Finding the Time [#16]

Life is busy right now. My partner’s birthday is this weekend, which also happens to be a bank holiday, so I’ve spent a lot of the last week organising, planning and generally prepping for a short break we’re taking to celebrate.

At the same time, my car has decided the oil dipstick is too long. We’ve also come to the end of a month long process failure with BT, trying to upgrade our internet. Oh, and then there’s the other two trips we’re taking later this year, an on-going dispute with Hermes over where a parcel is, the slowly dying iPad, broken spotlight and, of course, all the usual bills, chores and ‘adult’ stuff.

I feel like my time is entirely spent sleeping, working or trying to keep various balls aloft. I’m tired, frustrated and a little bit stressed. All I want to do is spend some time writing, working on some photographs or, better still, reading! Honestly, society seems to be designed around a never-ending treadmill of requirements, research and time sinks.

And yet…

And yet, last night I spent an hour just chatting with my partner. It was both relaxing and helped remove a bunch of juggling balls.

And yet, I’ve managed to put 8 hours into the story mode of Super Smash Bros. Brawl since picking it up two weeks ago. It’s surprisingly fun.

And yet, my RSS feed is all-but-empty for the first time in nearly two years.

And yet, I’ve just finished a book that’s been sat on my night stand for months.

And yet, last weekend I had the car finally taken in to have the recalled airbag replaced.

And yet, that’s the thing. And. Yet.

Despite feeling like everything is crashing down around my shoulders, I’m still able to achieve an awful lot. Sure, I have a huge (literal) stack of books that I need to read before I can even start on the ones on the book shelf, but I am getting through them. It may have been a lot of time and work, but we now have a whole year of incredibly exciting adventures ahead, not least of all a trip we’re going on tomorrow! And when we do go on them, the car will be a lot safer then it was before.

Sometimes it’s nice to just take a step back, cover up the To-Do list and review your Done one. I live a life of immense privilege and luck. Sometimes, that gets forgotten, and yet when you remember it all the little things somehow become just that: little. It’s not so much finding the time as realising how much you already have.

The Weak Link

I enjoyed reading this article, written by Ethan Marcotte. It makes some interesting points, aligns with my own cognitive bubble and provides some deeper insight into areas of stuff that I find interesting. Taken together, these parameters create a piece of writing that generally makes for a ‘good read’. Food for thought. Worth remembering.

Except, I won’t remember it. Perhaps I’ll find it inspiring or important enough to cross-post it, save it to Pocket, blog about it, highlight it in Evernote or employ one of the other myriad ways I’ve setup to somehow archive information. But will I ever look at it again? If not, what’s the point?

In a sense, these are all systems intended to enhance or expand my own limited storage space, to break the barriers biology has created. Archived information, though, is effectively forgotten if the archive lacks an easy and intuitive means of recovering it again. If a year passes and I suddenly find myself wanting information on pattern libraries, will I be able to cross reference my archive and pull back Ethan’s article? Will it even be relevant for the questions I’m asking at that time, or will it be discarded as white noise. What if I forgot to add that particular reference point or search the wrong archive?

Some of these systems are ones I’ve personally constructed, such as this website or my old Tumblr. These systems were designed by me, specifically so that I could find information quickly and intuitively. The problem is, they don’t really work. They just shift the required memory space away from the contents of the article, or video, or whatever else I’m trying to store and replace it with the keywords, tags or categorisation I’ve stored it under. If I’m lucky, future me will remember enough of these to pull back the right information at a later date, but the sticky issue is that if I don’t, the system breaks down and I will never know about it.

Honestly, I’m not sure a system can exist that does what I’m hoping to find. I want a means of quickly and easily adding to, maintaining and cross-referencing a database of information. I don’t mind a little upkeep, but preferably adding content would be near instantaneous and filtering it highly flexible. At this point I have nearly a dozen such systems, from online resources like Evernote to application specific solutions like bookmarks folders; even offline, meat-space concepts like notebooks. The reason I have so many is that none of them have worked. They are all either too personal, too restrictive in their access or have become too burdensome.

It’s borderline ironic that the web hasn’t magically answered this need, given that the entire technology is built on the concept of linking and cross-referencing information. In a way, I guess it could be argued that the web solved the reference issue but forgot about the index. Services like Google and Bing have attempted to fill that void but they can only do so much and will never be able to create the personalised experience I require.

Perhaps the future holds some answers or perhaps I have to just learn to accept that forgetting is, well, okay.

Duping the Genie [#15]

You find yourself in a magical cave, holding an old oil lamp, spilling out of which is a magical Genie. You know the drill: you have three wishes and you cannot request more.

Okay, but those wishes are still pretty open ended. Sure, everyone inherently knows what is being inferred here, how the story is meant to be played out. The Genie is likely expecting some combination of the big three, normally health, wealth and happiness. But if you can ask for something as complex as happiness, then that means each wish can include a plethora of logical operators. That leaves this rules open to abuse.

So there you are, lamp in hand and an idea that, just maybe, you can beat the system. Here’s an idea where to start.

Wish 1: Ask for a means to instantaneously record and recall an infinite amount of knowledge, infallibly, all in a handy portable format.

Wish 2: Ask to know every possible wish you could ever want or would ever desire, in the optimum format for success.

Before we get onto Wish 3, use your first two wishes in combination: record all those perfect wishes, all of your hearts desires, everything you’ve ever thought of or ever could think of into the magic recording device. Then it’s time for the final wish!

Wish 3: Ask for the Genie to grant you everything contained within the recording device’s memory.

It probably isn’t fool-proof logic, the Genie might deny your final wish, but it’s a pretty good attempt at bending the seemingly incontrovertible rules to your own will. And ultimately, isn’t that far more fun then simply being another Aladdin?

April Foolery 2017 [#14]

 

So another year, another April 1st. As is usually the case, the internet was awash with odd concepts, fake news and terrible puns. On top of which, we also had the annual Aprils Fools “pranks” (badum-dish).

Honestly, there weren’t many good jokes this year. The National Trust and Google Home Gnome teams put out some clever and well made efforts (I’m definitely a Duck man, too), but otherwise little even made me chuckle.

On the other hand, two April Fools events had me completely enthralled, not just throughout the 1st, but for several days afterwards. Reddit’s /r/place was incredibly fun to be a part of, regardless of your personal “style”. At first it just seemed a little gimmicky and, I won’t lie, I lost interest as the Colour Wars broke out, figuring that the internet hive mind had gone full blown /b/tard and wouldn’t be coming back. But then He-Man and /r/ainbowroad happened, ushering in a new era of creativity and collaboration on the Place which turned it into something both incredibly addictive and fascinating. The initial break out of the Void made me chuckle, and I must admit to even helping out initially (though it should be noted that I mistook their efforts for a Doctor Who homage). As their true nature became known, however, I forsake the black tiles and took up a roll as a caretaker for the next 48 hours. I was hooked, checking back in whenever I had a chance and found the ever-morphing canvas utterly enthralling. The final product is brilliant, a little slice of internet history that I genuinely feel somehow honoured to have been a part of. Even more interesting though are the various GIFs floating around in the days since, showing the more ridiculous sequences of time on the Place. Everything from Skeletor’s swift joint to the attempted overthrow of the US are just fantastic to watch, especially when sped up.

But the Place wasn’t all Reddit had to offer. As I watched (and helped) the logo for one of my favourite subreddits appear on the canvas, I realised I hadn’t checked out what they were doing. Despite ostensibly being a community for discussing Pokémon Go, /r/theSilphRoad has become a fantastic source of ideas. For past cultural events they’ve hosted Pokémon hunts (hidden within Reddit’s voting system, of all places), riddles and other fun surprises so I wasn’t too shocked when I saw that they had their own April Fools in full swing: Team Rocket had taken over the Silph Road! Obviously, the website had been reskinned with Rocket colours, logos etc., along with all the community moderators having their privileges receded and replaced with Rocket Grunts, but the ‘joke’ ran much, much deeper.

A post appeared early in the day saying that the Nest Atlas (a web tool the Silph team has built over the last few months for PoGo players) was the reason for Team Rocket’s intrusion and, sure enough, once people knew where to look they began to find clues. It turned out that the team behind the Road had been kidnapped and were being held hostage; better yet, one of the largest PoGo Youtuber’s (and a personal subscription), Nick from TrainerTips, had also been captured. The crossover of communities helped make the event extremely successful, as thousands of people around the world starting prising apart various websites, map elements and other clues in a fantastically well put-together hunt to track down the Silph team. Special locations and interactions had been built into the Nest Atlas, certain web files had been added to the stack with clues and there was even a Team Rocket ‘intranet’ that became accessible for a few hours.

On top of all that, the entire event (for calling it anything less would be insulting, frankly) led to a fully functional* mini-game hosted by theSilphRoad. Paying homage to the original Pokémon Go teaser trailer, the hunt eventually led to down-town Manhattan, where Team Rocket had captured “Silph HQ”. Entering the location on the Nest Atlas led to a selection screen to pick your squad and then an interactive battle with non-other than Mewtwo itself. The execution was lightweight (understandable, given the circumstances) but really fun and gave the community a single goal to work towards. Overall, an amazing experience that deserves serious applause.

*Until the TrainerTips’ fans descended and overwhelmed the servers; #BlameNick!

Month in Media: March 2017 [#13]

Holy crap, in all but name this marks one year since my first MiM! Sure, there remain a couple of “in progress” holes in that year, but still I’m pretty pleased with the outcome. Who knows, maybe I’ll even feel galvanised to sort out the format some time before the second anniversary rolls around!?

TV

Terry Pratchett: Back in Black

I laughed, I cried, I learnt. Back in Black was not entirely what I expected, but it was a touching and largely fitting tribute to a writer, and person, whose influence has touched millions of lives, including my own.

Back in Black is neither biography nor tribute, falling somewhere in the middle. It detail the critical events in Pratchett’s life, but fans won’t find many new tales on offer. Instead, it chooses to focus on those closest to the author, including family, friends and various fans. The interviews touch on parts of Pratchett’s life but the emphasis is on his death, the preceding fight with Alzheimer’s and the ensuing tribute event that was held. The footage of the latter is brilliant and not something I’ve seen included anywhere else. As someone who was a massive fan but felt no desire to go to the event it let me experience the crucial parts from afar.

In fact, I’d say more than anything else, Back to Black felt like a dialogue of closure. Personally, it was quite an emotional documentary (I’m not kidding when I say I cried, and not just once) that felt more like a final goodbye than a history lesson. There’s a lot of personal emotion imbued within the interviews, no matter who is on screen, and that emotion frequently spills beyond the screen. I remember seeing a lot of love and thanks being extended by the fan community towards Neil Gaiman, long time fan and friend of Pratchett, after the show first aired. Having now seen his interview I can fully understand why and, frankly, extend my own along as well. For many, Gaiman and Pratchett are intertwined, sharing much of their humour and writing material, as well as co-authoring Good Omens, a book with a huge fandom in-and-of itself. As such, watching him speak so honestly about both his friendship and his grief was incredibly poignant. Just thinking about it is enough to bring the ghosts of tears to my eyes.

The emotion is interspersed with some clever comedic moments, pulling from Pratchett’s past interviews, books and autobiography in equal parts. The writers and producers have done a great job making it feel like Terry was personally involved with the final product; it just feels somehow Pratchett-y. Combined with the emotional intensity and clear narrative arc driving you towards, and ending with, Pratchett’s memorial service (if that is even the correct term for a stadium event with live music), the result is strangely cathartic. A common response from those interviewed for the documentary was that they have a single Discworld book remaining that they simply don’t want to read. By reading it, they have to accept that they’ll never read another Discworld novel for the first time. I was in a similar boat (though personally have several remaining) but, if Back in Black gave me anything, I don’t think I am anymore. That is the documentaries greatest feat: it makes Terry’s death somehow, if not okay, then at least acceptable.

tl;dr: A fitting tribute to an amazing man and author. If you’re a fan of Discworld or anything Pratchett, do not miss this documentary.

Lucifer [Season 2]

Lucifer continues to evolve into an extremely fun and surprisingly intelligent TV show. Despite the much lauded source material, I never really thought that a series about the Devil helping solver crimes would actually work. Luckily, the crime solving elements continue to be used more as counter points to a much broader, celestial plot line, which works well. Chloe and the police force serve as a grounding and humanising factor in a show that is far more Supernatural then it is CSI, allowing the script writers a lot more leeway when it comes to the angelic characters.

The various twists are largely pulled off well and it feels like the production team have a goal in sight when it comes to the whole War of Heaven that is brewing. Certainly, mixing Chloe up directly into the heavenly machinations could have felt like a cop out (hehe) but somehow seems to work. It validates both the first season’s larger plotline and Lucifer’s involvement in her life by presenting a plausible (within the greater context of the show) solution to her powers of will. It also leaves us with almost as many unanswered questions as season 1, which feels surprisingly nice.

A show with this much kept under wraps can have the tendency to become a little Lost (hehe), but so far Lucifer has rewarded viewers by never leaving threads dangling too long. The big reveal over “Mom”, her (known) plans and Amendiel’s fall, which were the main open questions at the end of season one, were all dealt with so swiftly that I actually forgot they weren’t a part of that first season! I genuinely don’t think Lucifer would work without this fast paced narrative, so hopefully they keep it up.

Otherwise, very little has changed since season one. The actors and subplots are all still solid, Lucifer himself remains an absolute delight to watch and the script retains that fine balance of humour and drama which ties everything together. Overall, I would still thoroughly recommend Lucifer and am definitely looking forward to season three!

tl;dr: A solid continuation from the first series, still oozing as much charm and charisma as ever. Dare I say… devilish good fun?!

Trevor Noah: Afraid of the Dark

I was lucky enough to catch Trevor Noah perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival about four years ago, long before he’d become a household name in the US for hosting the Daily Show. It’s not every day you hear of a South African comic selling out the Pleasance multiple nights in a row, with the backing and praise of the likes of Stephen Fry and Billy Connolly, so of course I was going to go. The result was one of the funniest and cleverest stand-up routines I’ve seen, either in person or televised, so when I saw that he had a new show out on Netflix it shot up our watchlist.

Afraid of the Dark is a routine performed by a much more experienced comic, with exceptional timing and a clear narrative arc, then the one I saw in Edinburgh. Noah has matured brilliantly, both into his comedy and his role as a political and cultural pundit. Some of his comedy is so biting you almost struggle to laugh, but the combination of his physicality and love of bad accents normally remedies that situation quickly. You can tell a male comedian has hit their stride when they can perform a ten minute skit based on the power of vaginas with every woman in the audience laughing hysterically (and most of the men). On a meta note, seeing such female centred comedy being written and performed by a man, without any mention of that duality, was incredibly refreshing. I wonder if, like many female comics, Noah found himself facing reviews claiming that “laughing about female body parts is baseline humour” or if, somehow, a man making the same jokes is somehow highbrow and intellectual…

Regardless, Afraid of the Dark was a brilliant hour-and-a-half of tightly written and frequently culturally scathing comedy. The routines were original and challenging, whilst remaining inclusive, so everything you want from a stand-up routine. It wasn’t a perfect show and I didn’t feel as utterly captivated as when I saw him live, but at the core Noah presents a solid piece of entertainment that might just leave you thinking.

tl;dr: Intelligent and hilarious comedy from a rising star.

Jessica Jones [Season 1]

Heavy. In one word, that is how I would describe Jessica Jones. Everything about Netflix’s second superhero outing is heavy. The action, the script, the drama, the suspense, the light levels: all weigh about the same as an ocean tanker. The result is a very clever, addictive TV show that will leave you more than a little flattened, both emotionally and physically.

Jessica Jones has always been a bit of an odd character, with more in common with old noir detectives than the caped superheroes she is set against, so the foreboding tones and motifs that the show is laced with are wonderfully true to character. Whilst Jess clearly has powers, and little compunction in using them, her abilities are not really the focus here. Instead, the masterfully played Kilgrave takes centre stage, a clever decision that somehow emphasises his cunning and malice. By focusing so heavily on Kilgrave the show writers leave us, the viewer, feeling almost like we, too, are under his control. As said, the result is quite draining, so much that we actually ended up taking a nearly two month enforced hiatus in the middle of the season just to recover.

On top of the clever pacing and cinematography, the characterisation in Jessica Jones is top notch. Every character, no matter how small, feels real and coherent, with the one possible exception of Will who always felt a little forced. His introduction was good, but by the end his motives had become a little strained, though it is a minor complaint in an otherwise top notch ensemble. Indeed, the acting throughout the show is exceptional. Many have already praised David Tennant’s portrayal of the Purple Man but he really is stunning; Tennant has an uncanny ability to create characters that equally revolt you and invite sympathy, an ability he uses extensively with Kilgrave. Far from stealing the show though, Tennant is supported by a perfect rendition of the comics hero in Krysten Ritter, who embodies Jess so perfectly I can’t imagine anyone else taking the role. Similarly impressive are Rachael Taylor and Mike Colter, both of whom I look forward to seeing more of in the future. However, for me, Eka Darville was stunning. Malcolm’s ascent from addict to care taker was an incredibly poignant subplot that was acted wonderfully from start to finish and ended up becoming the show’s moral anchor. His is definitely a name I will watch out for in the future.

On top of all that, Jessica Jones manages to take a superhero franchise and weave one of the most poignant tales I’ve watched in a long time. By the close of the season the hero tropes are appearing with increasing pace, but for the first half is much more a story of the dark parts of the human psyche. The obvious plot, done extraordinarily well, is that of domestic abuse and the extent to which both abuser and victim will go to convince themselves there’s nothing wrong. Despite seeming to be on top of things, Jones’ alcoholism and tendency to play straight into Kilgrave’s hands highlights that she hasn’t escaped his abusive control as much as she thinks. In turn, Kilgrave delivers a scary look into the mind of someone who feels somehow deserving of both his powers and abuse of them. But far from just focusing on abuse, Jessica Jones also delves heavily into the concepts of grief, mourning, guilt, addiction and consent. There’s a huge amount here, layered on top of each other, to fully do justice to but I can say that it is a monumental success in almost every way.

tl;dr: A dark and depressing look at addiction, abuse and guilt wrapped up in a surprisingly entertaining superhero show. Astounding.

Rick and Morty [Season 1 & 2]

Rick and Morty is a bizarre, confusing, superbly twisted… something or other. Honestly, it’s pretty hard to explain what Rick and Morty actually is. Coming from the creative mind of Dan Harmon, there are clear parallels with Community, the frankly amazing cult classic that made Harmon’s name. Both do one thing, in particular, extremely well: taking a piece of pop-culture and dissecting it with laser focus. They also both play with their own genre’s tropes, consistently break the fourth wall and generally take liberties with our pre-conceived notions of how TV should work.

Want an example? Take the ending of season two. For two seasons, the show has slowly been building some relatively clever, but not massively complex, characters and interactions. Subplots are weaved in and out of each episode but largely they appear to exist as single, relatively unconnected snapshots; continuity is preserved, but you don’t expect that to always be the case. As a viewer, you will likely have built up a fairly good idea of “what the show is”. But, then the final episode of season two rolls around and tears down your assumptions like a rabid E. coli. You discover that all those little subplots were actually building to something pretty epic and the show uses them to pull off an emotional gut punch that launches out of nowhere. It briefly returns to what you would expect as the credits roll and a fourth wall breaking call back to an earlier episode appears. Except, rather than alleviating the darkness, it just reaffirms it and tells you, without exception, that there isn’t anything more until season three. It masterfully keeps you hooked, thinking at any minute a punchline will surely drop and everything would be okay, but nothing ever arrives. It toys with you, with your emotions and with your sensibilities about what a TV show like Rick and Morty ought to do. And then it ends.

As you might gather, Rick and Morty has converted me wholesale. I am buzzing at the prospect of season three and praying that, unlike Community, R&M is allowed to see out its run without issues. It definitely wasn’t love at first sight thought, so if you do decide to try out the internet phenomenon my one piece of advice would be: stick with it. The episodes are short and, as mentioned, rarely re-tread the same ground, so if one part leaves you a little cold then you’re unlikely to come across it again. To be honest, I was very unimpressed by the pilot, which was full of bad puns, body horror animation (harking back to the 90’s Cartoon Network – I hated it then, I hate it now) and childish ‘adult’ humour that felt like it was aiming at South Park but fell far short. I pushed on and the worst parts became less prevalent, whilst the characters and their interactions grew in interest. A couple of episodes really peaked my interest, with decent parodies of the likes of Jurassic Park, The Matrix and Inception, and these were topped off by consistently clever references and humour. By the end of season one I was happy to nod along and keep watching.

By the end of season two I was a full blown Fan! (note the capital “f”). There were still a couple of dud episodes (I’m really not sure why the inter-dimensional clip show had to come back for a second round, it was one of the worst ideas from season one) but these were spread thinly between some stunning ones. The screen-duplicating antics that took place in the opening episode, A Rickle Through Time, were some of the cleverest uses of animation and syncing I’ve seen, and both Auto Erotic Assimilation and Total Rickall provided clever and thought provoking genre parodies. Overall, Rick and Morty has become one the cleverest, most intelligent and genuinely intriguing shows I’ve watched in a while. Onwards to season three!

tl;dr: Brilliant, genre skewering wrapped up in an animated show that pulls some surprisingly intelligent punches. A slow start but well on the way to being a cult classic.

Daredevil [Season 2]

The first season of Marvel’s Daredevil remains one of the companies crowning achievements. The choreography, the character development, the acting, pacing, scripting and sound – everything was done exquisitely. After a solid follow-up in the form of Jessica Jones we were thoroughly looking forward to seeing what the other powered inhabitants of Hell’s Kitchen were up to. The fact I’m reviewing both in the same month certainly shows that Daredevil retains its “just-one-more” addictiveness, but what about everything else?

Put frankly, everything else was a little disappointing. To be clear, season 2 is still a solid, entertaining and thoroughly well crafted outing. The original actors weren’t about to suddenly lose their flair (and definitely don’t) and new characters are just as well cast, in particular the Punisher. Dialogue, for the most part, is well rounded and believable, without any real fluff, and character arcs are (largely) clear and coherent.

Perhaps season one was just too perfect. It all slotted together wonderfully, creating a story that was equally captivating whether focusing on the people or the powers. Season two does have some of those moments of brilliance, but unfortunately veers too much towards the latter. Whilst season one could get away with a constant tension as Matt tried to keep his identity secret and balance his two lives, season two neither needs nor pulls off this trick. Foggy already knows his secrets, so why Murdoch continues to lie and throw up smoke screens isn’t clear and becomes irritating. Many plot points could have been cleared up had main characters just remembered to communicate with one another, but instead drama is invented that makes them choose not to. It’s an old TV sin that remains unforgiveable, no matter how great everything else going on is.

There’s also the issue of Elektra. In many ways, Daredevil manages to do justice to the much loved character. She is definitely not ‘just a love interest’, nor is she treated gratuitously. Elektra is a strong, independent character that brings something genuine to the storyline. She helps Matt realise that he isn’t just living two lives, he is two people, and he’s beginning to prefer the vigilante alter-ego. It’s an interesting take on the characters and it does feel organic. Unfortunately, it is overshadowed in the first half of the season by the far more interesting, nuanced and clever Punisher plotline and then morphs into a deus-ex-machine laced confusion of magical, immortal ninjas and prophecies. Whilst the revelation that Elektra is a member of the Chaste works well and gives her actions purpose, turning her into a prophetic incarnation of evil serves to destroy her agency as a character. It’s a blow that such a strong female hero has to be reduced in such a way, that her abilities could not just be her own. It also sets up a predictable ending forcing Matt to resume his split life, rather than simply becoming the devil full time. It’s entertaining and contains some wonderful fight sequences, but it also feels a little rushed and lacks the nuance of the first season.

On the other hand, the introduction and development of the Punisher is fantastic. In all honesty, had season two decided to just focus on the Punisher arc it would have been a lot more interesting. His introduction, build up and reveal are all wonderfully executed. The interactions between daredevil and Castle are clever and insightful, serving to shine a light not just on the problems of vigilantes but of wider cultural perceptions of mental illness, PTSD and the morality of law. Castle’s evolution from sociopath to victim during the trial and his actions after his escape serve to push back at Murdoch’s conceptual black/white moral code, friction which is well mirrored in the other characters, particularly Karen. In many ways, the Punisher is a very fitting follow up to Wilson Fisk and his inclusion allows the show to deviate in fresh ways. As mentioned, however, the overlap with Elektra’s storyline feels forced, unnecessary and irritating. Matt’s absence from the trial may serve to setup the characters for a third season but it also feels out of character and dumbly written. The Matt Murdoch of season one was a brilliant lawyer; the Matt Murdoch of season two is an arrogant, self involved ass with a hero complex.

Part of why the first season worked so well is that it focused on the people. Sure, one of those people had superpowers and occasionally dressed up as a demon to beat on bad guys, but that was almost just an extra bit. Entire episodes occurred where Matt barely suited up, but in season two he practically lives in the damn thing. I think the writers were trying to make this all tie together with the Elektra plot, but it didn’t work. To be honest, the entire season feels like Netflix brought the release date forward by about a year, which is a shame. Season one was tight, controlled and powerful as a result. Season two has wonderful moments (Fisk’s rise to Kingpin, the rooftop debate between Daredevil and Punisher, Foggy stepping up at the trial, Karen’s discussion with Frank in the diner) but each one is blunted by a lazy piece of missed/forced dialogue or over use of action in place of plot. It remains entertaining, but it lacks the magic of season one.

tl;dr: Still very enjoyable but fails to match the brilliance of the first season, with too much emphasis on heroes and not enough on humans.

Planet Earth II

Before I begin, I have a confession to make: I haven’t really watched the whole of Planet Earth II. We managed to miss the first three episodes re-airing on iPlayer, so this review can only be considered to cover episodes 4, 5 and 6 (Deserts, Grasslands and Cities respectively), plus any clips uploaded to YouTube.

With that said, my feelings of what I have seen are mixed. The footage is as exceptional as ever, with some jaw dropping sequences. They’ve definitely moved away from the obvious gimmicks, losing the hyper-zoom shots, overhead shadow walking and underwater footage that made the original series so famous. In their place is slow motion and hyper realism; you can tell the break out technologies of the past few years have been stupidly high resolutions and frame rates. Certainly, elongating the time that certain shots take is stunningly done; footage isn’t slowed down to an imperceptible crawl but rather feels like it got a little close to a black hole. It draws you in to the frame and somehow makes even relatively banal sequences tense or atmospheric. It’s a more mature approach to editing, for the most part, but I do feel that the understatement does mean some of the awe is lost. There’s a lot more nuance on display, but much less eye candy. The HDR sequences do go some way to alleviating that and I can imagine in 4K you will still end up awestruck quite often, but it did feel a little less exciting in general.

Part of that, though, may well have been the familiarity of many of the sequences. Rather oddly, Planet Earth II appears to actually reuse footage from Planet Earth. Certainly, if the chase sequences of wolves and caribou are new footage they can be considered shot-for-shot remakes, just with a tweaked ending where the caribou escapes. There are other, similar moments, but amongst them emerges another trend: baby animals don’t seem to die as much as they used to. In the three episodes we watched there were some definitely savage moments (the lion with a face full of buffalo, tigers ripping into a days old rhino carcass, mustangs slamming into one another) but a lot of the hunt sequences seemed to end in escape. About the only animals I saw die were pigeons.

That is, except for the baby turtles, which was an extremely poignant but slightly off putting piece of documentary work. I understand the need to make a statement, and perhaps that is exactly what they were doing, but I genuinely find it hard to believe that dedicated wildlife journalists could simply film endangered species being run over or drown. I understand the whole “nature is long in tooth and claw” mantra, but these aren’t natural deaths. They’re the result of human ignorance and arrogance, so a human intervention doesn’t break any kind of conservationist’s code – it’s an obvious and necessary solution. Perhaps this was happening off-camera, and perhaps they felt mentioning it would do more harm in the long run, but considering how little media impact that sequence appears to have had I’m not sure a gamble of that nature has paid off.

I do have another theory though regarding the lack of death: Americans. For a BBC series, the baffling use of Fahrenheit is a pretty big giveaway that the American market was being heavily targeted. I have to admit to being a little disappointed, both in the BBC and in Attenborough himself, for allowing something so disingenuous to happen. It would be one thing if they redubbed the episodes for the US, but to air them in the UK using such antiquated terminology sends the wrong message. In a show that does a fantastic job of presenting strong arguments for human progression, taking a step back on something so basic seems just odd.

Despite these misgivings, Planet Earth II is still a wonderful, master class in documentary making. I would have loved to have spent less time re-treading ground already covered by the series, but the entirely new footage that was provided was exceptional. Every knows about the Galapagos racer snakes by now, but the footage of sand grouse in the Namib, urban leopard hunts, harvest mice and serval hunting are all some of the cleverest and most intimate sequences I’ve seen captured on film. Intimacy was clearly a driving factor for the way the series was both filmed and edited, with a lot more emphasis on close up shots rather than grandiose displays of scale. I think that, more than anything else, built up to create one of the best episodes of any wildlife documentary in the final Cities feature. So yes, Planet Earth II has its flaws; so did the original. But these are almost entirely eclipsed by its triumphs.

tl;dr: At times a little derivative, with shameful US pandering, but the overall result is every bit as magical, stunning and jaw dropping as the original and a whole lot more intimate and mature.

Video Games

Pokémon Duel

I had been hoping that dipping into the world of video games with Portal 2 would help spark a trend, but then Pokémon Duel came out. Best laid plans of mice and ‘Mon and all that…

In short, Duel is a clever and highly addictive merging of draughts, capture the flag and Magic the Gathering. You build a deck of figures and ability cards to battle other players, with the end goal of either taking your opponents goal space or forcing them into a stalemate. The actual board is very simple, with relatively few possible moves that can be made. The strategy, then, comes in the deck you build. By selecting complimentary Pokémon and boosting them using specific cards at opportune moments you can tailor each game to match your own play style. With pretty much all of the Pokémon known to date available to unlock, some of whom even have alternate models with slightly different abilities, there’s a huge degree of flexibility possible in building a deck that works for you.

So far, you may be wondering why this is a Pokémon game. In large part, the Pokémon brand has been applied to make Duel easier to market and utilise an already existing fan base, but the core concepts of Pokémon are all maintained. Rather than catching monsters you unlock them through battling or completing specific missions. You can also buy them directly from the shop using the in-game ‘Gems’ currency. Pokémon don’t gain experience from battling, like in the main series games, but instead can be trained and levelled up through ‘Fusion’. Fusion works by effectively converting spare/unwanted Pokémon into experience (a little like Pokémon Go‘s Stardust system) or through the application of fusion material, which is unlocked in the same way as figures. There are no real stats involved, but each Pokémon has a specific set of abilities that effectively grant them high speed, offensive or defensive skills. These abilities can be slightly trained up as well, again through Fusion, but doing so only results in minute gains.

Those abilities are where the most Pokémon-like element of the game comes into play: battling. Whilst in a duel you can pit your figures against one another to try and activate abilities or capture board spaces from your opponent. These interactions are largely controlled by RNG, though through training your Pokémon or using certain cards you can effectively weight the dice in your favour. There are no type advantages, probably to make game balance simpler, though many Pokémon have specific always-on abilities that are related to their type. For example, many Fire types cannot be frozen (yes, status effects do exist and form a large part of certain strategies) and certain flying types can leap-frog other figures. The creators of Duel also occasionally put on Gym events that comprise of special boards, which only last a week or so, but often give certain Pokémon types distinct advantages.

The combination of all these factors means that Duel has a surprising degree of depth to the gameplay. The initial learning curve could be a little off putting for some, as the in game tutorials are not particularly useful, but once you get the hand of the basic tactics you will find increasingly advanced strategies just begin to click into place. There are issues with some figures being slightly OP, leading to a certain staleness to the meta (*cough*Shuppet*cough*) but the developers are good at releasing monthly patches to balance out play styles and every Pokémon I’ve come across has had at least one hard counter.

Really, the only issue I’ve found with Duel is that there is an element of ‘pay-to-play’ that becomes increasingly apparent as you rank up. As someone who has played for two months, unlocked hundreds of critters and built several solid decks, all without paying a single penny, it does get a little discouraging playing in ranked games. Once you enter that arena, you can pretty much guarantee every opponent you play against will have a full deck of legendary or top-tier Pokémon. With that much fire power, RNG becomes an irritation, as no amount of training will level the playing field between a Bulbasaur and a Mewtwo. It is possible to unlock these big-hitting monsters for free by earning Gems from missions, but Gems can only purchase Booster Packs, which also rely on RNG. It is definitely more effective to simply buy top-tier figures with real money, and you can tell that this is the route a lot of players have taken. That said, Duel’s strength is in the flexibility of gameplay, so by adjusting my play style to one which relies on battling as little as possible I have been able to achieve a decent rank and routinely place in the top 10,000 players during Gym events. It would just be really nice to roll a Mew some time soon, please?

tl;dr: Addictive and surprisingly complex take on the winning Pokémon formula. Will more than likely keep me coming back for many months.

Films

Logan

Straight away let’s be clear about what Logan is not: it is not a Dark Knight, nor a Guardians of the Galaxy. It is not a deep, meaningful analyse of the genre, nor is it a perfectly executed romp of action and comedy. So, if that’s what Logan is not, then what is it? Well, to start with, it is the best iteration of Wolverine to be produced in live action, by quite some way.

Hugh Jackman practically is Wolverine in most people’s minds at this stage, and has certainly given great performances as the character in the past. What has frequently lacked is a greater sense of the comic book hero’s purpose, drive and self. That has largely been due to bad plot lines, poor scripting or jarring morality swings, but luckily Logan doesn’t fall foul of any of those problems. There is still the occasional piece of clunky dialogue and the overarching plot never dips too far below the surface, but everything is tight enough to never detract from Jackman’s performance. On top of a “good enough” script, Jackman is deftly propped up by a solid supporting cast; there are no whiny Cyclops’ or emotionless Psylocks in this outing.

Part of why Wolverine works a lot better ninth time around (yeah, I know…) is that the studio finally lets him off the proverbial leash. Though the film makers deny it, Logan likely owes some debt to Deadpool proving that adult rated superhero films can still make bank. The result is a Wolverine who can finally fight properly, going berserker within minutes of the film starting and returning to that primal, instinctive state multiple times throughout the film. There’s no glory in it either, which is a fantastic decision. Where Deadpool was content to splash gore left, right and centre, Logan treads a more realistic line. It is visceral, but it never feels truly gratuitous, perfect for the fighting style of a fully trained soldier with little moral compulsion.

Yet, crucially, Logan himself remains empathetic and nuanced. He is neither an anti-hero nor a hero; he is just a man trying to do the right thing. That’s a core part of Wolverine’s character that previous films have failed with. Logan does care, but he’s driven to coldness by a life of nightmares, loss and conflict. Logan treads this line finely, allowing the titular character to have moments of bull-headedness whilst balancing them with some deeply fascinating relationships.

Because, where Logan truly excels at finally getting Wolverine right isn’t just the fighting – it’s the relationship with Chuck. Patrick Stewart’s long run with the franchise ranks as one of the oddest in cinema history; he is an extraordinary actor we keeps returning to a role far outside his norm. Thank god he has, though, because as with Jackman, Stewart has simply become his mutant alter ego and in Logan he is finally able to put his acting skills to true use. Watching a version of Xavier who is losing his grip on his own mind, and therefore powers, is a fascinating plot but when acted with the sincerity Stewart brings to the role it is frequently heart breaking. If there is one thing I could wish of Logan it is that they cut 15 minutes of the fight sequences for a further 15 minutes of interactions with Professor X. The writers did both characters, and their often argumentative relationship, proud.

The rest of the cast are brilliant as well. Steven Merchant presents a much deeper version of Caliban, though his presence as a character does feel a little odd given the plotline of Age of Apocalypse. X-23 is brilliant and will surely win over even the hardest of fan hearts with her final moment rotating the grave marker, creating a surprisingly clever and poignant scene. Even the antagonists work well, even if they remained a little 2-D throughout. Really, my only major problem was with CG Jackman (I assume CG was involved). The “primal” version of Wolverine, X-24, is a plot element that I can totally get working on paper but was actually unnecessary. Despite plot mandated screw ups, the Ravagers were actually pretty competent and had some scary tech at their finger tips. I can forgive X-24’s existence entirely for the pivotal role he played at the farm house, which was a surprisingly well choreographed plot twist, but ultimately it would have been nice to get a bit more development for him.

Overall then, I really enjoyed Logan. It didn’t leave me wanting to rush out and watch it again, nor did it open up deep philosophical questions, but it is a solidly executed and very enjoyable film. The plot is ultimately a bit shallow but this is more than made up for by the depth of the character interactions. It’s certainly one of the most mature X-Men films and arguably Marvel films in general, and I don’t mean that in terms of film rating. It is the first Wolverine heavy film I’ve seen which left me wanting a sequel, which is almost ironic considering the final ending.

tl;dr: A mature, nuanced take on the beloved character. Jackman can retire from the role knowing that he finally did Wolverine right.