Empathy Just Makes Sense [#11]

Their immediate need was a revamped website, but once they understood that this need paled in comparison to all of the other places they could have an impact on their customers’ lives, they began talking excitedly about how to make this vision a reality down the road.

Let Emotion Be Your Guide is a wonderful article from Hana Schank and Jana Sedivy (published on A List Apart) which has taken me far too long to actually sit down and read. It’s worth your time pretty much regardless of your own career path, but personally it reminded me of some of the little reasons I enjoy the path I’ve chosen.

Whilst websites are a core point of contact for many businesses and deserve a rigorous, reasoned implementation the reality is that they are likely only one of many such points of contact for your customer, and each is just as important as the next.

What’s more, the best practices and strategies employed in developing a good digital foothold aren’t just applicable to the web. Increasingly, the way we think about UXD online is no different to the way we should think about every aspect of our lives. Putting empathy front and centre of your decision making is not just good practice: it’s the only method that makes sense in the long term. New features, applications, websites, brochures or whatever else are only useful if they solve a real problem, and you won’t know what the real problems are unless you talk to, and empathise with, other people.

Willow, Wetlands & Nostell Priory [#10]

Nostell Estate & Wetlands Centre

Well, despite my best intentions, it has been almost a year since I last finished and uploaded a Flickr album. There are many, many albums at 90% complete or over, but I tend to find that I lose interest right at the final hurdle. It’s something I’m working on, much like my writing (speaking of, we’re at #10 and counting!), so hopefully there will be plenty more posts like this in 2017.

The first half of the pictures were taken in the grounds of Nostell Priory, a National Trust property located near Doncaster which we dropped into on our way back from visiting friends in Durham. It was a flying visit, really just allowing us to break the trip and stretch our legs, so I’d say Nostell has a lot more to offer than what we experienced, but what we did see was rather charming. I’m not sure if it was the Spring flowers coming into bloom or the rarely nice weather, but the grounds had a slightly enchanted feel to them. The various follies, Medieval quarry and distinctly Victorian concept of the Menagerie Garden combined to imbue certain areas with a quality reminiscent of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series. It felt like the house and grounds had been built on top of a more fantastical, ancient and much more secretive estate. I imagine it would have been an amazing place to grow up in and would definitely recommend it, whether for a full day out with the whole family or just an idle wander.

The second half of the album is comprised of a small number of shots from another brief outing, this time to the Willows & Wetlands Visitor Centre. Run by Coates English Willow, the centre is really just a shop and small (but very pleasant) café that allows access down onto a part of the Somerset Levels. There is a small museum and plenty of information displays, but we didn’t spend too much time with either. Instead, we spent our time exploring the various trails through the surrounding farmland, woods and down onto the flats themselves. Various willow animals have been scattered amongst the paths, all of which were wonderfully well set (I was particularly fond of the swooping eagle). Again, we didn’t spend a huge amount of time at the centre but I would definitely say it was worthwhile. Seeing an area of Somerset which still actively pumps the fens and plants up the willow beds was really interesting and, in its own way, quite beautiful.

TV vs Film: The Great Debate [#9]

When I first started writing my Month in Media series it appears I neglected to give proper credit to the inspiration (at least if I did, I can’t find it any more, which is effectively the same issue). To remedy that, then, I’d like to formally recognise that it was Khoi Vinh’s series of “Movies Watched” that sparked my interest. To be clear, I wasn’t lying when I said hosting reviews was always a goal of theAdhocracy, but the monthly amalgamated format, the concept of logging my media consumption, that was really inspired by Khoi Vinh.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that I find Khoi’s monthly updates really interesting. Unlike my own endeavours, his don’t contain full reviews but are more of a personal log, with the occasional brief comment and nothing more. Still, I find it weirdly compelling to compare a strangers viewing habits to my own, so a part of me always looks forward to reading his updates.

I’ve also been continually interested in the impact of a decision Khoi made over a year ago: to focus on consuming Film over TV. He certainly manages a good monthly average, last month scoring 19 full films or almost five a week! I also find myself agreeing with the reasoning Khoi gave:

In spite of how good television has become, I still find it’s rare to find a show where every episode is a truly worthwhile chunk of time spent

That’s a fair acknowledgement, as is his follow up comments on the comparative time requirements to watching a TV show and a film. An average season consists of 22 episodes, with each episode falling somewhere between 15 and 45 minutes in length (what I call the Adventure Time to Game of Thrones scale). So it’s a fair assumption that deciding to watch a new TV show will be at least an 11 hour commitment. If it runs for multiple seasons, that number only increases and, for a singular story, that is kind of crazy, especially when there’s often little guarantee that your time will be well rewarded. A film will normally take no more than two hours, contain an entire plotline and have easily searchable and reliable vetting. By foregoing TV, people like Khoi can therefore slot in 5-6 great movies within the same time commitment as 1 potentially average, soon-to-be-cancelled TV show. With both markets increasingly bursting at the seams with new content advertised as ‘worth our time’ I can fully understand the decision to focus on film.

So I’m writing this to say that, moving forward, I’m adopting Khoi’s approach wholesale, ignoring TV shows in the coming months and aiming to binge my way through Hollywood’s finest moments, right? Well… no, not really. February’s MiM is substantially reduced compared to January and the primary reason has been TV. We ‘accidentally’ became sucked into the world of How I Met Your Mother and have watched almost nothing else since, finishing three seasons in as many weeks. We could have spent that time (a quick calculation suggests somewhere in the region of 26 hours) watching thirteen films, which does feel more respectable somehow. But, had we done so, we wouldn’t have experienced the hilarious, emotional rollercoaster that HiMYM is/was.

The day after watching a film I’m often inspired, excited, ponderous or drained. Films can and routinely do pack an emotional punch, leaving you to contemplate philosophy or provide a genuinely thrilling experience; it’s a great medium with a huge amount to offer. But I can’t remember the last film that left me feeling the way a good TV show does. The night after watching the final finale of HiMYM I struggled to think of what to do. I just wanted to know what these characters were up to and how they were doing. I’ve heard this feeling of loss, when the story is finally done, compared to watching a friend move to another country. Sure, you know there’s the possibility you might see them in the future and you can always revisit the past, but at the same time a door has closed and a spark is starting to dwindle. It’s a feeling that hits me quite often when finishing a book but rarely when watching the end credits roll on a film. Movies are too self-contained for that, they’re too focused on telling the story they have, and doing so as succinctly as possible. They’re restricted.

TV, books, video games: these are the media that have the ability to immerse you, not just for a few hours, but utterly and inescapably. For me that’s worth it. That’s worth the time commitment, worth the duds. Sure, it sucks when they end, especially when it is final, but the fact you feel that way surely validates the experience. I think it’s fair to say that you can watch a movie, but you can befriend a TV show.

Month in Media: February 2017

After the burst of media consumption in January, February feels like a major let down. In reality we’ve been spending a lot of time exploring, going on short breaks and sorting out life in general, so it makes sense that something has had to take a backseat. Plus, I accidentally introduced my partner to How I Met Your Mother so we’ve been ploughing through the last few seasons. It’s amazing how much of a time sink sitcoms can be…

Movies

Planet Hulk

There will be no surprised here if you’ve read the graphic novel of the same name and, frankly, if you haven’t then don’t bother watching the film and pick that up instead. Fans of the novel will likely enjoy Planet Hulk, as it stays remarkably faithful to the source material, but ultimately there’s little new here whilst large segments have been removed to fit into theatrical time constraints.

A lot of the cleverer or more interesting elements of world building have been stripped out, with much more focus placed on events in the colosseum instead. Again, the core elements are all here, including fan favourites like the Wildebots, but the subtleties of the graphic novel have been lost. Similarly, several of the more enlightening subplots have been removed wholesale. Miek never gets to undergo his transformation as the entire slave race, ‘native’ culture backstory is cut; he remains unhived throughout, which is heightened by the lack of Brood as a character. In turn this lends much less time to fleshing out the various “evil” races that the novel helped readers understand. More confusingly, much of the Spike Wars is left unmentioned along with any real character development between Caiera and the Hulk, leaving their eventual marriage feeling a little ham-fisted and sudden.

Instead, Planet Hulk spends its time focusing on the fighting which is done well enough to be enjoyable. The animation is fluid, the stakes are consistently increased and nothing feels totally forced or off. I found the swapping of the Silver Surfer for Beta-Ray Bill a little odd, as the former has a greater history within the Marvel Universe in general. It also highlighted one of the largest departures, in that this version of the Hulk is far more rage monster than nuanced alter-ego. The graphic novel does a much better job of justifying Hulk’s actions and making him a character you both root for and empathise with. There’s a lot less of that on display in the film, which casts Hulk as more of an arrogant, impulsive and self-centered teenager. As a result, the plot loses a lot of the emotional connection and impact, though this isn’t as great considering the film chooses to end on a high note, rather than the destruction of the novel. Again, I understand why this decision was made, but it detracts from the story quite a lot.

tl;dr: An interesting enough film but the problem is that the source material is just far superior. Read that, skip this.

Hulk vs.

Technically two short films, Hulk vs. Wolverine and Hulk vs. Thor, with no attempt at connecting the two at all, which is probably for the best. There’s also not much more to say for these; both shorts are just fight sequences with vague plots in place to allow for them to occur. The Wolverine plot line is more fleshed out, factoring in the Weapon X program as a reason for Hulk’s rampage in the Canadian south, but it still largely feels forced. It also makes little sense that Wolverine has no idea who Hulk is, despite the briefing from the Canadian government and the inclusion of characters like Deadpool and Lady Deathstrike which place it quite late in the normal Marval continuity. The result is entertaining enough, with some nice moments of humour, particularly between Deadpool and Wolverine, but offers little real merit.

Thor’s story is at least a little more unique, with Loki transporting Bruce Banner to Asgard during the Odin Sleep and separating him from the Hulk, allowing the monster to be unleashed utterly on Thor and the other Asgardian heroes. It appears to have been Loki’s greatest success, with Thor all but killed had the Sorceress not intervened and most of the other heroes defeated but falls down by presenting very two dimensional versions of the characters. Thor and Banner clearly know each other, yet Loki seems to have almost no understanding of humanity or the nature of the Hulk. There is a nice subplot regarding Banner’s time in Hel where he gets to live the life he most desires, but even here the conclusion is simply more fighting.

The animation is noteworthy, with some great fight sequences and good voice acting, but ultimately there is little more here than fan fantasies with an over-the-top budget.

tl;dr: Entertaining but shallow.

Mortdecai

Mortdecai was utterly slammed by critics but still managed to pique my interest. To be fair, I can fully understand the criticism: Mortdecai is not a good film. It is a comedy that was rarely funny, with a plot that was just nonsensical enough to save it from being predictable yet remained somewhat dull and which stars a host of stereotypes that failed to find their marks. The odd part is that it’s hard to pin down why Mortdecai is a bad film. It feels like an updated version of Austin Powers, with much the same humour and a well cast, well acted ensemble that should work brilliantly together. There are some genuinely clever moments and the script fist the bill nicely, but it never really engages the audience. It’s an odd thing, but the film just fails to be interesting or funny, seemingly through no fault of its own. There just isn’t any spark to the proceedings. Even with Paul Bettany playing a completely atypical womanising henchman (and playing it very well) there was little here that I could recommend. A confusing and occasionally frustrating flop.

tl;dr: It just doesn’t work. I’m not sure why, but the humour falls flat, the plot is banal and the end product leaves you utterly indifferent. The definition of meh.

The Lego Batman Movie

In honesty I can’t really review Lego Batman properly. I’ve been incredibly excited to watch the film since the first trailer dropped and love the idea of a DC movie from the minds behind the first Lego Movie, but it was a bad time to go to the cinema as I felt horrendous. As a result I spent the entire film running a temperature and focusing more on either not passing out or throwing up then what was happening on screen.

What I did catch made me certain that I want to rewatch this film in the future. The scripting and animation didn’t seem to be as intelligent as The Lego Movie but then the subject matter is also a lot more restrictive. In fact I was impressed by how much they tied the two together yet defined clear boundaries; Lego Batman is not a DC movie that happens to be animated in lego, with frequent references to master builders, instruction manuals and the ability to reconstruct the world around them. No, this is clearly a spin-off from the popular movie, not related to the straight-to-dvd DC lego franchise films. That also means that we aren’t restricted to DC characters, with the likes of Sauron, Voldemort and King Kong all making major appearances, which was also refreshing to see.

From the DC perspective, again I was impressed. The character of Batman in The Lego Movie was largely a pastiche, which made sense given the context of that film; he was the idea of Batman as viewed by a 10 year old, so harboured little nuance. Whilst the core of that character has remained for the spin-off, the surrounding cast and overall story arc are far deeper than required. Better yet, the focus is a close retelling of the “Bat Family” storyline from the comics, allowing the writers to dive into some of the aspects of Batman as a character that rarely make it into the big screen adaptations. It was wonderful to see this happen and I think it was done pretty well, given the context of a kids film. Within that context I doubt we’ll see the sequel (if there is one) conclude that arc ‘correctly’ with “A Death in the Family”, of even the creation of Oracle, but I can hope! If ever those stories were to make it through the Hollywood vetting process, an animated and light-hearted kids film might just be plausible.

Overall I enjoyed what I managed to see. The humour still made me laugh on several occasions, the meta concepts and pop-culture references were largely clever and well placed and the featured characters were treated surprisingly cleverly and fairly. Simple sequences like Robin’s descent into Nightwing, replete with voiced reasoning, were done wonderfully well and managed to equally advance the plot, point a finger at the often ridiculous nature of comic book narrative and be humorous to people without the knowledge to ‘get’ the deeper subtext. Definitely a film I would like to spend some less distracted time with in the future.

tl;dr: A clever look at both Batman and superhero motifs in general tied together in a funny, clever kids movie with a surprising amount of heart.

TV

How I Met Your Mother [Seasons 6-8]

There doesn’t seem much point splitting a sitcom up into seasons as, if they do their job correctly, it shouldn’t matter. The story should incrementally move forward but each episode, ideally, will be pretty self contained and uniform. You don’t look to a sitcom to change the way television is written or created; you look to a sitcom to make you laugh, create enjoyable characters and have just enough depth so that you care about them. For these reasons, How I Met Your Mother is one of my all time favourite sitcoms. What started as a slightly gimmicky, catchphrase laden update to the Friends formula has managed nine seasons of gradual maturation and consistently clever humour. HIMYM was never going to break any boundaries or push the envelope, but it has always been well written, enjoyable and laugh out loud funny.

It’s worth diving a little further into the (already noted) parallels between Friends and HIMIYM, because I think they’re a large part of the latter’s appeal and success. The core construct of the will-they-won’t-they relationship between two characters in a tightly knit friend group is something which just works. The characters have been updated from their 90’s counterparts to feel a little more natural in a 21st century environment, but otherwise the two shows are practically identical. A coffee shop has been swapped for a bar, personalities have been reshuffled a little (Ross -> Ted, Chandler -> Marshall, Joey -> Barney whilst the three female Friends become fused into two composites, with Monica + kinky/quirky Phoebe -> Lily and Rachel + kickass/neurotic Phoebe -> Robin) and fashions updated but each episode is still a self-contained story about a group of twenty-somethings in New York.

Less obvious but equally present are the influences of sitcoms such as Scrubs, which lend HIMYM their skit based humour and meta ability to inherently mess with the TV format. As with Scrubs this leads to some standout episodes featuring musical numbers, impossible events and the ever present ridiculousness of Barney’s “plays” to pick up women. Also much like Scrubs, the show gets away with this by having a central gimmick that ties everything together, in this case the fact that everything we see is just the retelling of events by a future version of Ted. That’s why the show revolves much more tightly around a single character than other, earlier sitcoms like Friends did, and why the boundaries of reality can be pushed at will. As with the use of JD’s imagination in Scrubs, Ted’s embellishments as he describes his past to his future children allow the show some breathing room that results in some brilliant sketch based comedy.

If this blend of humour is why the show works then, much like Scrubs, it is also why the show ends up treading a fine line between the hilarious and the inane. For the most part I would say HIMYM walks this line in style and is the reason I think it is one of the finest sitcoms ever, let alone of more recent years. That isn’t to say it is perfect. Season 8 in particular has felt like the writers were becoming a little stretched and the plot a little too convoluted. The constant focus on relationships, much of which seem to be moving incredibly quickly (how many engagements occur in this penultimate season alone?), is handled a little too inelegantly and begins to feel forced. I’d say it was clear that Season 8 was the point that the writers realised they needed to bring everything to a close but had left too many open threads to do so neatly. From the audience’s point of view it is also the point at which the central ‘mystery’ begins to feel too played out. At this stage I will feel equally cheated if Robin either is or isn’t the mother and personally wish they’d just get on with marrying her and Barney off so Ted can meet the oft-cited girl with the yellow umbrella!

That irritation out of the way, Season 8’s main problem may well be that it is directly preceded by arguably the two strongest seasons of the shows run. Both season 6 and 7 balance the show’s humour and heart perfectly, with almost every episode feeling like it has advanced at least one character arc whilst containing multiple moments of laughter inducing humour. It’s incredibly moreish, but not because you’re wanting answers or are constantly left with contrived cliff hangers, but because you find yourself having an immense amount of fun. As a result I’m both hugely glad and deeply saddened at the knowledge that there’s only one season left. Season 8 shows that the series has to end, that the core concept relies on some sense of impending closure (how long has he been talking to those kids?) and that the further this is spun out the less it works. But, Seasons 6 and 7 also show how great these characters can be and how well they work, both as a neat summation of the culture of the early 21st century and as entertainment in their own right.

tl;dr: One of the best sitcoms ever, though by the end of Season 8 clearly showing signs of ageing. I will miss these characters but we desperately need closure on who the mother actually is, and soon!

How I Met Your Mother [Season 9]

Okay, I realise I said I wasn’t going to split up a sitcom, but I wrote the above review in the full knowledge that I wouldn’t be writing any more until March. Only, then some plans fell through and the pacing of the show picked up and, before we’d even realised what was happening, another season had flown by.

If Season 8 was the stumble of fatigue in an otherwise solidly executed run, then Season 9 was the determined final burst of stamina to reach the finish line. The writing, acting and storytelling were all back on point, often rivalling the best episodes of the seasons behind it (a whole episode of rhyme with Lin Manuel-Miranda? Yes please!). There are the occasional over-the-top embellishments that smack of “its the final season, so why the hell not?” (Boys2Men’s sudden appearance felt particularly odd) but the show has always kept one foot in the surreal, so it still works. In fact, given how successful season 9 is at both producing entertaining episodes and wrapping up every possible thread that was still left dangling, I can’t help but feel that season 8 had been elongated to give them time to do the final season justice.

Whatever the reason, the 9th season is the one that cements How I Met Your Mother in the hallowed sitcom hall of fame, in my opinion at least. Every episode weaves a wonderfully fine line between emotional gut-punches and comedy that leaves you in tears. No character is left behind, no matter how minor, with subplots like “Boats! Boats! Boats!” and even the girlfriend-with-no-name coming to tidy, clear ends. It’s masterful story telling and once again highlights how useful a gimmick Ted’s future children are. You can have a slow pan over a half-dozen characters filling in their entire future, because that’s how Ted is telling it. It makes sense, brings perfect closure and is entertaining to boot.

I will admit to finding this final season pretty damn stressful. I honestly don’t think I could have hacked the ups-and-downs of Robin and Barney’s wedding had I watched in a weekly, episodic manner. Even binging as quickly as possible was almost too stressful! Still, the stress proves how much these characters had been imbued with meaning. By the final episode you truly care about each and every one of them, which when you look back at how the show started is an impressive feat. Possibly more impressively is how quickly the viewer falls for “the mother”. With each crossed-path and “Kids, that’s how so-and-so met your mother!” the anticipation builds yet further until that, too, begins to add to the stress. For a show built on the question of “Robin and Ted?” it does extremely well to utterly convince you that, when the characters begin to ask the same question, the answer is actually “No!”.

Which leaves only one element for discussion: the ending. Despite what I’ve just written, I think the ending is perfect. Back when it first aired I remember seeing a lot of negativity surrounding it, a feeling of being cheated somehow. We spend nine seasons building up to the “mother” only for her to be in a handful of episodes, die and be replaced with Robin, the girl you meet in the first ten minutes!? In the writers defence, though, HIMYM has never been the story of the “mother”. Right from the first scene of episode one, Robin has been the centre point. Why start telling your kids how you and Mum met with the story of how you met their Aunt Robin? So you can weave in the occasional reference to ankle sightings or the journey of a yellow umbrella? No, it made no sense for the story to take that tack unless Ted was actually telling another story. The story of how he’s loved Robin from the moment they first met, but how life intervened. How he found an equal love with another woman after having his heart (repeatedly) broken. But, most importantly, how six years after that other woman’s death, those feelings for Robin are still there.

How I Met Your Mother is not the story of meeting the “mother”. It’s the story of a widowed father asking his kid’s permission to move on, to rekindle an old flame, someone who has waited for him (this time around). Yes, the “mother” was amazing and I think every viewer ended up routing for her to “win” but the story isn’t about winning or losing, it’s about love. By the end of season nine it’s clear that the answer to “Robin and Ted?” is: yes! It’s just that a bunch of other stuff had to happen first.

tl;dr: A perfect ending to a brilliant show. How I Met Your Mother is one of those shows that I will miss, and remember, for a long time. To put it simply: legend… wait for it…

 

 

 

 

DARY!