Spiders, Dinosaurs and CVs [#49]

Well it’s been a long week of other distractions rather than writing, but I have built up several things to link out to, so I guess a round of links from the web is in order.

The Greatest Ignored CV Ever

Data visualisation of academic interests, achievements and major life moments, composed as a pseudo-CV
Now that’s a pretty (useless) CV

Originally created by Ritwick Dey (and weirdly hosted on Flickr), the mock-up data visualisation of Dey’s life has earned some serious kudos on Reddit and deservedly so. The visuals have an immediate impact and are just very aesthetically pleasing, even if (as many Redditors have pointed out) actually using it as your CV would be a quick shortcut to the reject pile. To be honest I’ve been dabbling in something similar (though far simpler) recently, so found seeing the execution of, and reaction to, something much superior to my own attempts kind of fascinating.

Spider Squeeee!

GIF image of an animated spider that is particularly adorable
Lucas the Adorable Arachnid

Lucas the spider has been doing the rounds of the internet this week and I fully understand why. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of spiders but I’m also far from arachnophobic, even finding certain real world spiders adorable. That said, nothing in nature (that I’m aware of) has been designed to tug at the heart strings quite so cleverly as this short animation test. Others have already called for it, but can I add my name to the petition for Lucas to be in the next Disney/Pixar movie?

Spider Awesome

Miles Morales, Spider-Man, swings into frame and lands on a skyscraper
Into the Spider-Verse? Yes please!

Weirdly, yet another piece of spider-based animation dropped this week which captured the hearts of the internet, though this time less Tumblr and more Reddit. The first trailer for Sony’s new animated Spider-Man film hit and just looks stunning. It’s Miles Morales meets Spiderverse so I was already intrigued, but those visuals mixed with that soundtrack has left me with extreme hype!

Wildlife Photo-Ark

Around twenty heaped tortoises each with a unique code engraved on the back of the shell
Madagascan ploughshare tortoises with anti-poaching codes

I’m a big fan of projects looking to archive information of endangered species, particularly quality images, biomechanics and video, so that if conservation efforts fail future generations still at least have good data. So when I discover a project like Endangered, created by photographer Tim Flach, it has to be shared. Flach’s photographs (see more at Gizmodo) are beautiful and frequently incredibly poignant, but they’re also paired with detailed information on the animals, and the threats they face, from biologist Jonathan Baillie. It’s conservation meets art, both noble goals in their own right that are only amplified by their intermixing. Definitely going straight on my future wishlist.

The Ones We’ve Already Lost: Palaeo Art

Two theropod dinosaurs with unrealistic iguana like physiology fighting
Two Dryptosaurus (at time Laelaps) fighting in an incredibly famous image from Charles R. Knight, 1897

From ensuring the animals we may soon lose are well documented to attempting to document those that have already been lost. It should be no surprise by now that I am a huge fan of the field of palaeo art and love both the finished pieces and the processes that go into their creation. There’s something incredibly interesting about decoding the past and trying to set it to understandable visuals which I just love. Stumbling on to an article taking a deep dive into the history of the field, then, was a fascinating read which has been put together very nicely. It’s great to see books I find particularly influential, such as All Yesterday’s, as well as their author’s (and respective blogs) being linked to and discussed on such a main-stream website as The Atlantic. It would also appear that some new books on the subject may be coming out soon, which is great news. An article I will want to come back to from time-to-time, if for no more reason than to explore all the linked resources. Top work.

Month in Media – November 2017 [#48]

Sigh I feel like I should just give up on the whole “I’ve achieved a MiM in a timely factor, maybe I can keep this up!” thing. It seems like every time I say that it guarantees I skip the next month. Still, considering I haven’t even finished October 2016 perhaps there is some hope for last month to surface at some point. For now, November will suffice, with a general step back away from media in general making it a lot easier to write up. With that said, as ever be aware of spoilers and on with the reviews.

On-Going Media

TV – Blue Planet II – Beautiful and fascinating but somehow hasn’t quite grabbed my attention yet. Will see how it develops.
TV – The Punisher – The Netflix arm of the MCU returns with an entertaining rip-off of Person of Interest (seriously, the cast even look the same).
Video Games – League of Legends – No, I won’t be stating this every month, but just thought it worth recording that League’s teeth have sunk in deep. I actually went ranked (Bronze III….woo?) and watched most of Worlds… so yes, well into the void.

Film

Joan Didion: The Centre Will Not Hold [Documentary]

Honestly, I had never heard of Joan Didion before watching this exceptionally personal and beautifully shot documentary. Now? Well, I have certainly heard of her, but certainly know more about her life from an emotional perspective than her works. The Centre Will Not Hold is much more a biography than an analysis, which makes a lot of sense considering her family were directly involved in the filming and direction of the documentary. The result is a surprisingly balanced and deeply personal introspective which is riveting to watch. Didion led a fascinating life even without considering her contributions to literature and journalism; the telling of her tale feels rightly deserved and rewarding to watch as a result.

The documentary also comes across as very fair, not eschewing the slightly less positive or beneficial elements of Didion’s character. She comes across as a caring but deeply practical and straight-talking person, which, at times, comes across as lacking empathy. By the end of the documentary any such accusations are firmly put in their place, but it remains incredibly refreshing to hear her directness. Most firmly implanted in my memory is the moment she, as a journalist, came across a young child taking heavy drugs, clearly addicted and in a hugely damaging situation. As a woman with a young child herself, and even just as a human, it would be forgivable and understanding had her reaction been to drop pad and pen and whisk the child out of such an abusive environment. Instead, her self-professed reaction was “What a story”; she saw life through the lens of her work and through, arguably, a clear perception of reality. It’s an uncomfortable, but also very human, reaction which makes her so much stronger for admitting it than glossing over or omitting it would have done. This boldness in the presentation of someone who is rightfully seen as a national treasure is refreshing and excellently executed. In no small sense it reminds me of Scott Card’s concept of “speaking for the dead”, an unbiased and inclusive summation of character that does not shy away from the darker elements of human experience and nature purely for the sake of presenting an elevated memory of an individual.

In the end, my one criticism of The Centre Will Not Hold is that the spotlight is cast away from her work a little too much. As someone approaching the documentary unaware, entirely, of Didion and her work I left with a good idea of who she is as a person but still lacking understanding of her contribution to culture on a broader level. I couldn’t quote a single line she’s penned, tell you the names of her works or discuss her famous articles. In all honesty, coming to write this review nearly a month after watching the documentary, I remember her quite visibly in my memory but had to double check with Google that she was, first and foremost, a writer and wasn’t more famous for other reasons. If you’re a fan already this will probably elevate the documentary but for the completely uninitiated it assumes a great deal of previous knowledge and is possibly the poorer for it.

Still, it is a mild criticism that is also intricately linked with many of the same reasons I feel the documentary, on the whole, is a triumph, so should be viewed as such. Overall, whether you are a fan of Didion already or not the documentary is an excellent watch and a brilliant example of the genre’s best qualities. It is observant, grounded and entertaining all at once and I cannot recommend it enough on those merits. If you’re interested in modern American culture, literature, the evolution of journalism, Didion herself or even just documentary production, The Centre Will Not Hold is a must watch.

tl:dr; A brilliant and deeply personal introspection of an incredible individual. A truly nuanced and exacting character analysis and a documentary style which I hope to see emulated much more in the future.

Mulan [rewatch]

Mulan is one of those classic Disney films which, I hope, will remain timeless. There are elements which appear a little dated and some of the dialogue definitely comes across as a little insensitive by modern standards, but we’re talking minor niggles rather than the blatant racism or white-washing that other films struggle with from the same era. That minor complaint aside, the animation, plot, voice work and overall design are just as brilliant now as when they were released and the film remains incredibly entertaining to watch, with classic songs throughout. One to sit proudly alongside more modern examples, like Moana and Inside Out, as a child’s film with a strong morality and beneficial message. Will definitely be a firm favourite for years to come.

tl;dr: Still a brilliant story with a moral underpinning that remains incredibly relevant. A children’s classic that is well enough made to be enjoyable for anyone.

Mulan 2

The straight-to-DVD sequel which is exactly what you would expect: nothing more than a meaningless, paint-by-the-numbers cash grab. To be honest, most of Disney’s spin-off work is exactly this, so I’m not surprised, but the sheer level of pointlessness to this movie left a slightly bitter taste. I can deal with sub-par plots, pointless cameos and even the lack of the original voice actors (though one of the few thing Mulan 2 did right was ensure that Ming Na-Wen returned for the titular role) but there’s much worse on offer here.

For starters, we get the strong vibe from the first film that Mushu is not particularly liked by the Ancestors, but the reason given is that he failed as a previous Guardian in his role. His actions throughout Mulan prove to be his reparation and by the end of the film he is back on his ancient pedestal, where it seems to be the case that he would remain inert until next called upon. Certainly, based on his general state when summoned for the first time in Mulan it would appear that he had been a statue for many years. On top of this, whilst a little cowardly, Mushu remains clearly honourable and never shows any hint of malice, particularly towards Mulan and her family. He is a likeable character with some emotional depth, which is part of his charm; he’s a lovable under-dog. All of this, however, is retconned for the sequel. Here, the Ancestors have a clear hatred for Mushu, probably because, as a Guardian, he is a complete dick. He’s self-serving, arrogant to an extreme, incredibly demanding and completely lacking in empathy. His scheming directly enables much of the storyline and therefore casts him as the antagonist, albeit one who does an about-face the moment the plot no longer calls for him to have these character traits. It makes him into a distinctly unlikeable character, makes the Ancestors seem petty and unkind and generally makes the spirit world seem quite manipulative. That’s problematic from a continuity point of view but it’s also pretty culturally insensitive.

Mushu’s character assassination isn’t the only big step backwards for Mulan 2 though, which seems to go out of its way to also trample on a large amount of the message from the first film. Whilst the core message of the sequel is that “love conquers all” (and also that arranged marriages are bad), it goes about it in a very ham-fisted way and leaves you feeling that Mulan herself is less the impassioned, head-strong female idol and more a victim of Hollywood’s notions of “romance”. Her relationship with Shang is pretty troublesome and it almost validates Mushu’s reaction that perhaps they shouldn’t be getting married (if his reasoning wasn’t so damned evil). They barely agree on anything, they don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company and, frankly, Shang comes across as a complete misogynist. Given how much the first film focused on female empowerment, seeing the sequel instead focus on why men should be manly and women should accept and value that felt backwards.

Overall, then, the film is a shambles. When it isn’t actively erasing the messages and characters of the original classic, it’s scraping by on a poorly written plot full of deus ex machina and pointless side-quests, badly attempted homages at fan favourite moments from the first film or odd attempts at humour (there’s a lot about how women find shoes enrapturing). Overall, it’s not even worth it for kids to watch as it will only serve to annoy or undercut the original. Just rewatch Mulan instead.

tl;dr: Terrible, character blind and very poorly conceived.

Thor: Ragnarok

It’s that time of year again: the winter film release season, bringing with it the next big hitters from both Marvel and DC. Marvel is arriving first with the third (and final?) film in the Thor franchise. Personally, Thor is one of those characters who I find brilliant in ensemble but haven’t really latched onto any of his solo outings. The first film was decently entertaining but didn’t leave a huge impression and then the second was easily the worst Marvel misstep since the creation of the MCU. That said, I get excited for each film because I love the mash-up of Norse mythology and science fiction and see a huge amount of potential for films there. The question, then, is: does Ragnarok finally find that sweet spot?

Well, yes and no. Of the three films Ragnarok is a clear leader, improving on everything the first film did well whilst increasing the stakes and generally feeling a lot more comfortable within itself. Chris Hemsworth has truly become Thor, much like other big Marvel heroes such as Iron Man and Cap, allowing his performance to shine through. Standing head-to-head is Tom Hiddleston as Loki, proving yet again that he deserves the fan fervour he garners. Luckily, as opposed to The Dark World, the new characters introduced (and returning characters) all fit the world(s) they inhabit and aren’t irritating. There were moments I felt the inhabitants of Sakaar were sliding dangerously close to the farce of film two, but luckily they always pull back at the brink and make the punchlines land.

The tone of Ragnarok helps massively in this respect, ensuring that any flatter moments are brushed out of your mind quickly by a break neck pace and styling itself in a much less serious and more colourful manner. The influence of certain Guardians in this change of pace is clear and the right decision to have made. There’s also the absence (now permanent) of Jane Foster, whose presence was tolerable in Thor 2 but largely forced the plot to find reasons (not particularly good ones) for her to even be involved. She became less of a character and more of a crutch for the stakes, a classic damsel-in-distress plot point. Without that, Thor is very literally unleashed, allowing him to be a lot more arrogant and effective in battle. Combined with enemies that are a realistic challenge for a demigod, we finally get to see Thor demonstrate his much lauded fighting abilities and the result is awesome.

Which is another area of Guardians influence. Seeing Mjolnir explode through demons and zombies is just as spectacular as watching Yondu’s whistle carve up bad guys, except it feels so much heavier and fittingly forceful. They’re great scenes (whilst they last) and involve some brilliant camera work and choreography. Later, with Mjolnir gone and replaced by the Odin force, Thor’s lightning warfare is stunning and wonderfully visceral. In other words, the action scenes in Ragnarok are great, and that’s before even discussing the much-anticipated gladiatorial fight with the Hulk!

Speaking of which, one area the film is a little, well, hard to process, is the “adaptation” of the Planet Hulk storyline. Personally, this is an aspect of Ragnarok that will improve on rewatch, now I know how it fits in the greater story arc and which parts have been left. As a huge fan of the original comic arc I was a little disappointed, but if you see the Thor story as an homage rather than adaptation it helps a lot. Plus, ultimately, I quite like how it weaves into the greater story of Hela and Ragnarok. It may trample all over the Sakaar I love (and especially the associated characters) but the world it creates still feels interesting, vibrant and alive, plus it makes the ending both a lot more unexpected and interesting. Had the Asgardians just escaped via the bifrost then the destruction of Asgard would have been less impactful and their options far more restricted. Having a literal ark of Asgard floating through space gives future stories a lot more scope to work with (even if the next step seems to be fairly concrete at this point, given what we know of Infinity War and the post-credits scene).

That said, I did struggle with how much they had changed Korg’s identity and can’t help but feel that if they had left him out of the trailer my hopes for the Planet Hulk inclusion would haven’t been quite as high. That element did muddy the water significantly, making me a little less engaged with a lot of what was happening on Sakaar, a little more annoyed at the way the Hulk was behaving and a little less accepting of Valkyrie as a character. That last one is the least fair, as she is a brilliant character done absolute justice, but I had hoped she might have been Caiera Oldstrong, Hulk’s queen, and the trailer shot of her riding a Pegasus was her bringing the Valkyries to battle. As it is, both Caiera and the Valkyries were missing, which was a double-whammy of disappointment.

Also, the plot isn’t exactly the most cohesive. There are plenty of ideas here which could have been much more fleshed out and I can’t help but feel that they just tried to cram too much into the plot. You could easily have removed the Sakaar part entirely and just had Thor pick up Hulk to help him out; plus that would explain how a Terran quin-jet somehow made it to Sakaar? I realise repulsor technology is a little hand-wavey in terms of fuel efficiency, but I do think that a short-flight, terrestrial based transport craft shouldn’t be that efficient at interstellar flight…

The result is that quite a bit of the plot is just left to progress by happen chance. Some of it feels acceptable, like the cameo by Dr Strange to cut out an “Odin hunt” sequence, whilst at other times a little callous, such as when Thor just leaves Loki incapacitated and with a death sentence over his head. That would fly if Thor seemed at all upset with Loki, which would be understandable considering that he is the one responsible for Odin’s death, thereby the destruction of Asgard, Thor’s predicament on Sakaar and the release of Hela, but he just never seems that bothered at all. Or that he shows no worry over how Loki was going to escape from Odin’s Vault after releasing the world-eating demon Sutur. Then there are the pieces which were good but could have been great, like Sakaar or even Scourge, who never really makes it into the character equivalent of the third dimension despite a solid performance from Karl Urban.

Having said all of that, on balance, the film was very enjoyable and a huge amount of fun. By the end I had warmed to the new characterisations of Mieek and Korg, thoroughly fallen for the gorgeous design and palate of Sakaar and the Master, and become completely enthralled by Cate Blanchett’s turn as Hela (which, just to be clear, was on par with either Thor or Loki). I found the mythology intriguing and well explained, whilst retaining a semblance of mystery, the characterisation solid and the design stunning. The action is brilliant (as mentioned) but so is the dialogue, with a sharp wit which should become grating but actually never gets there. The one major flaw is that the film never really has that moment of emotional connection. There’s plenty of laughs and the stakes do feel high, but at the same time you never get a gut punching moment. There’s no feel-good emotional overload, like at the end of the first Guardians film, or crushingly sad instance, such as the second Guardians film. Ragnarok just continues focusing on the humour and the action, right to the very last moment. That lack of depth means I won’t be classing it amongst the finest in the MCU but it sits just outside of that band by a very narrow margin and leaves me extremely excited for Infinity War and some more Norse god mayhem!

tl;dr: An extremely fun, vibrant and action packed ride that lacks emotional depth. Easily the best Thor film but not quite worthy of inclusion in the MCU’s greatest hits.

TV

Archer [Season 6]

How did I forget this absolute gem? Archer is one of those shows which just shouldn’t be as good as it is. The principle ought to lend itself to a lacklustre, episode churning filler program: animated spy parody with just enough humour to hook the lowest common denominator. The Big Bang Theory of the action genre, if you will. For some reason, though, the team decided to go full tilt on the parody, crank up the adult humour to the point of obscenity (though never really going full gross-out, which I thoroughly applaud) and embrace geek culture harder than a Joss Whedon online-only franchise. It was a bold move but has resulted in a very deserved cult status and extremely loyal fan base.

But then they tried to switch things up completely in season five with Archer: Vice. It was a fascinating switch, again very antithetical for a now profitable American comedy, turning the premise of the show on its head and really forging forward with a whole new outlook. Fans opinions were, shall we say, mixed. At the start there was uproar, though like many I personally persevered and placed faith in the showrunners. Still, I feel like that initial kick-back was sufficient for them to do a second 180 turn into season six.

So here we are, back with ISIS, back in the spy industry and back to the same old stories. Barry’s back, Archer’s an employee again, they’ve all been to rehab and the days of drug smuggling are just glossed over with no real implications. Really, you could jump from season four to six without really missing a beat, and apart from the odd meta reference your only confusion would be having missed Lana’s pregnancy. I’ll admit to having enjoyed Vice quite a lot by the end of its run but I’m still glad to see ISIS return. Somehow, the spy genre is just so much more lucrative for parody.

That said, season six is firm proof that, for the show to continue, shaking up the plot will need to happen. The first four seasons worked so well because they leaned so hard on tropes from classic franchises like James Bond and Mission: Impossible but that well has slightly dried up. The big plots have been done and the result is that there isn’t much left for them to play with in season six. It’s still a very enjoyable ride and the humour is back on point but there aren’t many truly, genuinely stand-out episodes. For the most part the show skates by on old plot lines (a la Barry the Cyborg) and the slight shake up that having a baby in the cast was bound to provide (though what exactly has happened to Woodhouse?). That works well enough and has both appeased fans of the first four seasons whilst proving that the fifth really wasn’t all that bad.

As a result, I’m a huge fan of how season six ends. Yes, it was great getting back to the spy-based roots of Archer, but I’m seriously pumped for where they’re going to go next now that ISIS is, once again, toast. There are a lot more action genres out there ripe for parody and the core group of characters are just so well developed and hilarious together that I doubt any are beyond the show’s scope. Hopefully there are several more seasons left for the taking!

tl;dr: A fun if somewhat tired return to the show’s roots, providing both a solid entry to the franchise and a strong argument for shaking things up a bit more as it moves forward.

Archer [Season 7]

Well I wanted them to shake up the settings, plot and genre again after a slightly lukewarm season six and the Archer team have once again delivered. Season seven sees the team leave the espionage business behind (again) to pursue more grounded, yet legal (mostly), work in L.A. as private investigators. For the most part it leaves the show open to tread fan favourite paths, without needing quite so strong of a character shake-up as Archer: Vice did, but still leaves plenty of wiggle room.

As with most previous seasons the main areas of character development are focused on Archer and Lana’s on-going will-they-won’t-they personal life. Whilst it looked like season six was a turning point for Archer in particular, season seven doubles down on the (understandably) shaky grounds of trust the relationship is founded on. Largely this takes the form of sticking Hollywood starlet Veronica Deane in the crews path repeatedly, providing a clear temptation for Archer himself and a point of jealousy for Lana. Honestly, I feel like the show handles this part well, keeping their interactions fluid and funny without overly leaning on it to move the plot forward. There’s much less of AJ herself, which is fine, and it leaves the rest of the cast open to less serious side plots. I will say that the increased cast, including two brilliant cops and a host of Hollywood elite stereotypes, leaves almost too little time for the normal diversions. Having spent several seasons really fleshing out the side characters to more than 2-D punchlines, season  seven appears to largely reduce them back to these rolls, with Pam and Cheryl particularly badly hit. It’s a shame but, overall, not a huge hindrance.

Possibly the biggest let down of the series was the complete lack of pay-off to the “big mystery”. Clues are dropped from the very first episode that Deane and friends are involved in something a lot more sinister, with files and papers alluding to a particular scheme which never really appears. It is wrapped up in the two-part finale but I didn’t even realise that the reveal was happening until Archer explicitly mentions it. The finale did a good job of resolving several subplots whilst setting up one hell of a closing shot/cliff hanger, but it definitely feels like they dropped a couple of balls near the end of the season. Perhaps the number of episodes was suddenly cut, which would explain quite a lot, or maybe (in true Archer fashion) the whole point was to be pointless, but it results in the series feeling slightly rushed.

Still, a small gripe that allows for the show to lead itself, once again, in a very different direction. I’m pumped for the concept of Archer: Noir and very much looking forward to seeing how they cope with the characters being the versions of themselves that Archer sees. I feel like there is a huge amount of comic potential there and, possibly, an interesting way of having Archer himself go through a series of character strengthening self-realisations. I’m not sure if season eight is going to be the last but it does present a very nice way of tying off the series as a whole. Whatever happens, I’m certain I’ll be watching it very soon!

tl;dr: Another interesting twist and a refreshing switch-up. Definitely puts certain characters on the back burner, but overall a competent dive into new territory which sets up an exciting further abstraction.

Dark Booking Patterns [#47]

I just fell down a rabbit hole learning about Dark Patterns, thanks largely to a link in an, as ever, well thought out Adactio post. To be clear, I knew what a Dark Pattern was, I just hadn’t come across the term for them before. In brief, then, a Dark Pattern is a UI decision created to get a user to do something without really knowing why or how. It’s trickery and marketing merged into one and can be used to generate actual sales, push you to a specific part of a website or article, draw your attention away from negative elements or get you to agree to participate in some way. Basically, Dark Patterns aren’t great. They’re a bit morally dubious, they can leave a bad taste in your mouth and they can actively confuse or negatively impact people.

Sounds like something that should be avoided and shunned by any morally conscious designer, right? And probably something that, when noticed, should be shamed, yes? Good, we’re on the same page. But then I read a well reasoned break down of why Booking.com is a pretty awful abuser of exactly this type of user experience design. The full article, titled How Booking.com Uses Stress to Rush Your Decisions and written by Roman Cheplyaka, is a smorgasbord of dodgy design decisions. From fake urgent messages (“Someone just booked the hotel you’re looking at!”) to hiding negative reviews, Booking.com does not fare well when analysed with a Dark Pattern mindset. Time for a boycott then, right?

Well, put simply, no. I use Booking.com quite a lot. I’m a registered member and a recipient of their “Genius” discounts, which have saved me a fair amount over the past few years. I like the wide selection of hotels that are on offer, I like how key information is displayed and I particularly like their search functionality which makes drilling down through results incredibly quick and easy. I’ve recommended the service to countless friends and family and I’m not about to stop anytime soon. Do I find the urgent messages and dire warnings of inaction irritating? Yes. Have I occasionally found myself booking a room faster than I probably ought to have because of a fear of missing a deal? Yes. The Dark Patterns are clearly working, and are definitely reducing my enjoyment of the service being provided, but it isn’t a big enough issue to tip the balance away from all the positives.

Interestingly, it seems like Roman comes to a similar conclusion. Somehow, Booking.com has done such a good job in their general, overall experience that the little irritations can be happily ignored. Some of them I don’t even agree with. Is cherry picking reviews a bit dubious? Yes, I guess so, but at the same time I would expect promotion to skew those results a little. I’ve left negative reviews in the past and know they haven’t been censored or removed, so I trust the reviews that are present to be indicative of general opinion. I would also never, personally, go on three reviews alone to inform my decision; as with eBay and Amazon I will always read the most recent couple of reviews, a couple of the best reviews (and note when they were made) and a couple of the worst reviews (also noting date posted) to get a good spread. Booking.com makes finding those reviews so painless that I’ve never really noticed the ones on the main page are curated.

I will also defend their five-step rating system. You can always expand a review score to see how the aggregate has been calculated and having five specific categories makes doing so a lot easier. In the example given in the article, Roman states that:

A great location will not compensate for sleepless nights

But I have to disagree a little bit. Obviously, it depends on what you’re looking for, but I will happily sacrifice comfort for location if that’s a priority. If I’m going to a big city and planning on being out until the early morning anyway, I don’t really care about late night noise but I do care about walking distance to the venue (for example) that I’ll be visiting. It’s a bit of a pedantic argument, but I feel like their ratings scheme is genuinely useful and wouldn’t, personally, regard it in anyway “Dark”, which shows that the concept can be a little subjective.

At any rate, agree or not, the article is well put together and is worth a read if you use Booking.com, if for no other reason than to be a little more aware of the strategies the are employing. If you do find it a stressful experience, perhaps it may even help.

Fair Phones & Mobile Woes [#46]

I’ve had my current Sony Xperia for nearly three years, which is a good run, but it’s definitely starting to show its age. First of all the headphone jack broke; it still works, it just doesn’t know when you plug something in. The first time this happened I had it fixed, the second was just out of warranty so instead I’ve been using a software override (an app called Soundabout) for the last two years whenever I want to use headphones. Irritating, sure, but manageable. The next thing to die was the camera. It has become quite scratched (which is my fault for not using a case) and has now fogged up on the inside lens and crystallised, leaving photos looking like they’re taken through a piece of cling film. Still manageable but I wouldn’t want to use it as an actual camera any more. The battery has been slowly dying for the last year, possibly because of an increase in general usage, but it’s at the point where the charge can suddenly disappear over a matter of hours. Finally, the memory is full. Despite having an expandable SD with 64GB of space, mostly unused, the core phone memory of 16GB has hit maximum. I’ve moved everything I can to the SD card, uninstalled a lot of apps but still I’m hovering around the 15GB mark and the phone behaves like it, lagging and generally crawling through tasks.

The problem is, I hate upgrading my phone. Part of that is just how used to the Xperia I am. I know all of its quirks and special features, I can navigate the menus with only the slightest of glances and have it setup just so for my particular tastes. The other part is that it feels so wasteful. Yes, the phone has seen better days, but it still ostensibly works. What’s more, the environmental impact of smart phones is pretty scary. Taken together, no matter how much I love new toys, I try to make my mobiles last as long as possible.

Which brings up another issue: what to replace it with. Because I want my phone to last several years and don’t plan on upgrading constantly it needs to be future-proof, durable and also something I will enjoy using. That means it needs to have all the functions I want, stuff like NFC and a good camera, whilst also being comfortable in the pocket and hand, easy to use with good software, and also look good. The last point feels shallow but if you think something is well designed I believe it makes using the device feel that much more fun. Unfortunately, the mobile phone market appears to have become incredibly stale over the past few years. With the exception of biometrics, which I’m completely nonplussed by, there really haven’t been any exciting new innovations in the field and, from a design point of view, your options are iPhone rip-off (square, thick bar top and bottom, black and mild bevel) or Samsung rip-off (curved, all screen, no bevel). I was hoping the release of the iPhone X would shake the market up a little, but instead the only talking point is more biometrics and whilst the design is no longer classic Apple, ironically, it now looks like a Samsung rip-off instead. Repetitive and boring design coupled with an increasing trend to get rid of core requirements for daily use, like headphone jacks and expandable memory, and honestly I haven’t been this unexcited by the phone market in almost a decade.

Part of that lack of excitement is knowing where I had hoped the industry would be by this point. When I picked up the Xperia it was with a mindset that this would be the last ‘fixed’ smartphone I would ever own. At the time, the web was buzzing with news about projects like Project Ara and Puzzle Phone. The future of mobile was modular, focused on handsets that could be tweaked and customised to meet an individual’s requirements. Phones would be easier to upgrade, modify and fix, leading to much less e-waste and, hopefully, lower upfront costs. That lower barrier of entry could have even created a large third-party landscape of modular accessories. We might even have phones with removable batteries again! Unfortunately that utopian vision has somewhat faltered and, with a couple of lacklustre exceptions, the modular ecosystem has utterly failed to reach consumers.

It was therefore with some excitement that I saw an advert for a fairly different kind of phone (hehe). The “FairPhone”, on paper, is a perfect fit for me. It’s ecologically sensitive, designed with environmental principles at the core of the process and actually has a modular design. They are selling genuinely interesting ‘upgrade’ modules, like better cameras, proving that the concept works. Had I picked up the FairPhone 2 at launch I would now be looking at an upgrade cost of only about £70 to get the latest specs, rather than around £400 to upgrade the whole device. Core specifications weren’t bad either. The FairPhone is designed to be maintained by anyone and last several years, so the chassis is deliberately aimed at durability. The screen seemed decent, it has a replaceable battery, headphone jack, duel SIM and large expandable SD slot. Even screenshots of the custom rolled Android OS looked solid.

But then I read some reviews and the dream screeched to a halt. First of all, whilst the specs are by no means awful they’re also far from top-end. The CPU and OS are already a generation or two behind, RAM is comparable to what I currently have and the camera has pretty awful output. The latter can be upgraded, as mentioned, but the base phone itself is already sitting in the price range of top-end competitors. It’s not quite as inflated as an iPhone, but it’s pretty far from good value for money. I realise eco-friendly resources and the R&D required for a modular layout will mean a higher price, but it’s a shame the price is top-end when the result is distinctly mid-tier. On top of which, it’s incredibly ugly, even if you go for a non-see-through case, and the battery is getting some pretty shoddy scores. There’s a lot to love about the FairPhone and I truly hope they continue forging ahead. Perhaps, with a couple more iterations under their belt, the price will drop or the quality will improve to match it. It’s definitely the most exciting phone on the market right now, but as tends to be the way with eco-tech the actual tech part leaves something to be desired. Maybe the Xperia has a few more months left after all.

Insta Inspiration [#45]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asking the Right Answers [#44]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the Grid [#43]

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

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

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

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

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

Is automatically translated into this:

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

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

Forgotten & Surreal Instruments [#42]

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

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

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

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

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

Capital Numbers

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

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

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

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

Month in Media – July 2017 [#41]

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

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

Films

John Wick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Central Intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

Hotel Transylvania 2

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

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

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

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

G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra

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

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

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

tl;dr: Terrible, nonsensical and boring.

Transformers: The Last Knight

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jupiter Ascending

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghostbusters: Answer the Call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Congeniality

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

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

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

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

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

Spider-Man: Homecoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Princess and the Frog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Les Misérables

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warcraft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spy

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

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

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

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

TV

Doctor Who [Season 10 – sort of]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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