Month in Media: July 2016

So June was, frankly, ridiculously long… and I’m fairly certain at least one film was lost to the sands of time! Hopefully, over the next few weeks, that will all be changing – including a new writing method I’ve trialled a little bit this month (we’ll see how it goes). Until then, on we roll, with yet another barrage of ill ordered words and thoughts!

Films

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1) [rewatch]

A perfectly decent yet ultimately forgettable entry into the franchise. It does what it needs to: sets up the various character arcs and story points necessary for the big finale. The mood is distinctly sombre, far more than in any previous part of the franchise, which can get a little dragging at times. Also, despite having split the book into two films, several key details are still skipped out which makes several scenes less impactful overall. The various colour filters are also back from film six in force.

Despite all the above, I enjoyed the film. The moments with both Dobby and Luna’s father are solid instances that highlight the growing stakes and real repercussions that are beginning to occur, even for relatively minor characters. Actually, a shout out to the scene with Mr. Lovegood. There is no reason for this scene to stand out in my memory as much as it does, but it’s wonderfully well put together and very powerfully acted, even if the betrayal is a little telegraphed. In stark contrast are the scenes between Harry and Ron leading up to the latter ultimately leaving (and then suddenly returning). Though I understand it shows the evil of the horcrux, the ultimate payoff is lacklustre. I remember feeling the same way in the book, but because the book was one story it felt less important by the end. By splitting the film in two, this plot line had to carry a lot more and unfortunately does feel a little flat. It’s also clearly lifted directly from LotR

Ultimately, Part 1 is entirely overshadowed by the climactic conclusion in Part 2, but as a setup film it does what it needs to, remains entertaining and helps the franchise take further steps away from its childish roots.

tl;dr: A decent bridge film with some very powerful moments that does suffer from having to focus on the less interesting story arcs of the book.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2)

Nope, that isn’t a mistake, this is genuinely a first time viewing for me. I’m not really too sure what happened that meant I never got round to watching the final film in the franchise, but I now realise I’ve been missing out.

The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is the conclusion I have been craving, without ever realising it. The battles are epic and moving, with clever moments of comedy interwoven with grand, sweeping scenes which genuinely feel like the world is teetering on a knife edge. Its not immensely clever stuff, but it is damn impactful and completely riveting. It also provides the payoff to all the dark, brooding, depressing build up of Part 1 (and, to a lesser degree, The Half Blood Prince as well).

Do I feel that the revelation of Snape’s true character could have been a little better handled and impactful? Yes, but Alan Rickman closes out his role on a seriously impressive performance and the scene with Harry and the pensieve was very well done (that CGI effect was on point throughout the films actually). I also felt the moment that Neville uses the Sword of Gryffindor could have been done better. I’ve heard so much about that scene and how much of a fist-pump moment it is that it felt kind of deflating actually watching it. Maybe it’s just suffering from being hyped up but I definitely feel the music and framing could have made it more epic somehow.

Overall though I’ve not felt as connected with the Potter franchise as I have since watching all the films again. In particular, seeing the ending done so well and on such a grand scale has completely reawakened my love of these characters and seriously amped up my anticipation for Magical Beasts later this year.

tl;dr: The epic payoff to the darkness of the last few films, creating a cracking ending to a classic franchise. Magical!

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Part 1)

The Dark Knight Returns, irritatingly, blew me away somewhat. Irritating because Part 2 isn’t on Prime yet, which is a real shame because the proposition of the Joker combined with this animation and scripting team is something I am genuinely excited for.

There are issues here – it is by no means a perfect film. Voice acting took me a little while to feel comfortable with, particularly for Wayne and Gordon, although eventually they slotted into place in my head. The Mutants never truly feel that menacing and the complete lack of capability shown by the police feels a little overblown, even for Gotham. The gang’s leader is also a little, well, 90’s in design. Between the horns, red eyes, sharpened teeth and clear cannibalistic traits I was half expecting him to turn out to be Dracula; what with all the rain and grime, Blade actually wouldn’t have felt out of place as a cameo (universe crossing issues aside). As it is, these clearly abnormal traits are never explained or even really mentioned.

Despite these flaws, however, the core conceit of an ageing, retired Batman feeling himself honour bound to take up the mantle once more is a refreshing and intriguing spin on the usual Gotham fare. Pacing is handled nicely, with Bruce realistically stumbling back into his alter ego with plenty of road bumps before a triumphant (and intelligent) return. Batman never truly gets back to his glory days, but instead shifts gear to play to his remaining strengths. Its a subtle but clear message that the stakes are a little different to normal.

Interwoven with this semi-origin story is a clever meta-analysis of the Batman as perceived by the wider internal society, with a running subplot focusing on whether Batman and similar vigilantes effectively attract or create their nemeses. It cannot be argued that this hasn’t been done before (The Dark Knight, anyone?) but the use of TV chat shows and the conclusion of Two-Face’s character arc all weave together nicely to add a little more thoughtfulness to the plot than would ever be required for a superhero animation. Plus, telling this story with an aged Bruce Wayne allows for some very clever dissection of why Batman even exists and whether the use of fear as a mechanism of control actually works in Gotham.

Animation, that is, which is stunningly drawn and very well colour caste. The tone of The Dark Knight Returns is definitely dark, gritty and rough around the edges. The panels are drawn with harsh lines and muted colours, that really emphasise the decay of Gotham and amplify Batman’s nightmarish tactics of fear induced civility. The undercut score and dialogue is similarly roughed up, with plenty of staccato. The result is far more spectacular but creates a wonderful sense of atmosphere.

tl;dr: A gritty, brooding, ageing Batman who doesn’t roll his punches, resulting in an impactful tale with some interesting analysis on whether Bruce has done more harm than good, in the long run.

Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm

Holy Retro Animation, Batman! The Mask of the Phantasm is certainly a blast from the past, with clear connections to the animation styles of the late 80’s and early 90’s Batman TV shows I grew up with. Unfortunately, the plot suffers a little from similar dating, never quite managing to break out of what are now trope filled contours and predictable connecting sequences.

Still, the overall result is an enjoyable stroll down memory lane, to a time when Batman was a little less nuanced and a little more sexist; when the Joker was nothing more than a crazy gangster; and before years of continuity had weighed the franchise down. The titular Phantasm was a fun character, though suffered most from predictability, with abilities that are never really explained. The side cast are largely forgettable, with an exception of Alfred, for whom a step back in time enabled frequent attempts at cheesy 90’s cringe humour. The gags fall a little flat, but they’re endearing in their attempts.

Most interesting was the rapidity at which Gotham turned against their resident hero, resulting in a realistic and almost fatal confrontation between the cops and Batman. Here, the lack of mythology surrounding Wayne enabled some far more interesting storytelling with higher stakes than would be possible in a modern equivalent. Today, armed with a multitude of impossible gadgets and superhuman intelligence, such a contest would feel distinctly one sided.

tl;dr: Enjoyable, archaic superhero fare that unfortunately pales in comparison to more modern outings.

The Song of the Sea

Beautiful, stunning, gorgeous (literally) and amazingly well crafted! The Song of the Sea has a fairly grandiose reputation but I can honestly say it deserves it. The plot is a simple yet poignant weaving of many Celtic folk tales and fae mythology, all centered around a wonderfully captured human family. Almost human, anyway.

The art style is exquisite, mildly reminiscent of the classic game Wind Waker but with buckets more charm and detail in every frame. Motion, in particular, is wonderfully captured, resulting in some stunning seascapes (both above and below the waves) as well as a truly memorable character in Macha, the owl-witch, whose flowing, weighted-balloon of a body grants a wonderful other-worldliness to her character. Combine these highlights with eerily dainty light specks, humorous canine friends, impressively unique faery characters and possibly the cutest seals ever imagined and the result is enchanting from start to finish.

Soundscapes are pitch perfect as well, with the entire film infused with the sound if Irish folk blending with clever, whimsical melodies denoting the faery folk themselves. The combination of animation, stylistic direction and score can only be considered art; The Song of the Sea sits up alongside the best of Ghibli, Aardman and Disney in terms of charm and wonder.

Though certainly a brilliant film for kids, with a story that hits all the right moral, emotional and human beats whilst remaining distinctly fantastical and wondrous, it is definitely not a ‘kids film’. No matter your age, The Song of the Sea will move and amaze you. Simply awesome (literally).

tl;dr: Beautifully drawn, animated, composed, directed and crafted with a whole bucket-load of heart. Watch this film!

Bo Burnham: Words, Words, Words!

Having listened to the album of Words, Words, Words! on repeat for the best part of two months when it originally came out, I have to say there was very little extra to the show itself. In some ways, that made it quite a bit of fun, as I already knew most of the lyrics so, particularly for the tongue twisters, could fully appreciate the many levels Burnham weaves into his seemingly simplistic jokes.

On the flipside, however, it meant there was very little to surprise me, so actual laughter was a little lacking. As a result, my attention was inordinately grabbed by the audience interaction; I noticed heckling and laughter hits/misses far more than most stand-up routines, because I was less engaged. To say the audience for this performance was a little odd would be overly polite as the theatre was clearly rammed with serious fans, who don’t lend themselves massively to stand-up comedy. They were clearly more interested in hearing the songs they new or loved (even singing along occasionally) rather than laughing at the new material. I almost felt sorry for Bo towards the end – it’s a pretty weird situation for a comic to find themselves in and you can’t help but feel that, despite launching his career, the cloud of Youtube will likely mar his trajectory for many years to come.

Despite all of this, though, Wordsx3 remains a very solid routine. Burnham’s talent shines through, especially when addressing topics such as religion and several of his comedy songs are incredibly well put together as tracks in their own right.

tl;dr: Not much more than the CD, but well worth a watch if you love musical comedy.

Star Trek: Beyond

I enjoyed both of the previous entries to the modern Star Trek reboot franchise, though definitely felt neither lived up to their potential. In many way, Beyond evokes similar feelings, but I definitely feel it has come the closest of the three.

If 2009’s Star Trek became too entangled in its own timey-wimey space stuff and Into Darkness felt too centred around Earth for a galactic civilisation, Beyond hits a bit of a sweet spot. Sure, ultimately most of the people at risk are humans, but the overall settings feel distinctly alien. Purely from a design point of view, both Yorktown space station and Altamid (the main planet) are stunning, surreal creations that make the universe feel far more alive and diverse than either of the previous films managed. The crew of the Enterprise also benefits, with some distinctly intriguing new species designs.

Overall, Beyond spends far more time emphasising the world in which it is set, the beliefs the Federation is held together by and the motives its various citizens have for upholding them. In focusing on broader themes, the result is much more mature feel to the plot and the unfolding events, which was exceedingly refreshing. Yes, the angst between Spock and Kirk returns, with both yet again questioning their life decisions and (yet again) concluding that they’ve made largely good ones by the close, but third time round the emotions feel somehow more informed, logical and real.

Unfortunately, Beyond does still suffer from being made in Hollywood. Having been presented with a wonderfully designed, diverse galaxy by the film makers I was largely left yearning for similar diversity in plot. Alas, understandably, the stakes must be higher than ever in order to validate another sequel, so once again the apocalypse is nigh! I would love for the modern franchise to spin off into a long-form TV series for a little bit, akin to Sherlock or The Night Manager in episode length and scope, to tell some of the smaller stories which are momentarily glimpsed in the background of the blockbusters. In reality, however, such a show would almost certainly be too expensive and couldn’t utilise the same effects or actors which would make it worthwhile.

Despite this misgiving, a mention must go to the antagonist of Beyond, the somewhat boringly named Krall (not even Kraal? maybe too Klingon I guess…) who managed to become something more than just an alien war chief. The final twist was neat, something I really wasn’t expecting at all, and made Krall’s motivations somewhat more meaningful. The end result was a surprisingly interesting meditation on the nature of war, especially when set against the peaceful mantra of the federation. Idris Elba certainly helped with his portrayal of the ‘alien’ madman, but the script writers also deserve credit for crafting a genuinely interesting character.

Indeed, Beyond perhaps feels the closest in mood to the original TV series due to its meditations on ‘bigger picture’ philosophies. The main arcs of personal fulfilment and whether war is somehow necessary for civilisation to exist, as well as once again putting Star Fleet itself under scrutiny, are all cleverly done without feeling brutally obvious. Perhaps even better are the brief moments of inter-character dialogue that alight, ever so fleetingly, on other relevant topics. Clearest, and perhaps best of these, is the moment when Spock, Bones, Jayla and Scotty are discussing the implications of Spock’s gift to Uhura effectively being a tracking device. The character’s realisation is done with genuine disgust and worry, whilst not feeling at all forced; a master class in progressivist screen writing.

Similarly, Jayla herself is a much more neatly written female lead than most recent genre attempts. At no point did I feel that she was frustratingly weak or required aid from any of the men around, but nor were her capabilities and strengths constantly thrown in my face (*cough* Skyfall *cough*). In other words, the fact she was female never once crossed my mind, yet she was a new character I both enjoyed and routed for. Again, well played to the writers.

tl;dr: A solid third round, building on the strengths of its prequels whilst maintaining a strong identity of the original franchise. Highly enjoyable, but not ground breaking.

TV Shows

Con-Man (Season 1)

The Good:

  • Though I was one of the initial backers when Con-Man was being crowd funded, I remain genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed the final product. It made me laugh out loud on several occasions (which is rare for a sitcom) and there were several moments I felt were truly original (again, rare for sitcoms these days).
  • The cameos! My word, they really pulled these out of the bag, right from the first scenes. Aside from the (practically expected) Firefly cast appearances, having individuals like Sean Astin turn up made the whole concept far more believable – plus everyone involved clearly had a lot of fun! Special mention here to both Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day: the former for a cameo so disguised I totally missed it first time through; the latter for completely stealing the show! The running gag of Felicia always wearing the exact costume as Ray, down to the arm through the wrong sleeve, was brilliantly executed. I definitely hope she returns in Season 2!
  • That, though clearly drawing on real life occurrences and situations, the script felt unique and distinct in its own right. I was worried this would be a “too close to the bone” look at the life of main actor/script writer Alan Tudyk, but the reality was far more nuanced and interesting. I didn’t come away believing Ray = Alan, nor was he just a parody of Alan, but a unique character in his own right. In other words, both the characterisation and scripting was far better than I had anticipated.

The Bad:

  • Cringe humour is not, shall we say, my favourite form of comedy and Con-Man relies on it frequently. Some people will love that, but for me it was a little bit of shame. That said, however, Con-Man largely managed to walk the fine line between humour and despair that this form of joke telling requires. Unlike other modern “classics” that rely on cringe humour, such as The Office (UK) and The Inbetweeners, the gags in Con-Man did just enough to make the cringe worthwhile.
  • Though the majority of episodes flowed nicely into one another, occasionally the short run time led to some forgotten subplots or jarring intercuts in order for the main story to progress. Characters, in particular, felt a little off centre occasionally and would have benefitted from a slight bit more development.
  • Despite appreciating the running joke regarding Nathan Fillion’s character never being in the same place as Ray, I really hope they don’t keep it up in Season 2 as it was beginning to get a little old by the final episode.

The Ugly:

  • That title sequence. I mean, I know it was filmed on a budget, but when that budget can easily accommodate an entire plane set and a recreation of a whole spaceship set/sets that looked very genuine, surely they could have managed better here!

tl;dr: Genuinely funny and far more original than I had hoped for, a fantastic watch for any genre/comedy fans. Hopefully many more seasons to follow.

Graphic Novels

Black Science: God World (Volume 4)

After my rave review of Vanishing Pattern back in April it’s no wonder that I jumped at the opportunity to pick up the next installment as soon as it was available in my local bookstore. Luckily, Black Science continues to impress me with both its depth and pacing, with even more vividly imaginative worlds and a distinct feeling of conclusions on the horizon in this fourth outing.

God World definitely feels like a narrative bridge. After the frantic, break neck pace of the first two volumes, Vanishing Pattern was a wonderful switch up that allowed the characters to really begin to shine through. Picking up several years after the dramatic conclusion, with the central characters scattered, enables us to both reflect on the revelations afforded in Vanishing Pattern whilst carefully switching back up a gear or two by the close of God World. Basically, once again I can only be impressed with the masterful pacing on offer.

An initially confusing (likely deliberately) opening few chapters allow for some much needed further introspection. If Vanishing Pattern allowed Black Science‘s supporting cast to be fleshed out, God World refocuses back on Grant McKay, our core protagonist, diving into his past, his relationships with the others, his demons and his desires. The end result is a necessary reforming of Grant towards a hero who can actually deliver though more than blind luck, someone who may be capable of achieving his lofty goals. The Grant we are left with come the close of volume four feels a lot more exciting and invigorated than he has at any point since the initial accident that set up the whole plot line so far.

As God World, like Grant himself, switches viewpoints to a more reasoned, broader scope we also get our first true conclusion (other than death) in the series. Arguably, in fact, we get several as Grant goes on a mission to collect the scattered dimensionauts and happens upon the remains of those we already know to have fallen to this crazy journey. Most poignant, however, is catching up with the surprise antagonist of the third volume. The resultant revenge by Grant feels viscerally dark and exacting in the extreme, yet I cannot help but also feel like justice has been done.

God World closes, then, on much less of a cliff hanger than previous volumes. Where 1-3 ended by pulling the rug out from beneath your feet and leaving everything back in the balance, the story loaded with unknowns and confusion, volume 4 places Grant and, by extension, the reader in a rare position of power. For the first time in Black Science he has both purpose and the necessary tools to exact his goals. Combine these elements with an increasing realisation of just what exactly is occurring throughout the multiverse, and the stage is set for a very conclusive fifth volume. I cannot wait!

tl;dr: Cleverly refocuses the increasingly sprawling story back onto the central character, allowing some much needed closure alongside a growing sense of purpose. Riveting, exciting stuff.

Palliative Bug Fixes

A palliative is a treatment that soothes even if it can’t cure the illness.

By all means, whenever you can, fix the problem, go to the root cause, come up with a better design…

But when you can’t (and that’s most of the time, because the straightforward problems have already been solved), the effort you put into providing a palliative will not go unnoticed or unappreciated.

~ Seth Godin

I’ve been catching up on Seth’s blog (I’m woefully behind on pretty much everything at the moment) and this post in particular caught my attention, largely because it reminded me of the reason why I haven’t really been reading/posting/watching anything much lately: Pokémon Go. I’d still like to do a full breakdown of that game, which isn’t this, but Seth’s words really summed up one of the aspects of the game’s development that has impressed me.

Anyone who has had anything to do with Go by now has probably come up against one of their many bugs. When the game first launched there were dozens; the game would freeze when you caught a Pokémon, when you didn’t, when you span the map too quickly, when you randomly encountered the wrong species or item. It crashed routinely, the servers were completely unstable and core features, such as the Pokédex and tracker, straight up didn’t work. The game was a mess and often very frustrating, but many people saw the gem at the core and decided to stick around anyway (yours truly, clearly, included).

Over a month later and many of these issues persist. However, quite a lot of the bugs have been addressed. Sometimes, as with the now infamous “three footsteps” glitch or the more recent issue where some Pokémon randomly changed upon a successful catch, it seemed like each fix broke something else. Despite this the game is now far more robust than at launch and barely ever force quits for me any more. I can tell several of the bugs still exist, but wonderfully were they couldn’t instantly cure the problem they’ve introduced palliative solutions.

Sometimes, the game hangs when loading. When it first launched, you couldn’t do anything when this occurred except either wait it out and hope or force the app to crash and reload. Now, after a certain time has elapsed, a “Sign Out” button automatically appears. Press it and you’re returned to the initial splash screen where you can reattempt to connect. It’s not a fix – the loading screen can still hang – but it presents a much less frustrating solution than the previous alternative. Same goes for one of the earliest bugs where the “rocking Pokéball” animation would just fail to load, locking you into a useless screen and forcing you to (again) force quit the app. This bug still occurs for me from time to time, but now the app deals with it, forcing the next animation to trigger and ignoring that the previous one never did. These are simple, easy “fixes” that don’t solve the (I imagine) rather complex underlying root causes of these issues, but make the game infinitely more enjoyable to play regularly.

I’ve never seen a games developer or software company really take this approach before, but Niantec seem to be making it work for them and personally, I think I’ve learnt something about how to handle problematic code.

It’s Been A While; Plus Thoughts on Pluses

So… it’s been a while.

It’s been a while since I last posted an article. Part of that has been due to a month of incredible busyness where even the planned “down time” became frantic research time for car insurance, holiday planning, present purchasing etc. The rest has been Pokémon Go!, which has eaten free time like nothing else in recent history.

It’s been a while since I reviewed a movie. Sort of. The reality is, I’ve actually managed to keep on top of those over the last week or so, but I have a couple annoyingly outstanding from a time BPg (Before Pokémon Go!) and I’m not 100% happy with the current state of some of the others. July’s MiM is coming, with some interesting new ‘features’, but it may be a week or so late.

It’s been a while since I spent any time working on this website. Again, in a time BPg (historians will catch on, I’m sure of it) I was getting close to making some pretty big, radical changes to the backend here. They hit a slight snag which morphed into a major roadblock simply because I still haven’t really sat down to mull it over. Still, plans are slowly creeping forward!

It’s been a while since I did any photo editing. Despite weekend after weekend of major events in the past month, which have produced hundreds of photos I’m genuinely proud of, I haven’t posted to Flickr in coughmumblemumble… I’m not proud of that, but again, plans may finally be moving forward.

It’s been a while since I saw something truly exemplary online. There have been some great videos and some new passions, but nothing that’s made me sit up and go: yes! I agree! Let’s think about/act on that right now! Luckily, this waiting period has actually ended thanks to the ever inspiring Vlogbrothers, John and Hank Green. I don’t want to go too deep into my thoughts right now because, well, this post has ballooned into something else which I quite like, but lets just say they’ve struck a nerve.

In a handful of recent Youtube videos, they both touched upon a worrying trend online, specifically that angry voices, ranting and outrage are becoming increasingly prevalent. In some ways, that’s totally okay, but the ubiquity and degree of rage is getting out of control. Between the two videos they discussed why anger leads to poor conversations, why it builds so much traction online, why that may provoke certain elements to create and foster this emotion above others and, most importantly, presented one method for potentially combating this trend. In terms of the “whys”, rather than regurgitate their words I’d urge you to just watch the videos. If the virality of anger is something that interests you, I’d also thoroughly recommend this analysis by CGPGrey.

What really made me sit up and take note, though, was their suggestion to combat saltiness and flame wars on Youtube: “+” comments. Because Youtube ranks comments based on the number of Likes and Comments they get, but comments are weighted higher than likes, angry/flamebait comments tend to rise to the top, causing a circle jerk of ever increasing rage. Hank Green, instead, suggested that people should leave a comment with a simple “+” symbol on any comments they felt worthy of praise, discussion or both. In doing so, they’ve hacked their own Youtube comments section into one where bile and trolling isn’t rewarded and genuine discussion/ideas are. It’s by no means perfect, but I thoroughly agree with both brothers when they say that it is as much the community’s job to police themselves and maintain order as it is the platform’s.

Personally, I’m a big fan of “+” comments. It may be that Youtube eventually begins to remove them or negate their importance, but in the meantime they seem to be a power for good. In particular, I feel they may be much more effective than reporting negative/trolling/abusive comments. I’m a firm believer that a carrot will be more likely to provoke change than a stick (plus, over reliance on the stick reduces it’s power/thorniness).