t treated well, the logical escalation of the gag is to start with suspected infestation, show rats and then end with bats, but instead we go from 0-100 in one scene then just hover around 20 for the rest of the film.

Awkward moments of humour aside, the action, script and plot are all tight enough to keep you entertained. There are no terrible performances, though Peter Serafinowicz should get an award for saving a terribly scripted roll. The outcome remains mildly irritating, but when you look at his character abstractly it had all the Jar-Jar Binks like qualities required to sink a film entirely, so frankly I feel he did an astonishing job. In fact I think it’s fair to say that, for the most part, the incredible cast help lift a lot of mediocre side characters out of poor-writing hell. Both Allison Janney and Jude Law probably also deserve serious credit for making their characters far more appealing and nuanced then their scripts should have allowed. On the other hand, you have Jason Statham going the other route and hamming up his performance so much it becomes brilliantly funny; I can’t help but feel he had an enormous amount of fun in this role.

Which I think is the main takeaway that shines through. It feels like everyone involved in Spy just had a lot of fun, which helps lift the whole film. It feels exactly like the film Mortdecai should have been, but actually pulls it off. It’s not a film I’ll be rushing back to watch and, honestly, you won’t miss anything by skipping it, but if you fancy an easy laugh or two then give it a look.

tl;dr: Funny spy based entertainment. Perfectly enjoyable; not a must see but better than mediocre.

TV

Doctor Who [Season 10 – sort of]

Honestly one of the best season of the show for some time. I biggest issue is that I feel like they have finally begun to write for Capaldi in a way that makes sense… just in time to kill him off!

In fact, killing people off is generally a bit of a trend this season. I guess that’s what happens as we come to the end of Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner (frankly, could not come soon enough). We have one completely new companion, Bill, who makes it a whole one season before being killed, plus returning sort-of companion Nardole who, fittingly, sort-of gets killed off. Oh and then there’s one of the more inventive takes on the Master in ages, with Missy forming a reluctantly willing third cog to the plot. To the show’s credit, it keeps these varying plot lines and characters all neatly moving along without feeling rushed or over complicated. There are several of the normal Doctor Who issues, such as perpetually referencing events yet to come in less of a fore-shadowing way and more an eye-rollingly irritating one, or chucking out a couple of clear filler episodes without much cause to exist, or relying on deus ex machina to save the day. But, again to its credit, these are all present much less than any season in recent history, making it a generally fun and entertaining 12 episodes.

Most importantly, the big multi-part plotlines are relatively linear, at best genuinely clever (i.e. the Cybermen) and at worst a little cliché (the Monks). The Monks had a great build up and were a classic Moffat creation: they’re creepy, unsettling and interesting. I loved the idea of a race being able to plot an invasion via VR, running the simulation enough times that all variables are accounted for. Okay, it’s pretty ridiculous science, but it’s fun fiction so I’ll let it pass. Unfortunately they’re ultimately let down by a final battle which relies, yet again, on love the all powerful God machine that Doctor Who just loves to use as a crutch to get itself out of a corner. It works well enough, but I would love to see some more interesting and intelligent finales in the Whoverse at some point.

On the flipside are the Mondasian Cyber-Men, whose plot is a veritable treasure trove of clever ideas and Easter Eggs to Doctor’s past. The situation that creates them is clever (okay, still a bit ridiculous, but come on) and almost believable. The modern Cyber-Men have slowly morphed into sterile zombie clones, but these original models are deeply disturbing. They’re a race born of desperation, which makes them somehow far more terrifying. It also features two of the best “twists” in recent seasons, with Bill having no hope of recovery from a surprisingly early point in the plot and the inclusion of John Simm once again taking up the role of the Master. That latter twist is genius and it was a huge amount of fun seeing him return to the role alongside his female counterpart, both of whom have created iconic version of the character. The back and forth between them is wonderfully written, as is Missy’s slow realisation that she isn’t him anymore. I was worried the Master’s meeting would result in her total relapse as a villain, but the actual outcome was much more interesting. At the end of things, the Master killing Missy to prevent himself becoming good, just as she chooses to follow the Doctor, was a perfect ending for both the character and the plot.

As a result, it’s slightly irritating that her death was overshadowed by Capaldi’s regeneration. Whilst I like where it’s left the series for the Christmas special, with everything else going on it did leave the final episode a little bloated. We also now have yet another companion who is neither dead nor retired, but rather transformed into a wanderer themselves. Bill becoming a water creature (?) and going off to explore the stars was a nice pay off, and made the season pleasantly circular, but at some point I feel like we’re going to need to finalise some of these characters. Right now we have the Doctor’s daughter… somewhere; Clara off flying around in her own T.A.R.D.I.S.; Bill in water form exploring the universe; Nardole waiting for the Doctor to save him (and the remaining colonists). All I want is for a couple of threads to be tied off, preferably not in some big crossover where they all bandy together to save the Doctor, either from himself or the forces of evil. Could we just have a clever, low key update on these loose ends?

Still, overall, I’m excited for Doctor Who again for the first time in years. I’ll be sad to see Capaldi go, as I feel he is the singularly most under utilised iteration of the character to date, but I welcome Jodi Whittaker and whoever the new show runner will be to build on season 10 and keep it moving forwards. I’d love to see more interconnectedness with the show’s past, more clever alt-history stories and more nuanced companions. Fingers crossed for season 11.

tl;dr: A welcome return to form, even if it’s just a little too late for Capaldi to truly shine. One of the best seasons in ages.

Month in Media – September 2017 [#39]

Whilst you wouldn’t know it due to a monumental lack of posts, we’ve been on a steady upwards trajectory for the last few months in terms of films and shows watched. Well, then September hit and we just… stopped. Despite a very clear binge of The Defenders (I think we’re now fully addicted to Netflix’s arm of the MCU), most of this month has been spent not consuming media. Which has been a fun change of pace, in many ways.

Ongoing Media

TV – Rick and Morty (Season 3) Utterly brilliant so far, absolutely hate the weekly release schedule (definitely a show that needs to be consumed in intense hits).
TV – American Gods – Another slow burner, though for different reasons, chiefly how you really need your thinking hat on to stand much of a chance understanding what’s happening. Very good so far, though.

TV

The Defenders

Oh boy were we psyched for The Defenders to drop. Psyched to pretty much the perfect amount, as I’m still amazed at how soon after the last Netflix and Marvel collaboration this series has been released. So, with the fantastic collection of heroes that they have built up, did putting them all in one place pay off? Yes, yes it absolutely did.

I’ve mentioned in previous reviews of both Daredevil and Iron Fist that the aspect I like least about the Netflix branch of the MCU is the overly complicated version of the Hand they have created. In my eyes, these shows are best when they completely eschew huge, world-ending events and focus purely on the street-level, nearly insignificant stuff; the sort of things which actually happen in the actual New York. That’s why villains like the Kingpin and Killgrave are so damned awesome – they feel real, visceral, a perfect grounding influence to the otherwise slightly madcap concept of actual superpowers existing.

So I was a little disappointed, but also slightly relieved, to discover that The Defenders would be the final meeting point of all the story threads the Hand have been involved in. Whilst that means an entire show dedicated to the most boring MCU villains, it also will (hopefully) allow the rest of the solo shows to move on and forget about magical ninjas for a bit. It gives us closure on Elektra (well, okay, no it doesn’t, but it does at least let us know what happened to her) whilst fairly organically pulling together all of the heroes now operating within a few blocks of each other. Oh, and it nicely sets up the various surrounding cast members with some subtle origin stories for their own superhero alter-egos as well (Misty Knight!!!).

As you might be able to tell then, despite mild trepidation, I think using The Defenders to complete the Hand’s story line worked well. They are a villain whose threat requires the four, normally long-wolf heroes to team up and they have had enough of a broad impact to make their meeting plausible. I liked the other members of the evil organisation and felt that the big reveal as to why they exist and what their purpose is was done well. It made them feel a little less mystical and a little more grounded or real, which is impressive for a group of near-immortal super warriors. Using Elektra as the big enemy was a neat touch as well, allowing for some incredible action sequences and choreography without bloating the world with yet more ultra powerful fighters. In fact, given the sheer amount of death in The Defenders it feels a little like Netflix just hit a much needed reset button on the growing escalation of the MCU’s villains.

On top of a decent plot and great excuse, then, The Defenders also nicely juggles the main characters and various side casts. If you like any one of the individual series I don’t think you will have trouble catching up but there was still enough character and relationship development here to make it a worthwhile watch. Pulling all the side characters in to the same room during the big fight was a clever little plot device, allowing the writers to simultaneously explore a lot of their storylines whilst contrasting how they’re coping with knowing superheroes. It lead to some poignant moments, fun juxtapositions, interesting revelations and also provided a good number of humorous moments to cut away from the fighting for.

The main superheroes themselves were also developed nicely. Starting the series with a retired Daredevil was a neat touch to really emphasise how much Matt is struggling with the double life concept and made his refusal to take on leadership far easier to understand. Similarly, having Jess walk away when she realised how crazy everything had gotten was a brilliant moment wonderfully followed up by the realisation even her clients were being harassed, bringing her straight back in to the fight. Whilst Luke and Danny were always going to commit to the fight, these little moments really helped make sense of Matt and Jess committing as well. It would have been simple to have them just agree or suddenly feel like they wanted to be a hero or even pull an Avengers and make it all about ego. Instead, The Defenders take a more subtle approach which will work out much better in the long run.

Perhaps, best of all, is the blossoming relationship between Luke and Danny. Long time fans of the Heroes for Hire are obviously expecting their two series to eventually combine, but having them start out with clear animosity towards one another was just brilliant television, especially if you were ‘in on the joke’. In fact, once again Netflix have shown that they are just as good as the main branch of the MCU at developing in-universe jokes and providing fan service without it feeling odd to non-fans or in anyway disjointed.

Overall then, I absolutely loved The Defenders and cannot wait for more of, frankly, any of the series (did you see what I did there). There are enough questions answered to satiate my desires for now but plenty still left unknown, particularly with Matt and Elektra missing, presumed various levels of dead. It’s definitely a short show, in fact one that I actually binged through in practically a single sitting, but that makes it tight and keeps the pace moving. Great work, more please.

tl;dr: So much action packed goodness with a great plot and yet further fantastic performances from the central cast. Frankly, Netflix are beginning to rival their silver screen relatives in terms of deserved hype.

A Series of Unfortunate Events (Season 1)

An utterly brilliant adaptation. So brilliant, in fact, that I have very little to say about A Series of Unfortunate Events. I never read the books as a kid so I cannot speak of the faithfulness of the Netflix series, though by all accounts it appears to be scoring highly there as well, but any changes that have been made have worked. The story is tightly woven, well crafted and keeps you interested. The characters are wonderfully well written and acted, wherever they fall on the range between caricature and reality. The locations, set dressing, costumes and general design is impeccable, bringing the world to life in a drearily vibrant way. On top of which, the score, direction, lighting, framing… well, everything is perfect.

There are countless clever nods and ideas, from the ever-changing intro theme (took me a few episodes to notice), to the clever use of narrative interjection and on to the wonderfully heart-wrenching red herring and subsequent come-uppance. The kids are brilliant, Neil Patrick Harris was born to play the Count and the whole supporting cast are perfectly picked. The show is tense, emotional, intriguing and clever, with nearly spot on pacing. The episodes that naturally flow together leave you wanting more, but in a wonderful turn of pace to most TV series you don’t feel the need to binge watch the entire season at once. Somehow that makes the result so much more impactful and interesting, as it turns each individual adventure into a unique sequence without the overall plot ever losing track of itself or feeling disjointed.

In short, if you’re a fan of the book series then you need to watch this adaptation and if you never read them you will still have a wonderful time. I cannot wait for the second season.

tl;dr: A nearly perfect adaptation. Where, in this instance, the word nearly means almost entirely, barring only the slightest possible chance of an overlooked error or two.

 

Sunrise on the Quiraing [#38]

Sunrise on the Quiraing by Murray Adcock on 500px.com

 

Last night I did something incredibly simple which I have been terrified of doing for four months: I uploaded a photograph I took during our time on Skye.

It was a big deal, to me, for two reasons. First of all, I decided during our Islands & Highlands trip that I wanted to make more of my photography. Uploading to Flickr is a very slow process for me, which is why after a year and a half there are only three albums available. A large part of that is the desire to upload albums, not photographs; to tell a story in a single swoop, rather than drip-feed snippets shot by shot. It’s the main reason I like Flickr and it’s what the service is great at doing, but it means that very little content ever gets uploaded. The plan, then, was to repurpose/divide my Instagram account to utilise it for more than a running log of the beer I’ve tried, as well as reviving my old 500px account. On paper, that sounds pretty easy, but that meant starting new accounts, which has the knock-on effect of forcing me to pick the first photograph that was ever going to be uploaded to them. That was big deal number one, largely because I tend to overthink these things, but mainly because I like my projects to hit the ground running.

The second reason was those great artistic demons: imposter syndrome and rejection. I hadn’t even uploaded a photo but, somehow, doing so on a platform like 500px or Instagram feels much more loaded than Facebook, Flickr or even DeviantArt. Full time photographers, of course, use all of those platforms, but somehow I feel some of them are used to share their work whilst 500px and Instagram are used to curate it. That transforms those websites into portfolios, which sounds serious, even ‘professional’. But I definitely don’t see myself as a ‘professional’ photographer, so what right did I have to use those services? Worse still, what if I used them and was found out. I can deal with insignificance, to be lost beneath the ever heightening waves of content and uploads. My website gets an average of zero hits a week, but that doesn’t make me stop writing; my deviations would frequently go unnoticed, but I still fired up Photoshop. No, the problem is when you are noticed, but no one has anything nice to say. What if it turns out I have no photographic skill at all? What if I’m just copying other photographers*? What if I’m so bad that I get shared for the wrong reasons? Any chance of progressing my hobby, building a following, maybe even making a small amount of money, would all be dead in the water. Better to never try than to fail, right?

Well, obviously those were both terrible reasons for simply doing nothing and the result was just procrastination, plain and simple. At first I was “finding the right photograph”, but if I’m honest I knew which shot I should use within four days of the being in the Hebrides. Waking up on the Quiraing to that sunrise meant I would have to screw up pretty spectacularly to not have a great photograph. So, instead, the focus switched to “I need to set up the accounts” (achieved in June), then to “I need to edit it perfectly” (achieved in August, if not earlier), then to the simple “I need the time”. Ultimately, what it really boiled down to was “I need the courage”.

So last night I exported the file from Lightroom, found my old account logins and uploaded the shot. I never really found that courage, though. The reality is that not uploading was beginning to feel like more of a weight then the fear was. Still, the photograph was out there, despite some mild road-bumps. I have a real love-hate relationship with Instagram and I’m not particularly convinced  that the wait was worthwhile here, but that’s a story for another post. The flipside is that I am incredibly happy with how the photo looks on 500px and the response it has received. My wildest dreams of instant, viral success (hah!) haven’t come true but over 50 people have liked the photo, it momentarily hit the “Popular” page and I’ve even been added to a couple of galleries, within whose company I feel incredibly out-of-my-depth. Instagram hasn’t been as positive, neither has Facebook, but neither have been negative in the slightest. Above all else, though, I’ve finally breached the levy of fear that has been holding me back. It’s a very real weight off my shoulders, ridiculous though that may be, and I feel genuinely elated at the new-found freedom. Hopefully it’s just the first in an on-going series – though when have I said that before…


* By which I don’t mean “inspiration”. Obviously, you photograph a range of mountains the chances are good someone else did so before you, probably even from the exact same spot. I mean more being accused of genuine copyright theft, something which would gut any sense of achievement I’ve felt to date.

When is a Cat a Mongoose? [#37]

Today* I corrected somebody on the internet. Of course, the correction was entirely warranted because it touched on any area of very specific specialist knowledge of which I inexplicably know enough to notice an error. You can’t let people get away with that kind of thing, now can you!

In all honesty, I’ve never seen the issue with correcting someone online. I don’t care whether you’re pulling them up on grammar, history or, as in this instance, the evolutionary connections between particular animals. If I’m wrong about something I would like someone else to let me know; I’m also a big believer of ‘do unto others’. There is a big difference between pointing out when someone’s wrong and picking a fight over personal beliefs (which I don’t like to do at all), but that’s not what this article is about.

This article is about animal names. Specifically, how weird and ultimately confusing it is that we effectively spent centuries allowing economic migrants, felons and sailors the privilege to determine the specific words used to distinguish one animal from another. On the one hand, common names do have a tendency to be fairly easy to spell and simple to pronounce (with many clear exceptions, I’m talking broadly here) but, on the other, they also frequently include reference to animals “back home”, which largely means Europe. In turn, that causes a huge about of layperson confusion as to exactly what certain creatures are, how evolution works and even whether or not certain species should be persecuted.

For example, is a genet cat related to the house cat? No. It’s related to mongeese (I refuse to use mongooses on my own website, it just sounds ridiculous). What about an aardwolf? That’s also a mongoose, as is a hyena. The honey badger? Not a mongoose, but a weasel (which look exactly like mongeese but aren’t) which are also badgers so… I guess this one works?

The problem isn’t just due to the English being English and constantly renaming things which had perfectly acceptable names (e.g. the honey badger’s much cooler name, the ratel). Naming completely unrelated animals after ones you’re more familiar with is a common human trait. The result is that sometimes English animal names look unique until you find out they’re stolen from another language where they make very little sense, like the aardvark. That means earth-pig, by the way, despite aardvarks very much not being pigs. Actually, we’re not entirely certain what they are (they just kind of appear in the Palaeocene) but we are certain that pigs never played a role.

Nor is this a new issue. Even the ancients occasionally just couldn’t be bothered thinking up new names for things and instead chose to just take two words and smash them together. In modern English, the giraffe appears to be a rare instance of a completely unique name, fitting for such a truly unique mammal. The ancient Greeks, though, would have called it Camelopardalis (or something very similar), a word which looks weirdly familiar. The ‘camel’ part is fairly obvious, but the remainder ‘pardalis’/’leopardalis’ gives us the English ‘panther’ and ‘leopard’. So, to translate, the likes of Aristotle would have looked at a giraffe and called it ‘camel-leopard’… Perhaps language (and biologists) have just been doomed from the start!


*Today, which here means: “when I started writing this blog, not when I finished it and also not when it was finally published”. Makes sense?

Life Between the Worlds [#36]

I have recently fallen back into an old habit: League of Legends. The eponymous MOBA remains immensely addictive, fun and interesting, but above all else my return (after over a year!) has highlighted that Riot are finally managing to get their world building in order. The lore behind Runeterra was always a big draw for me, leading me to pore over every new champion’s bio pages to find out how they fit into the world and whose stories they might impact. Over time, the original plot of League became a little stale and boring; champions that could simply be summoned from any region of the multiverse understandably felt disconnected from each other.

As a result, Riot made the decision a few years ago to begin reworking the story of Runeterra. Rather than completely overhauling everything, at great expense to time and resources, they have instead slowly been chipping away at the established characters. That leaves some, like my personal favourite Rammus, in a state of unknown origin, whilst others like Urgot have really begun to shine. It also means the in-game lore is a little disjointed, with some bios referencing events or characters that don’t add up, such as recent champion Ornn referencing Volibear as a demi-god, rather than the mortal leader his own bio describes him as. Overall, the effect can be a little confusing, but when it works well it produces some absolutely fantastic fantasy.

For example, in the past I’ve been incredibly interested by the setup of the Harrowing, an event which has it’s routes in Halloween but, over time, has become something far more sinister and interesting. Most importantly from a world building angle it helps to explain a number of the more demonic champions, giving them a shared and interlinked history whilst explaining how creatures of utter darkness aren’t simply ruling this world by now. It adds to the mythos wonderfully and remains the centre of some of the best in-game events they’ve had to date.

So, upon my latest return, I was excited to find another area of lore which has been fleshed out in a genuinely fascinating way. In an attempt to simultaneously develop how magic works within the game and explain numerous “chimeric” characters, the world-builders behind Runeterra have come up with the Vastaya. The full logic behind the decisions has been written up in a brilliant dev blog article, which is well worth a read if you’re interested in world building at all, but the outcome is genius. I love seeing entirely novel takes on something so integral to the genre as magic and, with the concept of the Vastaya and their ancient brethren, I genuinely believe Riot have achieved that.

There are a huge number of explanations for how magic works, yet most fantasy franchises just wave their hands or come up with something that seems like an explanation until you realise they just changed the word (cough Midichlorians cough). The route League has gone down is certainly not completely fleshed out; magic itself remains something ethereal and just naturally occurring rather than having a (necessarily) distinct source. I like their incorporation of ley lines, not because it’s unique or original (it isn’t) but because they have thought through the implications. I love that intersections of ley lines become areas of wilder magic, and that magic even has different breeds or flavours to begin with. That’s a nice touch which, as they state themselves, allows a huge amount of complexity to develop within the system.

Above all else though, the concept of the vastayashai’rei is genius. It’s one of those concepts which I read and instantly wished I had thought of myself. It’s wonderfully simple yet also feels very original (to be clear, I’m not saying it’s genuinely unique, but I’ve never seen it before). In Runeterra, magic is an extra-dimensional energy, bleeding through via ley lines, creating border zones: areas of world which are part magical dimension, part Runeterra. But the dimension in which magic originates is not just the standard swirling, lifeless maelstrom. It’s a functioning universe with it’s own ecosystems and, crucially, life. Whilst improbable, our own planet is proof that life thrives on these biological edges, in the types of habitat that just shouldn’t work. Look at any geothermal pool and you’ll see this effect in full swing. Right where the water reaches boiling point the lifeforms are unique, often occurring no where else on the planet.

When extrapolated out to a mixing of two entirely different dimensions you end up with creatures that have evolved to survive in both. Magical animals that can take physical form. I love it. I love the idea that a creature learnt that it could hop through the ley lines and find sustenance, or escape predators, by doing so. Over time, that developed into a fully functioning race of sentient creatures which could transgress the boundaries between the two worlds. Taking it one step further, the team at Riot realised that such creatures wouldn’t need a fixed physical form, as it wasn’t inherent to their nature. In short, they became shape shifters, creatures capable of adapting the forms they found themselves requiring within the physical world. Throw in a little bit of interbreeding or evolutionary branches that chose to remain on the physical side permanently and you explain chimeras, creatures with evolutionarily impossible physical forms. Sheer, pure, brilliance.

It’s nothing less than incredible that the reason behind this level of ingenuity is a game which lacks any form of story mode at all; there’s no need for any of these musings beyond making the world more entertaining. That’s pretty awesome, too!